Campus Revisits Nationwide Free Speech Controversy

Protests in response to far-right writer and speaker Milo Yiannopoulos’ invitation to the University of California at Berkeley on Feb. 1 turned violent, causing more than $100,000 worth of damage to the campus and drawing national attention.

Yiannopoulos is a former editor for Breitbart and known right-wing provocateur who was invited to speak at UC Berkeley by Berkeley College Republicans as part of his “Dangerous Faggot Tour” of college campuses. Students and over 100 faculty members petitioned the university to block the event but chancellor Nicholas Dirks declined to do so citing free speech.

The event was called off around 6 p.m. local time that evening “amid violence, destruction of property and out of concern for public safety” according to a statement from UC Berkeley. The university also stated that, “The violence was instigated by a group of about 150 masked agitators who came on to campus and interrupted an otherwise non-violent protest.”

Psychology chair and New Paltz Presidential Free Speech Task Force Chair Glenn Geher disagrees with the recent trend of disinviting speakers to college campuses and believes it is a “dangerous slope to go down.”

“Censoring, just banning someone on campus and saying we consider you dangerous because of your ideas, because of what you said doesn’t have a lot of educational value,” he said. “This is a place where all voices can be heard, even if some of them are unpleasant.”

Yiannopoulos’ inflammatory speeches, often veering toward hate speech, are meant to push back against what he sees as the “stifling politically correct left.” At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee he singled out a transgender student for ridicule by name and said that the Black Lives Matter movement is “dedicated to racial hatred” and called it “the last socially acceptable hate group in America.”

Yiannopoulos was also permanently suspended from Twitter for violating “rules prohibiting participating in or inciting targeted abuse of individuals.” Twitter charged that he had incited a campaign of racist and misogynist abuse directed at Leslie Jones over her appearance in the “Ghostbusters” remake.

UC Berkeley is not alone in the conversation about free speech on college campuses. SUNY New Paltz faced similar criticism in the wake of the cancellation of a debate featuring Cliff Kincaid, director of investigative journalism for Accuracy in Media (AIM).

The event was cancelled following a “robust dialogue” over the faculty email system and the speakers were paid a total of $7,500 for the sudden cancellation. Anne R. Roschelle, Ph.D., a sociology professor, voiced her objections to Kincaid’s involvement in the debate but made it clear that she did not seek to bar Kincaid from speaking. 

“What I find troubling, which people don’t seem to be talking about that much, is what is the point of bringing people who are essentially hate mongers to a college campus?” she said. “I disagree with the idea of a university spending money on someone is a known hate monger.”

Geher said that the concern and hesitation over Kincaid’s appearance on our campus came primarily from the faculty and not the students, which is similar to the response to Yiannopoulos’ appearance at UC Berkeley.

“I have a couple of problems with that; one is that makes this presumption that students aren’t bright enough to come up with their own opinions,” he said. “If we’re doing a good job educating students, they should be able to listen to something like that and if there are genuine problems with their argument or if the student is concerned about what they’re saying, then they should be able to process it and argue back.”

In response to the controversy, SUNY New Paltz rescheduled the debate which was held last semester and created the free speech task force in the summer of 2016. The task force is comprised of Geher, Lew Brownstein and Dan Lipson of the political science department, Eugene Heath of the philosophy department, Lisa Phillips of the digital media and journalism department and Patricia Sullivan of Honors and Communication.

The goals of the task force are to develop a series of events and materials related to free speech to take place in the current academic year. Their website also provides articles, links, videos and easy access of other relevant materials. More information can be found at

One of these events occurred on Thursday, Sept. 29, when Dr. Jonathan Haidt delivered a lecture entitled “How Two Incompatible Sacred Values are Driving Conflict and Confusion in American Universities.” In his lecture he spoke of safe spaces, victimhood culture and the confusion of a second wave of political correctness that he feels exploded in 2015.

Haidt also spoke of viewpoint diversity and the importance of allowing all voices and perspectives to be heard.

“We also find increasingly that students are walking on egg shells because they’re afraid to speak up, they’re certainly afraid to question the orthodox position,” he said.

Roschelle said that she believes strongly in free speech and that the notion of an attack on free speech is a ploy by the right wing to victimize themselves and said that claims of having free speech trampled on shuts down the ability to have conversation in the first place. 

“We live in a very difficult time, the country is divided in a lot of ways so if we want to have conversations about different viewpoints, to me it makes more sense to bring people who are reasonable human beings who just have different perspectives and have a conversation with them,” she said. “But if someone wants to bring a Neo Nazi to campus, I wouldn’t go see that person, I wouldn’t give that person my time, but they have the right to speak publicly and so does some radical Marxist who thinks we should overthrow the government. I don’t agree with that either but they have the right to speak.”

Geher believes that viewpoint diversity at SUNY New Paltz is somewhat minimal, citing a conversation he had with a fellow faculty member in which they could not name one conservative intellectual that has been invited by the faculty to speak on campus.

“Disagreement and multiple perspectives comprise the foundation of learning, of intellect, of academia,” Geher said. “If everyone agrees on a particular set of ideas and the professors say these are the only ideas you’re allowed to have – and someone comes in from outside of the bounds and holds a different perspective, you’re not allowed to hear that person, you’re not allowed to think their ideas, you’re allowed to consider the ideas as having any merit. I’m afraid that modern academia is starting to look this way when it comes to freedom of ideas and free speech.”