A Google search of the phrase “Everybody Loves Milo” takes you to a Facebook page where one may “see the cuteness that is Milo, the world’s greatest pitbull.” This Milo, like so many Internet pets, has more friends than I, takes no political position whatsoever on social issues, and the sharpest controversy he has faced was over his pal Belgian Malinois who bit the mail lady and was quarantined for 10 days.
There is (at least) one other sensational Internet Milo. He is not so beloved, which I recently discovered in a most painful way. As fiery images of destruction from Cal Berkeley protests flashed across TV and mobile device screens, I was disappointed to learn that the invited speaker--one Milo Yiannopoulos--had to cancel his planned lecture due to rioters objecting to his message.
I was upset that “outside agitators” were allowed to silence the speaker because they disagreed (I do as well) with his message, and sent out the following tweet:
“Milo Yiannopoulos, if you are ever invited to speak at AU, we promise that no group, internal or external, will replace freedom with silence”
The responses to my missive varied wildly, but those who clearly did not love Milo did not love my tweet either, seeing it as an endorsement of a “narcissistic, misogynistic, anti-Semite” (there were a few expressed even greater vitriol toward him). I knew that Yiannopoulos was controversial and that any mention of him could spark debate, but I was shocked that some equated the very mention of him as some kind of tacit support. Some even asked me to take the tweet down. As I later reviewed my 144 characters, I realized that my message was hardly nuanced, and the limitations of the form (something our current US president should heed, but that is for another day’s discussion) obscured my intent.
In fact, the topic and focus of my tweet was not Milo Yiannopoulos at all, but the sacred freedom to speak that we have in this country and why college campuses should nurture that holy right and not suppress it, as I believe they often do. Beginning--in some ways--with the highly public act of invitation and disinvitation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by Columbia University’s president Lee Bollinger, we have seen dozens of speakers denied their lawful rights on university campuses, places that have been and still should be sanctuaries for free speech, even disturbing and hateful free speech like Milo Yiannopoulos’.
Just as many are (rightly) sensitive to Yiannopoulos' "hateful message," I am particularly sensitive to the crushing consequences of limiting free speech. In my father's Cuba, the government for over 50 years has made it their habit of categorizing people with certain opinions as "enemies of the state," and have hence silenced artists and pastors, politicians and writers, all in the name of a few elites deciding what is best / acceptable/ correct / for the island nation that has been ravaged by ideologues who despise opposing views. I have personally known those who tried to speak out against the atrocities committed by the Castro regime; I know parishioners in Cuba today whose church buildings have been destroyed and their pastor silenced. While we are (thankfully, perhaps hopefully) a long way from armed agents silencing free speech in the US, when I see "up to 150 outside agitators" turn a peaceful protest into a riot in a successful effort to silence a (bigoted, hateful) message, I cannot help but fear the consequences of remaining silent at this unconscionable behavior. We simply cannot stand idly by and allow others to choose for our campuses (remember that Berkeley students already made their choice by inviting the man to speak--and they deserved to hear from him as they followed protocol and violated no policy) what they feel should be permissible speech. Men and women on soapboxes in the early 20th C America stood on street corners and espoused radical views that would still be shocking today, but they were given their due, a right often denied them in their country of origin.
My tweet was about the crucial importance of nurturing and upholding the right of free speech, one of our nation's most powerful principles. I join the UC system in their sentiment: "While Yiannopoulos' views, tactics and rhetoric are profoundly contrary to our [my] own, we are bound by the Constitution, the law, our values and the campus's Principles of Community to enable free expression across the full spectrum of opinion and perspective." We at Ashland University are bound--wonderfully and powerfully bound--to enable free expression. This expression includes others' right to dissent with vigor (yet with respect) on our campus here at Ashland University, and I hope and pray we will always be a haven for such expression. Freedom of speech in all its legal forms will not be silenced on our campus.
If students or faculty or others follow protocol and invite a speaker to come (and I hope they do not invite Yiannopoulos, whose most recent statements are most heinous) to Ashland University, it is my job to ensure that the request is granted and the speaker is not silenced by opposing voices—not even my own. We are committed to teaching students how to think, not what to think. College campuses must be at the vanguard of allowing truth to shine through a cacophony of opinions. I trust that the right voices will prevail. I trust that freedom will rise from the power of truth those voices bring.