A Struggle Between Productive and Destructive Conversation

In light of Milo Yiannopoulos’ scheduled event to NYU next month, a new debate has been sparked on campus regarding where the university should draw the line between productive conversation with opposing views and harmful language.

Yiannopoulos, an editor for the conservative outlet Breitbart News, is known for his controversial statements on everything from feminism to race and LGBTQ issues — ones making him a champion of the alt-right. In fact, during a speech at the University of Pittsburgh in June, the British journalist said he had “taken it upon [himself] to go through life as offensively as possible.”

Given his track record, some NYU students fear that Yiannopoulos’ presence at the university will marginalize and discriminate against segments of the student body, and they’re calling on the administration to step in.

In the past, the institution has prevented controversial speakers from appearing on campus. Just last month it canceled a lecture with DNA discoverer James Watson after students protested the Nobel Prize-winning scientist on the grounds of past derogatory comments about African-American people and women.

But in an era of safe spaces, trigger warnings and inclusive language, some NYU students feel universities have taken political correctness too far, saying the concept infringes on their First Amendment right to free speech. So when does language deemed unacceptable by some students outweigh a speaker’s experience in a field or a student group’s right to host these controversial speakers?

CAS junior and President of College Republicans Elena Hatib said the club invited Yiannopoulos to speak precisely because of his outspoken views on upholding all forms of expression on university grounds.

“We’ve anticipated that many students would be upset with him coming to campus. However, my biggest thing is that he is not coming here to threaten or hurt anybody, he’s just coming to do a presentation for our members and to discuss current issues,” Hatib said. “He just wants to promote freedom of speech and argue against speech censorship throughout campuses.”

In addition, Hatib said the College Republicans want to ensure that students have the opportunity to see any kind of speaker or presentation
on campus.

“The NYU student body is so large and so diverse that there are so many opinions and viewpoints throughout campus,” Hatib said. “And if people don’t like Milo or aren’t too happy about listening to his content, then they don’t have to come to the event.”

But CAS senior and President of College Democrats Michael DeLuca believes that Yiannopoulos’ speech is divisive and that his words and actions have inspired individuals to harass and demean groups that are often marginalized by society.

“His presence will not provoke contentious dialogue or healthy debate. It will inspire more intolerance,” DeLuca said. “He is not the symbol of free speech that the College Republicans have tried to bill him as. He is a symbol of hate. And it is not courageous or productive, in a time when there is an ongoing debate over diversity of opinion at universities, to give the most controversial figure you can find a platform for their vitriolic speech and toxic ideas. It is foolish.”

Although DeLuca does not support the event, he said the university should not restrict campus groups’ rights to host speakers, though the administration should nevertheless be free to condemn a speaker’s ideas if they are not in line with the values of the university.

“It is indeed a slippery slope when administrators begin blocking certain speakers because they are controversial, but student groups will then be pressed to justify the people that they host and ideas that they offer a stage for,” DeLuca said. “And students then have a vital role in speaking out against events and speakers they disagree with. That is, I believe, how we drive out the dangerous ideas like those which Milo advocates — not by blocking them out, but by shining a light on them and exposing them to be the frauds that they are.”

DeLuca believes it is possible to be sensitive to people’s experiences without limiting students’ exposure to new and challenging ideas.

Chair of the Student Senators Council and University Committee on Student Life Ryan Thomas agreed, saying that he hopes the issues raised in these conversations can move the university forward as the student body focuses on becoming more inclusive and respectful to all viewpoints.

Thomas said students have the right to respond to controversial speakers in a constructive and respectful way, and he expects that many intend to do so as Yiannopoulos’ event approaches.

“It is incredibly important that, as a university, we work to provide a multitude of perspectives and viewpoints, but on-campus groups should always do their due diligence when planning events and inviting controversial speakers,” Thomas said. “Hosting events with speakers whose statements and actions could create a divisive, possibly dangerous environment where many members of our community would not feel safe or respected does not uphold that mission.”

NYU will try to grapple with this dilemma in the coming weeks, and is not the only college facing issues like this right now. Yiannopoulos is taking his act to college campuses across the country, hoping to rally students into a more vocal stance — on whichever side it may be.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, October 11 print edition. Email Lexi Faunae at [email protected].