Milo Yiannopoulos, The Big Debate: Has Freedom of Speech Become Compromised?

There has been much controversy surrounding a debate being held at the University of Bristol on the 27th November, where Milo Yiannopoulos is due to debate a well-known female journalist on the “challenges of gender politics”. The choice by the University of Bristol Journalism Society (UBJS) to host this event has been opposed by some students, most notably by the Feminist Society, who made a statement in which they said they “do not support” the decision of UBJS to hold this debate, claiming that it “violates the University’s safe space policy” and that they are “not in favour of the kind of hate speech and vitriol that Yiannopoulos perpetuates.”

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So why is Milo Yiannopoulos so controversial? Arguably his most controversial comments are about transgenderism. On his website, he argues that “transgenderism is a psychiatric disorder: Its sufferers need therapy, not surgery,” and likens transgenderism to the Conrad delusion (a psychiatric disorder which leads the sufferer to believe they are dead.) Yiannopoulos argues that we don’t kill the sufferers of this disease, so we shouldn’t use surgery in cases of transgenderism and that we should instead treat it with therapy. His claims even go against the general medical consensus that the best way to respond to someone suffering with transgenderism is to operate to change their gender. He also came under fire due to his comments on the GamerGate scandal of August last year, a controversy about sexism in video game culture. During this time, feminists in the video game industry such as Zoe Quinn and Kathy Sierra were harassed by internet trolls and received death threats. Yiannopoulos’ response to this, in an article titled "Feminist bullies are tearing the video game industry apart," was to downplay the death threats which these women received, claiming that there’s “no evidence the target was ever at risk,” and that the women involved had manipulated the tweets to “play the victim with the hand of limp-wristed journalists.” His Twitter account fuels yet more controversy with tweets such as “Feminists: Stop lying about rape culture and get out of our bedrooms” and “If you’ve heard about a rape, it’s fake.”

He has previously been banned from speaking at an event, ironically on the subject of censorship, at Manchester University earlier this month, with the Union defending their decision by arguing that his “comments lambasting rape survivors and trans people” could “incite hatred against both trans people and women who have experienced sexual violence,” which would go against the safe space policy of the university.  According to the University of Bristol’s Student Union, our safe space policy’s “principle values are to ensure an accessible environment in which every student feels comfortable, safe and able to get involved in all aspects of the organisation free from intimidation of judgment.”  

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So, what position are we left in? Should we follow Manchester University and ban Yiannopoulos from speaking? It’s true that some of his comments could offend people and make them feel uncomfortable, so it is possible that the university’s safe space policy could be used, like it has been in Manchester, to prevent him from speaking.

However, if FemSoc succeeded in preventing Yiannopoulos from speaking, it would be an act of censorship which only serves to stifle debate and fuel suspicions of people who, like Yiannopoulos, believe that in universities “freedom of speech has become heavily compromised… with the rise of militant progressives.” To be truly progressive we must allow all voices to be heard, even if we don’t agree with them, so that they can be challenged. Malcolm Grant, the provost of UCL makes this point well, arguing that controversial speakers should be allowed to speak at university campuses in order to “engage and not to marginalise.” Universities are meant to be platforms for debate and this event in its debate format does not glorify Yiannopoulos’ views by solely presenting his opinion on the subject; it is allowing him to say what he thinks and then having someone else challenge what he says. The problem with not allowing someone to speak is that it not only goes against a general principle of freedom of speech; it also means that those views are allowed to stand, unchallenged on the internet rather than being brought to our attention and criticized. Unfortunately if the safe space policy were to be used in this way, it would come at a price of people losing freedom of speech and would risk universities becoming echo chambers of solely views deemed acceptable by the Unions, and this is something which should always be avoided.