“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The French writer Voltaire is believed to have said that. But he was never called upon to fulfill his pledge. He died in 1778 at age 83, of natural causes.
Yiannopoulos is a writer and speaker. He speaks openly about his sexuality, while also promoting conservative politics. An earlier Tribune story referred to him as a “controversial right-wing agitator.” Yiannopoulos, who is gay, called his university speaking engagements the “Dangerous Faggot” tour.
His earlier appearances at other universities incited demonstrations and some arrests. Cal Poly apparently hoped to avoid those by augmenting its own 19 police officers with 90 more from outside agencies.
Cal Poly also booked a comedian to appear that same night in another auditorium, which held more than twice as many people as the one where Yiannopoulos spoke. The comedian attracted almost a full house. No trouble was reported that night at Cal Poly.
Those precautions seem wise in view of what happened the next evening at the University of California, Berkeley. Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak there, but university officials canceled his talk after violent protests erupted on campus. The cost of the damage was estimated at $100,000.
So why was a man like him allowed to speak at a state university? Sure, the Constitution grants everybody the right to free speech. But a university isn’t a public park or sidewalk. Don’t the university administrators have any control over what speakers there may say?
Well, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong said public universities are places where opposing ideas are exchanged. Also Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at Cal Poly by its College Republicans Club.
Our American right to freely express our opinions is what makes us different from Russia, China, Syria, and many other nations. If we want to keep that precious right, we must freely grant it to everybody else here, no matter how wrong their ideas seem to us.
And if we try to silence Yiannopoulos, we might actually make him stronger. People who would normally ignore him or disagree with him might decide to join him to protect their own free speech rights.
But his past may have caught up with him. A video has surfaced of him apparently condoning sexual relations between men and boys as young as 13. He has since resigned as an editor of Breitbart.
I heartily disagree with him but still defend his right to say what he thinks. I might not defend it to the death like Voltaire said, but I might call the police or Batman or the American Civil Liberties Union.
Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or firstname.lastname@example.org.