Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Guest post by Sally Seattle: Hate Speech, Free Speech, and the UW Shooting

 [Note: "Sally Seattle" is a pseudonym for the author of this post, who is personally known to me. I have agreed to preserve the author's anonymity to protect the privacy and safety of them and their family. I welcome further contributions to this discussion, provided, of course, that they meet Aqueduct's sense of community standards. --Timmi]

Hate Speech, Free Speech, and the UW Shooting 
by Sally Seattle

On January 20th, a man was shot outside an event at which Milo Yiannopoulos was speaking. The event took place in Seattle, Washington, USA, at the University of Washington's "Red Square." The alleged shooter was apparently a Trump supporter who had showed up to the event intoxicated and with a loaded gun. And the victim was an antifascist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World General Defense Committee. (He has asked his name not to be shared publicly.)

The incident has received international attention now, with articles appearing in major U.S. newspapers, a Southern Poverty Law Center report, and the Guardian newspaper. (Guardian article: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/25/shooting-milo-yiannopoulos-speech-seattle-charges) It is also raising a lot of questions, the kind that are tough to handle. Since the feminist science fiction community has dealt with similar problems, I thought I would put out a general “ask” for advice and opinions, specifically to be shared with people doing antifascist work.

 1. How to tackle the "free speech" angle?

In the weeks leading up to the event, I listened to discussions from the left about why "hate speech is not free speech" or why, conversely, leftists should support the right to free speech. There was an ongoing discussion about whether shutting down Yiannopoulos was the right thing to do, or whether it would be better to ignore him and hold a competing event. These conversations are repeating themselves every time a Yiannopoulos event is held. It seems to me that the entire debate has taken a wrong turn somewhere. But I don’t have a solid analysis here -- just a collection of questions and thoughts.

One thing that strikes me: Yiannopoulos' right to free speech was never truly at risk. As a member of the one percent, he has the money and the fame to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and get the word out to all his supporters. In fact, Yiannopoulos could have easily given the exact same speech virtually rather than in person, probably without the protests.

Another thing is that the university gave him not only free speech, but also a platform, publicity, and a police presence. At the same time, earlier in the day, they tore down posters that protestors had put on the building.

It seems that people are skipping an important conversation about which limits we typically put on free speech and why. It is illegal to cry "fire" in a crowded theater, for example. But the kind of violence Yiannopoulos is notorious for doing is more indirect. People are arguing that this is or is not free speech, but not talking about where exactly the line should go.

There is also a general lack of clarity of what constitutes a limitation of free speech. There is a big difference, often missed, between shouting somebody down and asking the government to do it for you.

Finally, the specific context of Yiannopoulos speaking on college campuses is worth exploring. It is fundamentally ironic that the speaking event is part of a right-wing attempt to silence left-leaning professors, on the grounds that left-leaning professors are silencing their students by putting limits on hate speech. Also, looking at the history of Gamergate, which violently suppressed the voices of women gamers, it is clear to me that Yiannopoulos wants free speech for himself alone. But that wouldn’t be clear to his followers or to confused bystanders.

2. How to handle accountability?

On the one hand, there is a call going out (https://itsgoingdown.org/shooter-unarmed-anti-racist-walks-free-authorities-silent/) asking why the alleged shooter has not been charged with a crime, and there is concern that failing to arrest them sends a message that it's fine to go into a crowd and shoot an unarmed person.

On the other hand, according to news sources (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/25/shooting-milo-yiannopoulos-speech-seattle-charges), the shooting victim himself is asking not for charges but for a "restorative justice" process. This comes out of a much-needed movement against the prison-industrial complex--which is the modern-day continuation of slavery.

Who exactly should be held accountable, and what form should that accountability take?

3. Did the university and the police take a side?

As local activist and blogger Geov Parrish has pointed out (http://geov.org/gp/?p=653), the police presence was unusual. Ordinarily, if a crowd of fascists and anti-fascists were occupying the same space, police would stand between the two sides. All the police were up front, protecting the people coming to see Yiannopoulos, leaving the people in the crowd unprotected.

4. What can the feminist science fiction community contribute to this conversation?

The science fiction community has had its own run-ins with Gamergaters, in the form of the man who calls himself “Voice of God.” He invoked the right to free speech after calling author N.K. Jemisin an extremely vile name on an official Science Fiction Writers of America forum, and there was a hue and cry over his ultimate ejection from SFWA. He went on to start his own publishing house and rig the Hugo Awards through his “Rabid Puppies” campaign. Along the way, liberals and feminists became rebranded as “social justice warriors” -- and, as warriors, a legitimate target for attack.

There is a thorough treatment of these events in an article on Eruditorumpress.com, in an article whose title begins with the strangely appropriate beginning “Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons. ” ((http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/guided-by-the-beauty-of-their-weapons-an-analysis-of-theodore-beale-and-his-supporters/)

Science fiction fans ultimately decided, through voting and much discussion, that we wanted diverse voices rather than rabid dogs. That was a win. There are a ton of lessons to be learned here. And some of them are extremely relevant to ongoing attempts to deal with Yiannopoulos’ tactics. I’m just not sure what they are.

5. How soon will the shooting victim recover?

I left this question for last, but it is topmost on my mind. Although the struggle going on here is political, it is also deeply personal. At the same time as we are fighting fascism, we are also trying to heal the hurts in our communities, and this is one of many. In the days after the shooting, his situation was upgraded from "in critical condition" to "stable" to "recovering." May he make a full recovery.

And in the meantime, there is a fundraiser for his medical expenses, which are unknown at this point.

Fundraiser link: https://www.crowdrise.com/medical-fundraiser-for-iww-and-gdc-member-shot-in-seattle/fundraiser/gdcsteeringcommittee


Nancy Jane Moore said...

The free speech issue is complex, even when it involves someone who is using it as a means of engaging in hate speech. I note that the ACLU has, in the past, defended the right of Nazis to march. I tend toward the belief that the First Amendment is perhaps the most valuable part of the US, but I confess to being tired of having to use it to defend awful people.

This whole issue calls to mind another aspect of the gamergater situation: Anita Sarkeesian had to decline an invitation to speak at a university because they would not take steps to protect her. In this case, it appears that the university not only protected the speaker against any threats to his safety, but also against anyone protesting his appearance. Free speech does not mean unopposed speech. Perhaps the best answer here is for universities to allow this man on campus, but to only provide him with some physical protection should his presence draw threats against his person. They should take no action to prevent protestors from going to his event, shouting him down, or otherwise making it difficult for him to get his message out. After all, the protestors also have the right to free speech.

While I sympathize with the political opinions of the person who was shot, the fact remains that such a restorative justice system does not exist. Nothing will be done about the shooter unless legal action is taken against him. Since the shooter is likely a danger to other people, the authorities should take action against him. Even in a better justice system, it isn't in the best interest of society as a whole to let dangerous individuals roam the streets at will.

Sally Seattle said...

Thanks for your thoughts. What's happened at U.C. Berkeley and elsewhere has raised more questions for me. The speech at U.C. Berkeley was allowed by the college administration but shut down by protesters, and more specifically, by property damage.

It sounds like students there might have been concerned that undocumented students would be doxxed. I didn't know how reasonable that concern was, but Yiannopoulos does have a history of doxxing at events (at University of Wisconsin last year, for example). And Yiannopoulos had been expected to speak about sanctuary cities and undocumented students at the Berkeley event. So it sounds like a reasonable concern.

I kept searching and found a New York Times article from November 2016, "Even at Berkeley, I Face Threats as an Undocumented Student." There had been anonymous emails threatening to report the students and their families to immigration officials and the administration had not followed up. The author compared an instance where anti-Semitic posters had appeared and the administration had swiftly condemned the language with an instance where a "Build the Wall" protest was treated as political speech and ignored.

The author also pointed to comments made by the president of the UC system, Janet Napolitano, who had said in a Boston Globe op-ed that although speech intended to personally intimidate or harass falls outside First Amendment protections, exceptions to free speech should be narrowly construed.

I'm broadly in agreement with that concept--especially now that we are entering a phase of repressive government. I'd go farther and say that asking the government to shut down a speaker sets a precedent the far right would be more than happy to follow.

At the same time, across the board, it does seem like personally harassing speech and hate speech is being treated as equal to political speech. That doesn't sit right with me.

I'm still wrestling with your suggestion: "They should take no action to prevent protestors from going to his event, shouting him down, or otherwise making it difficult for him to get his message out." It does seem like a simple solution. But it does cut both ways.

One solution I like is to give the students on campus who are inviting Yiannopoulos exactly what they are asking for: free speech in the form of a fairly moderated debate, consisting only of students. That has the advantage of keeping it a real conversation, between real people.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Yesterday On the Media aired a discussion of free speech issues that at one point focuses on Milo Yiannopoulos's tactics & provocations. You can find it here: http://www.wnyc.org/story/on-the-media-2017-02-10/

Sally Seattle said...

Interesting podcast. Most striking was the point where Mark Bray, who was explaining the politics of anti-fascism and coming out straight and saying that to some extent, the values of anti-fascism does not square with the liberal values of free speech and open dialogue. I find that disturbing. On the other hand, it's commonly accepted by liberals that if you see a Nazi poster on a pole, the right thing to do is to tear it down. Maybe the dividing line is not whether the speech is tolerated, but whether we explicitly ask the government to prohibit it. On that second point the U.S. constitution is quite clear: the government may not make laws against speech. I'm not sure how anti-fascists see that aspect of it.