Milo Yiannopoulos invited to conservative summit, then disinvited

Until Monday, Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at this week's CPAC conference. The controversy reflects a larger debate about balancing free speech and the value of civility.   

Jeremy Papasso/Daily Camera via AP/File
Milo Yiannopoulos speaks at the University of Colorado in Boulder, on Jan. 25. The polarizing Breitbart News editor stirred controversy when he was invited to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

Some speech can be too provocative for conservatives, too.

At least that’s one way to read the message of an explosive online backlash that erupted over the weekend, prompting the American Conservative Union to disinvite Milo Yiannopoulos, the controversial senior editor at the conservative publication Breitbart, from speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this week.

Mr. Yiannopoulos is a divisive figure who has railed against free-speech infringements on college campuses and has sought to expose what he calls liberal political correctness run amok – a primary reason for his initial invitation to speak, according to ACU chair Matt Schlapp.

Yiannopoulos has long been a lightning rod for his inflammatory statements and articles targeting feminists, the Black Lives Matter movement, transsexuals, and Muslims, among others. He has, for example, suggested that “fat shaming” is an appropriate way to get women to lose weight, that women complaining of sexual assault are bragging about being “hit on,” and that claims of campus rape are generally lies.

But apparently his statements in a 2016 podcast that was republicized over the weekend, in which he appeared to endorse sexual relations between grown men and boys as young as 13, were the final straw for the conservatives who had invited him.

On Monday, after initially defending Mr. Yiannopoulos’s speaking slot, Mr. Schlapp rescinded the invitation, saying in a statement that “we continue to believe that CPAC is a constructive forum for controversies and disagreements among conservatives, however there is no disagreement among our attendees on the evils of sexual abuse of children.”

The controversy, though centered on Yiannopoulos himself, has played out against a growing debate about free speech, hate speech, and civil discourse in America.

Schlapp initially defended the ACU’s invitation to Yiannopoulos to speak by noting that he is fighting back against free speech restrictions on campus. Other conservatives pointed out that, while Yiannopoulos may absolutely have a right to free speech, he doesn’t have a right to a prominent speaking platform at a premier event, and warned against conservatives aligning themselves with someone who is associated with the alt-right and has been an inspiration to white nationalists, along with his controversial statements about sexual consent for minors.

“When people want to provide a forum to discuss free speech, they tend to gravitate to the most outrageous speaker they can find, as though using free speech in an uproarious manner is some sort of credential,” says Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University.

'A way that doesn’t scorch the earth'

As a champion of free speech rights, he says people sometimes assume Howard Stern is his hero. “Thomas Jefferson is my hero,” Mr. Paulson says. “It’s the principle that’s heroic, not the people that push the bounds of the principle… If you want to have a public examination of the First Amendment, there are thousands of hardworking men and women … who can provide remarkable perspective and can do it in a way that doesn’t scorch the earth.”

Some in the conservative movement agree with Paulson. In a column headlined “Free Speech Has a Milo Problem,” National Review writer David French argues that the erosion of a true free-speech culture in the US is a major concern, but that a provocateur like Yiannopoulos, who thrives on creating outrage, is the wrong poster child for the issue.

“Operating under the principle that “the enemy of my enemy must be my friend,” too many on the right have leapt to Milo’s defense, ensuring that his star just keeps rising,” Mr. French writes. “If Milo’s the poster boy for free speech, then free speech will lose. He’s the perfect foil for social-justice warriors, a living symbol of everything they fight against. His very existence and prominence feed the deception that modern political correctness is the firewall against the worst forms of bigotry.”

When Yiannopoulos was announced as a speaker at CPAC (news reports initially had him incorrectly as the keynote speaker), the response was immediate, with some ACU board members saying they had not been consulted and many prominent conservatives taking to Twitter to denounce the decision.

Conservative bloggers and commentators, including Erick Erickson, Jonah Goldberg, and Matt Mackowiak called on Schlapp to rescind the invitation.

National Review’s Jonah Goldberg took to Twitter Sunday to question whether promoting Yiannopoulos was “the only/best way to defend free speech.”

“While I’m all for free speech, there is such a thing as vile, hateful speech that does not deserve a platform,” tweeted Ned Ryun, an ACU board member.

Others, meanwhile, mocked those conservatives who apparently only saw a line to draw over the controversial podcast video about pederasty.

“The Milo Test: Anti-Semitism, ok. Racism, ok. Alt Right, ok. Advocacy of pedophilia? Is THAT the bridge too far?” asked former right-wing radio host Charlie Sykes. Once the invitation was rescinded, he wrote: “One and a half cheers for CPAC. Revealing that the racism, anti-Semitism, Alt Right Nazi stuff wasn’t enough to get him disinvited tho…”

Uproar over Berkeley event

Yiannopoulos was already in the news for the uproar some of his scheduled appearances on college campuses have caused. The University of California at Berkeley canceled a talk by him earlier this month due to safety concerns when riots erupted. Despite the fact that the college had defended his right to speak and assigned security to protect the event (and there was no indication that the rioters were connected with the university), the college became an immediate target for some conservatives, including President Trump. “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view –  NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” Mr. Trump tweeted.

Yiannopoulos has a devoted following, many of whom offered him support this weekend via social media. As the pedophilia controversy erupted, he took to Facebook (he was banned from Twitter last year after he engaged in a harassment campaign against Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones) to defend himself, claiming that the videos misrepresented his views, and adamantly denying that he would defend pedophilia.

“I am a gay man, and a child abuse victim,” Yiannopoulos wrote. “I would like to restate my utter disgust at adults who sexually abuse minors.” He blamed both “deceptive editing” and his own “sloppy phrasing” for the controversy, and said he doesn’t believe the tapes “say what is being reported,” noting that he says in the interview that he thinks the current age of consent for sex is “about right.”

“We get hung up on this sort of child abuse stuff to the point where we are heavily policing consensual adults,” Yiannopoulos says in the podcast clip, and he goes on to talk about the positive nature of some relationships between older men and sexually mature boys.

Defending civility

But some observers say the real crux of the debate Americans should care about isn’t whether offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment (it is) but what damage is caused by a decline of civility in America and an increase in inflammatory rhetoric and divisive statements by politicians, talk radio hosts, commentators, and average Americans.

“This is something we have to be serious about and concerned about,” says Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, a nonpartisan organization that works to promote healthy and civil political debate. The annual poll from Weber Shandwick on “civility in America” found that 95 percent of Americans say lack of civility is a problem in America, with three-quarters saying civility has declined, and 67 percent saying it is a major problem today.

“What’s different now is the kind of way in which people who stand on the progressive or conservative side, they aren’t just opposed to each other, they demonize each other on a regular basis,” says Ms. Lukensmeyer.

She says she sees some cause for hope, including having 46 of the 52 newly elected members of the House go public last week with a signed “Commitment to Civility” pledge, as well as community-led efforts in places like Tucson, Ariz., and Bar Harbor, Maine, to increase civility and rational discussion across the partisan divide.

Lukensmeyer says she sees Yiannopoulos’s rhetoric – such as when he tells college students that feminism is “a cancer” as crossing a line between free speech that is challenging and free speech meant to provoke. There’s a dilemma, Lukensmeyer says, where if organizations or campuses disinviting him or canceling his appearances allows Yiannopoulos to “stand quite self righteously [saying] we are closing down free speech in the country,” but that the bigger conversation needs to be about inviting and welcoming sort of speech that’s truly constructive.

“What I think we need to pay most attention to is that Americans all over the country, red states, blue states, Republicans, Democrats, independents, and now elected leaders, are calling for the same return to civility and respect, and in doing so to have the capacity to actually work together to take on the major issues facing the country.”

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