By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – As an old-school free speech advocate, I have mixed views on the Charlie Kirk event. Over the years, my view has been, let these guys come on campus, and ignore them. Or if you absolutely can’t ignore them, at least do what the Phoenix Coalition did and have a counter-event which debunks their hateful message.
But, as we have now seen, ignoring these guys doesn’t necessarily make them go away. That’s one of the messages from January 6.
The problem with protests and trying to shut down events—aside from the free speech aspect—is you inadvertently amplify their message.
That’s a bit of what Sac Bee columnist Hannah Holzer did this week with her column, she amplified his message, got some of it wrong, fanned the flames a bit, and the Bee embarrassingly had to issue a correction after Kirk threatened to sue.
UC Davis was in a tough position. After becoming the center for national attention when the Pepper Spray incident went viral in 2011, they have taken a de-escalation approach of not using uniformed police to keep the peace at protests.
That approach backfired in 2017, when Milo Yiannopoulos had his event canceled due to violence potential. Six months ago in October, the same thing happened at a Turning Point USA event.
It is interesting in 2017—my reaction to the Milo event, at the dawn of the Trump era, was somewhat different than now. Back then, it seemed to me that the views of Milo were best being brought forward, airing them in the light, where they could be ridiculed and debunked.
Six years later, after watching the toll the Trump era took on the country, I’m not sure I’m so sanguine about such an approach. What seemed so ludicrous in 2017 now seems very different, as we saw what happened when right wing forces were empowered and extremists were able to gain a foothold in our mainstream political discourse.
UC Davis and its chancellor took a two-pronged approach in response to Kirk’s appearance. On the one hand, they strongly defended the right to speak. On the other, Chancellor May earned the enmity of Kirk and his supporters by attacking the message.
From the university’s perspective, the point of emphasis was “free speech.”
The university said, “As a public university, we must uphold the right to free speech, as guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, even when that speech may be hateful, offensive or abusive.”
They added, “Our campus’s Principles of Community affirm the right of freedom of expression within our community, including the right to protest speech we oppose. UC Davis is committed to supporting a campus environment that is inclusive and respectful to people of all backgrounds and dedicated to the pursuit of deeper understanding through the free and civil exchange of ideas.”
May pulled no punches in calling Kirk “a well-documented proponent of misinformation and hate and has advocated for violence against transgender individuals.” He took a stand against “this hateful and divisive messaging.”
He notes that TPUSA, as a registered student organization, has the right to reserve university facilities and invite speakers of their choice, and that the university faces a heavy burden under UC policy to deny such requests over concerns of violence.
While the policy does allow for a denial of a request if the speaker presents a “clear and present danger to the campus,” the campus “carries a heavy burden for such a denial under these circumstances.”
He said, “In short, while I abhor the inflammatory speech of this speaker, UC policy permits the student organization to invite this speaker.”
And so the show went on. But at what cost?
The event was only made possible—barely—by the university going back on their longstanding policy of not deploying police at demonstrations. Police showed up in riot gear. That was just enough to keep the peace—barely. There were some minor incidents, a few arrests, but the event went on.
In short, the event could not have happened without heavy police presence. May argued that the standard for shutting down the event was extremely high, a “clear and present danger”—but doesn’t the fact that they had to send armed police in riot gear indicate that there was a clear and present danger of real violence?
The right wing will argue, that it was just antifa that showed up to cause trouble at this event. But that ignores two critical things. First, that the reason it was *only* antifa is because the show was backed up by the show of force from the police and second, without that show of force, the Proud Boys would have shown up just like they did back in October and this time, things would have gotten out of hand.
In short, Charlie Kirk got to have his cake and eat it too. He used the university’s fear to be able to speak, he got to appear to play the high ground, and he got to attack the university as well and play victim.
In short, he has weaponized free speech.
Then again, two can play at that game. The University used free speech as a crutch or an excuse to allow the event to go forward.
In her column, Holzer made an interesting point: “Ironically, despite shilling for unequivocal freedom of speech, UC Davis’ communications team denied not only my interview request with an administrative representative but also my request to merely submit questions about the event. Really, UCD?”
I had a similar experience after the October event—UC Davis simply refused to comment other than their canned statement.
I still think the counter-protests and media attention here is counterproductive (I say with irony). Five hundred attendees is nothing to sneeze at, but that was no doubt amplified by the promised potential of violence and conflict and certainly the media coverage has amplified the message beyond anything the event would have drawn beyond it.
Would it have been better for the university to just cancel the event, cite the risk for violence, what happened in both 2017 and last October, to justify that fear? They would have been attacked by conservatives for sure—but they were attacked anyway and it’s not clear what is the true downside of being attacked.
As Holzer pointed out in her column, “My overwhelming inclination is to demand UC Davis get ahead of the situation and uninvite Kirk. But there’s no legal basis for doing so.”
She also, probably rightly, points out, “Even calling for legal reform to curb the trend of fascists speaking on campus opens the door to First Amendment restrictions that could have huge, unintended ramifications.”
She quotes David Loy from the First Amendment Coalition, “The public university, as an arm of the government, is not allowed to discriminate based on viewpoints,” and added, “(You can’t) prevent people from speaking just because some other third party might protest.”
The problem now is how to deal with those who like Kirk have learned how to weaponize free speech to their own advantage. Watching January 6 makes me much more leery about believing that somehow ignoring these problems will make them go away, but counter-protesting just amplifies the message.
I concede: I don’t have a great answer on this one at this point.