Don’t let Milo Yiannopoulos taint message of free speech

Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos spoke Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, at an event sponsored by the Cal Poly College Republicans in Spanos Theatre at Cal Poly.
Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos spoke Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, at an event sponsored by the Cal Poly College Republicans in Spanos Theatre at Cal Poly. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Milo Yiannopoulos has been playing a game for months. He’s really good at it, too.

First, the “alt-right” cult hero accepts invitations to speak on college campuses. Then, as word spreads, he revels in the backlash from liberal students who condemn his hateful rhetoric. And when unruly protesters force him to cancel, he wins — the public relations war anyway.

It worked in January at UC Davis, where angry students showed up in droves and made campus police nervous. It worked at UCLA, too, where administrators canceled his speaking engagement days in advance over security concerns.

Unfortunately, UC Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement, is just the latest to get played. The truth about the riots that broke out on campus Wednesday night before his speech has been twisted by a master provocateur.

Breitbart, the far right website where Yiannopoulos is an editor and, until recently, was run by President Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, is selling “Free Speech is Burning” T-shirts for $19.95.

“This is what happens if you’re libertarian or conservative and you get too popular and influential,” Yiannopoulos posted Thursday on Facebook, garnering tens of thousands of likes. “This is what they do to you and your supporters.”

Most reasonable people know that Yiannopoulos, a notorious fanner of flames, is no victim. But it’s true that about 1,500 protesters, in keeping with Berkeley’s long tradition of students making their voices heard, gathered outside of the Martin Luther King Jr. venue where he was scheduled to speak.

It’s not clear when the violence broke out.

In a statement Thursday, UC Chancellor Nicholas Dirks blamed armed outsiders “who invaded the campus, infiltrated a crowd of peaceful students and used violent tactics to close down the event.“

Video that surfaced online and eventually was picked up by cable news shows people in Make America Great Again hats getting pepper-sprayed, and others being chased and beaten with batons.

By early evening, a large fire had been set in the middle of campus, presumably by the outsiders. But students still stood around watching and taking video as TV news cameras aired the scene to the world.

“We deeply regret that the violence unleashed by this group undermined the First Amendment rights of the speaker as well as those who came to lawfully assemble and protest his presence,” Dirks wrote.

Yet, in this cowardly new world of alternative facts, the narrative that UC Berkeley is full of intolerant leftists who shut down speech they don’t like with rocks and commercial-grade fireworks has taken off. Yiannopoulos got what he wanted. And Trump, who has no problem with false narratives, went a step further by threatening to withhold federal funding from the UC system if “innocent people with a different point of view” aren’t allowed to speak.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a UC Regent, called Trump’s tweet “asinine.”

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, called it an empty threat that’s an abuse of power by a man who is “president, not a dictator.”

Far be it from us to dissuade condemnations or peaceful protests against Trump or Yiannopoulos. But there is a larger game afoot here. Don’t play into it.

Editor’s note: Editorials from other newspapers are offered to stimulate debate and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune.