On Inauguration Day 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos gave a talk sponsored by the University of Washington College Republicans entitled “Cyberbullying Isn’t Real.” This chapter is based on participant-observation conducted in the crowd outside the venue that night and analyzes the violence that occurs when the blurring of the boundaries between “free” and “hate” speech is enacted on the ground. This ethnographic examination rethinks relationships between law, bodies, and infrastructure as it considers debates over free speech on college campuses from the perspectives of legal and public policy, as well as those who supported and protested Yiannopoulos’s right to speak at the University of Washington. First, this analysis uses ethnographic research to critique the absolutist free speech argument presented by the legal scholars Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman. Second, this essay uses the theoretical work of Judith Butler and Sara Ahmed to make claims concerning relationships between speech, vulnerability, and violence. In so doing, this chapter argues that debates over free speech rights on college campuses need to be situated by processes of neoliberalization in higher education and reconsidered in light of the ways in which an absolutist position disproportionately protects certain people at the expense of certain others.
Johnson, J. (2019), "When Hate Circulates on Campus to Uphold Free Speech", Studies in Law, Politics, and Society (Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Vol. 80), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 113-130. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1059-433720190000080005
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Copyright © 2019 Emerald Publishing Limited
On Inauguration Day 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos gave a talk sponsored by the University of Washington College Republicans (UWCR) entitled, “Cyberbullying Isn’t Real.” The hall seating 700 was sold out, but when Yiannopoulos went onstage, only 200 spots were filled, primarily by VIPs who had donated US $250 or more to a GoFundMe campaign to cover the cost of security. US $11,000 was raised, well over the US $7,000 goal, prompting UWCR club president Jessie Gamble to declare that this crowdfunding success would “Make Free Speech Cheap Again” (Gamble, 2016)!
In this chapter, I analyze the violence that occurs when the blurring of boundaries between “hate” and “free” speech is enacted on the ground. This ethnographic examination is based on participant-observation conducted in the crowd before Yiannopoulos’s talk. Using empirical evidence, my analysis critiques the absolutist free speech argument presented by the legal scholars Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman. Additionally, I use Judith Butler’s theorization of vulnerability in resistance, and Sara Ahmed’s conceptualization of affective economies, to rethink relationships between law, bodies, and infrastructure. In turn, I argue that the protests surrounding free speech on college campuses need to be politically situated, historically contextualized, and are usefully reconsidered in light of the restructuring of labor, neoliberal processes of corporatization, and the overt and less obvious forms of precarity that these infrastructural conditions engender. This chapter demonstrates that as clashes over what constitutes hate and free speech escalate, those studying and working in the academy have become increasingly vulnerable to being radically unsupported by its infrastructure.
Whose Side Are You on? Circulating Hate, Protesting Hate
In the midst of heated debates concerning free speech on campus prior to Milo Yiannopoulos’s arrival at the University of Washington, no one was willing to talk with me. I asked for permission to visit College Republican club meetings open to the public, as well as consent to interview president Jessie Gamble, but never received a reply. When I emailed the Puget Sound Anarchists, I was similarly ignored. So, I ascended the stairs to Red Square on the University of Washington campus – an aptly named brick plaza surrounded by libraries and administrative buildings – as an ethnographer without a side or a subject.
Standing at the edges of the crowd, the scene looked like a movie set lit with towering spotlights casting shadows over hundreds of stand-ins waiting for a scene to be shot. It was 5.30 p.m. and Yiannopoulos was due to perform at 7.30 p.m. There were two distinct lines snaking toward the main doors of Kane Hall – home to Roethke Auditorium, a staged-seating performance space that accommodates 720 and is used for department graduations and large-drawing talks – but there were no signs directing me where to go. Front and center, in a section all their own just below the stairs to the main entrance where a row of metal barriers stood, were the VIPs bearing signs that read “Celebrate Patriarchy” and “Reject the Fascism of the Left.” Police with bicycles were nonchalantly standing in packs at the edges of the square, and a line of them stood on foot in front of the doors, but there was no division within the square between those who were standing in line to see Milo, those who were there protesting his presence, and those who were mere by-standards.
As I held my place on the margins to get a sense of the scene and where I would place myself in it, I had an awkward encounter with staff members that I knew. They were also trying to figure out where they should be, but it was clear that their motive was to find allies who were there to peacefully protest the event. As they received the text that guided them to their position among a group standing in a corner off to the side of Kane Hall’s main doors, I mumbled a “see you” and watched them go. At least my ticket was free.
Yiannopoulos’s imprint on YouTube was more than enough for me to get a sense of what he was about and what he might say. The script was ugly but predictable. After watching a few videos of his talks at other campuses, there was nothing shocking about his language or surprising about his tactics. I had seen this act before and during ethnographic research on a conservative megachurch in Seattle that had dissolved in the midst of much controversy surrounding the bullying authority and vulgar language of its politically incorrect celebrity pastor. I was well versed in Milo’s playbook, but I was curious to see who was in the audience, what they were about, and how they would respond to Yiannopoulos’s “ideas.”
Many in the entry lines were wearing the fire-engine red “Make America Great Again” hats that had become the trademark of the Trump campaign. One standout among the predominantly White men in their 20s and 30s that bore this Trump brand was a guy with thick black framed glasses whose black T-shirt proclaimed in a white bold font that mimicked the Black Lives Matter logo, “Tokens Lives Matter.” I watched him, wondering if his laughter and goofy grin would be challenged or erased, until they were by a Black woman who called him out in front of his friends.
In the end, I chose to stand at the back of the line closest to the VIPs, where there was a better vantage point of the main doors. As a result, I spent the majority of two hours waiting in a line next to four Asian American men in their 20s who were MBA students and alumni. When I asked them why they were there, the resounding response was “to see what happens,” not “to listen to Milo,” although they were all apprised of his performances on YouTube. I was knocked in the shoulder by a someone aggressively walking by, and “racist” was a common refrain shouted in my general direction, but as the time for Yiannopoulos’s performance drew closer, there were no major skirmishes.
There was a small group of people in the center of the square toward the back, positioned away from the crowd but close enough such that my line snaked around them, using backlights and gels to project peaceful phrases such as “Hate Won’t Divide Us” and “Injury To One Is Injury To All” against the brick and stone walls of Kane Hall and nearby structures. I remarked to one of the men that their activism seemed to be having the desired effect. While I saw angry faces and heard confrontational voices, by the time the line slowly crept forward around 7 p.m., as the VIPs entered the building, it seemed like everyone who was waiting would get into the venue without incident; then, the line stalled.
As the air grew colder and wetter, the scheduled time for Milo’s talk came and went. In the glare of the spotlights, it was difficult to tell who was blocking the line from moving past the metal barriers by the main doors at the top of the stairs, the growing number of black-clad antifa or the line of police in riot gear. Rather than protecting anyone in the crowd outside of Kane Hall, it became readily apparent that the security detail was there to protect those lucky enough to be inside.
As battle lines became more starkly drawn between those above preventing entry and those below trying to push their way through, heated cries of “USA” and “No Trump, no KKK, no Fascist USA” competed and converged, until they were replaced with “Let us in!” and “Shut it down!” Soon thereafter, a cloud of smoke and cries of “pepper spray!” pushed people back and churned bodies around; it felt like I was at the edges of a mosh pit. A White teenager emerged from the center of the scrum screaming revenge on those who had punched and paint-balled him for wearing a hat decorated with the US flag. Blood from a gash congealed with the blue goo plastered on his face. Rocks were hurled from the stairs, and like many of those around me, I found myself ducking and dodging debris, as any sense of order or physical safety unraveled.
Hate Speech or Free Speech?
By the time his “Dangerous Faggot Tour” arrived in Seattle, Yiannopoulos had gained notoriety as a columnist and editor at Breitbart; been exiled from Twitter after spurring racist, misogynistic trolling against actor Leslie Jones, who starred in the all-women reboot of the film Ghostbusters; and become renown for railing against political correctness, “social justice warriors,” feminists (“feminism is cancer” is one of his catchphrases), Muslims, immigrants, and transgender people.
By the time he arrived in Seattle, Yiannopoulos had verbally attacked a transgender student by name onstage at the University of Wisconsin, calling her out for lobbying to gain access to one of the women’s locker rooms under Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in schools. While projecting a picture of this student onscreen for his audience to ogle behind his bully pulpit, Milo caustically quipped:
Trannies […] you’re not supposed to say that. I’ve known some passing trannies […] [this student] got into the women’s locker room the way liberals always operate, using the government and courts to weasel their way into where they don’t belong. (Palmquist, 2017)
Yiannopoulos maliciously added that the student was not “passable” enough as a woman and that, “the way you know he’s failing is I’d almost still bang him” (Palmquist, 2017). As if this evidence was not proof enough that Yiannopoulos’s speech was invested in agitating, inflicting, intensifying, and threatening harm, resistance to his appearance at the University of California in Davis led to the event’s cancellation out of fear for the violence that might erupt.
In a statement on free expression released in August 2016, after the College Republicans had invited to Yiannopoulos to campus, University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce said:
A university should – indeed it must – be a place where any policy or idea, even if offensive or outrageous, can be aired, discussed, examined and debated […] passion, emotion and conviction should be celebrated. Often it is what drives us to take action, to stand up against injustice and to make our ideas count. (Cauce, 2016)
In this statement, the question of whether the point of Yiannopoulos’s invitation was to raise any policy or idea worth debating was assumed when it should have been under scrutiny.
Legal scholars Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman historicize their arguments concerning contemporary campus debates over free speech in relation to the Free Speech Movement (FSM) – a series of protests at the University of California, Berkeley, that occurred in 1964 and 1965 in response to an administrative ordinance that asserted students could no longer use a space on the edge of campus to solicit support for “off-campus political and social action” (Chemerinksy & Gillman, 2017, p. 75). The FSM lobbied to have this limitation waived so that their activism on campus was assessed according to the more generous barometer of the US Constitution. Chemerinsky and Gillman use the FSM to support their intervention into, and solution for, contemporary debates over free speech at universities:
We should think of campuses as having two different zones of free expression: A professional zone, which protects the expression of ideas but imposes an obligation of responsible discourse and responsible conduct in formal educational and scholarly settings; and a larger free speech zone, which exists outside scholarly and administrative settings and where the only restrictions are those of society at large. Members of the campus community may say things in the free speech zones that they would not be allowed to say in the core educational and research environment. (Chemerinksy & Gillman, 2017, p. 77)
However, it soon becomes clear that the authors have little interest in, or consider it realistic for, a “professional zone” of free speech to be protected by the law.
By Chemerinsky and Gillman’s own admission:
In the 1990s, persuaded by the powerful arguments for its regulation, over 350 colleges and universities adopted codes restricting hate speech. But every court to consider such a code declared it unconstitutional. (Chemerinksy & Gillman, 2017, p. 82)
In this matter we side with the courts: though the advocates of restricting hate speech were motivated by the best intentions, speech cannot and should not be prohibited for expressing hate. We strongly agree with the need to create a conducive learning environment for all students, but there is simply no way to regulate hate speech without censoring ideas. That is never permissible on college campuses. (Chemerinksy & Gillman, 2017, pp. 82–83)
Situating this assertion in the context of Milo’s campus tour, the question that begs to be asked is: How is maliciously outing a trans student from onstage at their home university furthering an idea?
By way of Yiannopolous’s calculated use of hate speech, vulnerable populations – such as undocumented, trans, or Muslim students – are dehumanized and undermined, while a population’s vulnerabilities – those of the University of Washington community writ large – are exposed and exploited. Even Chemerinsky and Gillman note, “Many scholars have persuasively argued that the harm inflicted by hate speech is great enough to justify its regulation,” including studies that show that “it causes psychological and even physical harm in those who are subjected to it,” “is an affront to the dignity of those who are subjected to it,” “is a form of discrimination,” and “is an assault that the law can and should prevent and punish” (Chemerinksy & Gillman, 2017, pp. 82–86). However, rather than taking up any of these arguments, they provide a history of case law that upholds their claim that hate speech should be protected, particularly on college campuses. Despite historicizing their assertions, Chemerinsky and Gillman refuse to situate their discussion in the contemporary United States, including shifts in its media ecosystem before, during, and after the Trump campaign, not to mention the ways in which its neoliberal political economy has produced and intensified precarity on college campuses.
First, the authors neglect to consider that universities are increasingly operating as corporate entities, with increases in administrate costs and bureaucratic metrics that could and should afford more oversight when it comes to how speakers are invited to campus by student organizations. Despite being a public institution, the University of Washington functions far more like a private business, an argument that is not exercised whenever First Amendment violations are mentioned. Meanwhile, contingent faculty are finding it increasingly difficult to support themselves in Seattle, a once affordable city that has seen a dramatic increase in the cost of living due to the information technology boom. In effect, the stereotypical urban, coastal liberal elites working in the ivory tower of the academy are far from immune or unacquainted with the economic precarity, exploitation of labor, and social disenfranchisement frequently couched as a rust-belt or rural, White, male, blue-collar crisis. The neoliberal policies framed in terms of deregulation, deindustrialization, and privatization that led to and justified the populist presidential election of Donald Trump are adversely affecting populations beyond White working-class men and their families. Debates over free speech on campus today spurred by the likes of Yiannopoulos manipulate and capitalize on discourses of victimization normatively figured through the abjection of a form of White masculinity that upholds heteropatriarchy; in turn, this trope of victimization feeds the masculinist posturing of a peacock such as Milo to hoots and hollers from his fans.
Second, Chemerinsky and Gillman do not substantively consider how online technologies of the twenty-first century – social media such as Twitter and Internet platforms such as Facebook – have shifted the meaning and practices of censorship. Yiannopoulos shamelessly cultivated his brand by trolling, and exciting fellow trolls, to stoke and spread racist, sexist, anti-trans, and anti-Muslim speech under the guise of anonymity in ways both threatening and relentless. Rather than making free speech cheap again, Milo’s trolling online and offline mobilizes and inspires what digital communication scholar Zeynep Tufecki calls “cheap talk,” which serves as a form of censorship waged by nonstate actors as they proliferate “nonverifiable messages” that amplify “noise” (Tufecki, 2017, pp. 200–201). Yiannopoulos self-servingly entitled his talk on Trump’s inauguration day “Cyberbullying Isn’t Real” to monetarily capitalize on its affective impact at the University of Washington. In effect, Chemerinsky and Gillman do not take into account how digital technologies have shifted the stakes and terms of debates surrounding free speech, particularly when such discussions are framed to promote and circulate hate. By ardently defending Milo’s right to mobilize hate, the University of Washington signaled that its population was not as valuable, or as vulnerable, as the White man’s body or the institution’s image. By legally rationalizing Yiannopoulos’s right to speak on campus, the University of Washington was inviting hate to infect and circulate such that its bodily and social space, its infrastructure, would be adversely impacted before, and long after, Milo’s arrival.
Harms, Not Benefits
A few weeks prior to Yiannopoulos’s talk in Seattle, the Puget Sound Anarchists “outed” College Republican club president Jessie Gamble as a racist. The evidence culled from Facebook and posted to the It’s Going Down website and social media included her contact information above her father’s, and a call to “let Jessie know what you think about her close friendships with neo-Nazis and White Supremacists,” and to “tell her father too” (Puget Sound Anarchists, 2017). This stunt afforded Gamble an opportunity to promote the club and advertise Milo’s talk during a local radio interview. She told the hosts:
We wanted Ben Shapiro, that was like $10,000 […] We figured, Milo’s free, he’s getting some traction right now, he’s got a huge Twitter following, because at that time he was still on Twitter, and we really agreed with his stances on safe spaces and free speech on campus and how you’re shutting down discussion the one place discussion is meant to be. (Mendel, 2017)
Our membership is growing because of Milo […] we are getting a lot of people that are coming out of hiding that have been really worried of speaking on a college campus […] Milo has emboldened them. (Mendel, 2017)
In effect, the anarchists’ shaming of Gamble provided her with a platform to present the College Republicans as pragmatic rebels with a cause. One of the radio hosts, a self-identified Democrat, even took the liberty to apologize, calling the doxing of Gamble, “bullying and intimidation in its absolute worst form” (Mendel, 2017). This hyperbolic assertion foretold the kind of equivocation used by the elephant in the room – soon to be President Trump – to analogize the violence on “both sides” during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in July 2017, obfuscating the legacy of White supremacy that animated his Make America Great Again campaign.
Although no one mentioned the election during Gamble’s interview, or drew attention to the scheduling of Milo’s talk on inauguration day, Trump’s presence loomed over the event. Public gatherings framed in resistance to the Trump administration and organized to counteract the hate speech of Yiannopoulos were planned on campus throughout the day, including a rally followed by a series of educational teach-ins as part of a “J20 Festival of Resistance” organized by a coalition called UW Resist. Efforts were also made to shut down the event altogether. Those who circulated the “Ban Milo Yiannopoulos’s Hate Speech at the University of Washington” petition argued that his use of campus facilities would violate a discriminatory harassment law that forbids unwelcome language or conduct directed at people based on their race, sexual orientation, religion, citizenship, and national origin such that it creates a hostile, offensive, or intimidating environment. The neo-Nazi recruitment posters found prominently displayed around campus days before Yiannopoulos’s arrival provided stark evidence that a certain kind of person was emboldened by him.
In response to the petition, University of Washington President Cauce wrote:
the right to free speech and expression is broad […] as a public university committed to the free exchange of ideas and free expression, we are obligated to uphold this right […] we have reviewed this event with the State Attorney General’s office and there are not […] sufficient grounds to ban [Yiannopolous] from speaking. (Cauce, 2017)
Cauce affirms the responsibility of public universities to uphold the First Amendment, which protects hate speech so long as it does not convey a “true threat” – meaning, a “serious intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals” (Chemerinksy & Gillman, 2017, p. 96). Her argument resonates with Chemerinsky and Gillman as they point out that hate speech law has frequently been used against those it is meant to protect and that contemporary debates cannot be separated from the US civil rights movement and anti-war protests of the 1960s.
Specifically, Chemerinksy and Gillman state:
Many students [today] associate free speech with bullying and shaming. Their sense of free speech is not sit-ins at segregated lunch counters to bring about positive change [but] social media [that] makes students think of the harms, not the benefits […] [and they] extend the language of “harm” and “threat” to […] the expression of any idea they see as contrary to their strongly held views of social justice. (Chemerinksy & Gillman, 2017, p. 14)
Furthermore, Chemerinsky and Gilman contend that “traditional” examples of hate speech that spurred political correctness in the 1990s have shifted into demands to punish those who chalk “Trump Build That Wall” on campus because it is a “controversial policy idea” seen as disrespectful to immigrant students (Chemerinksy & Gillman, 2017, p. 15). However, as contextualized by Trump’s campaign rallies (which have continued after his victory), “Build That Wall!” does not simply signify a policy promise but serves as a mobilizing force – a call to arms chanted with glee by crowds of supporters on command. By dismissing the affective value of this “controversial policy idea,” and underselling its “true threat” to undocumented students, such legal discussions negate the performative impact of Trump’s stumping and Milo’s trolling.
There is no legal lexicon to describe how Yiannopoulos’s verbal attacks bodily and collectively register with “affective value,” which affect theorist Sara Ahmed describes as a process whereby “emotions play a crucial role in the ‘surfacing’ of individual and collective bodies through the way in which emotions circulate between bodies and signs” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 117). Her theorization of affective economies concerns the circulation of hate and suggests “emotions are not simply ‘within’ or ‘without’,” and “do not simply belong to individuals,” but rather “create the very effect of the surfaces or boundaries of bodies and worlds” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 117). According to Ahmed, “in such affective economies, emotions do things, and they align individuals with communities – or bodily space with social space – through the very intensity of their attachments” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 119). In other words, the affective value of Yiannopoulos’s hate speech cannot be explained away, or justified by, the argument that to revoke his invitation would have been an infringement of the First Amendment.
While Chemerinsky and Gillman repeatedly and rightfully assert that the Supreme Court emphasizes “penalty enhancements are directed at conduct, not at speech,” and then rationalize this decision by arguing that the criminalization of stigmatizing speech will inevitably lead to punishing people for their political views, they do not take into account that cyberbullying is not only real but that speech online and offline does indeed pose a true threat insofar as it can cause “a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety,” (Chemerinksy & Gillman, 2017, p. 97), both at work and at home. This sense of insecurity is particularly acute for the most vulnerable populations in the nation and on college campuses.
In her essay “Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance,” Judith Butler argues:
we can see how the speech act affects and animates us in an embodied way – indeed, the field of susceptibility and affect is already a matter of a corporeal registration of some kind […] the embodiment implied by both gender and performance is one that is dependent on institutional structures and broader social worlds […] In this way, the body is less an entity than a relation […] expos[ing] a specific vulnerability that we have when we are unsupported, when those infrastructural conditions start to decompose, or when we find ourselves radically unsupported in conditions of precarity. (Butler, 2014, p. 9)
Yiannopoulos’s hate speech directed at individuals is not only about them but also about creating an effective space such that emotions can circulate beyond the auditorium hosting his performance and escalate after his talk ends. In turn, the already insecure infrastructure of the public university is effectively exploited, as lapses and neglect in protecting and honoring its educational mission are further exposed.
Leading up to Yiannopoulos’s visit, students penned opinion pieces for the University of Washington campus newspaper The Daily that demonstrated they had a greater appreciation for the strategies and goals of Yiannopoulos’s speech than did President Cauce. UW economics undergraduate Reem Sabha wrote:
Dear Milo, on January 20th, 2016, you will be making UW fabulous again-at least, that’s what the advertisements tell me. I admit that I was stunned to hear that the UW College Republicans were choosing to host you on campus – you are, after all, an individual who calls feminism a “mean, vindictive, nasty, manhating philosophy” and accuses Muslim immigrants of seeking “to create replicas of their own hellish countries in the places they come to” (this latter quote came from a YouTube clip titled “Milo at WCU: Islam is the Real Rape Culture”). (Sabha, 2016)
As Sabha points out, Yiannopoulos’s rhetoric is beyond offensive or outrageous, and it does not articulate policies or ideas for discussion, debate, or examination; instead, his speech mobilizes hate to engender passion, circulate emotion, and amplify conviction. Butler speaks to the physical effects and material effects of such verbal bullying:
One clear dimension of our vulnerability has to do with our exposure to name-calling and discursive categories in infancy and childhood, indeed, throughout life. All of us are called names, and this kind of name-calling demonstrates an important dimension of the speech act. We do not only act through the speech act; speech acts also act upon us. (Butler, 2014, p. 5)
Speech animates us bodily and collectively, becoming structurally embedded in ways that are often imperceptible and enduring, even as the tactics of hate are blunt and its verbal enactment seemingly short-lived.
University of Washington economics undergraduate Reem Sabha also questions the value of allowing hate speech of Milo’s variety on campus:
Let’s call your sexist/racist/xenophobic/Islamophobic rhetoric what it really is: hate speech. And no, I’m not labeling your speech hate speech simply because I disagree with it. I’m labeling it hate speech because it uses lies, disguised as facts, to demean, dehumanize, and destroy any semblance of respect for people of different backgrounds […] all of the “liberal snowflake” outrage over your impending visit to our campus isn’t an attempt to silence your right to free speech. It isn’t because we can’t handle what you’re saying or defend our arguments against yours. It’s because your presence on this campus signals to the vulnerable minority communities who have made UW their home that their existence is not as valuable as one man’s right to openly attack those identities. (Sabha, 2016)
In her editorial, Sabha insightfully comments on how hate speech has the effective and material capacity to reinforce structural inequalities, inflict bodily harm, and perpetuate every day and spectacular forms of social violence.
In the midst of so much debate over the free speech rights of celebrity trolls such as Yiannopoulos – who receive monetary and effective capital by virtue of the media spectacles that they generate – adjunct faculty find themselves unprotected from immediate termination or having their contracts lapse whenever they make a comment on TV, Twitter, or Facebook that is deemed offensive by students, parents, or alumni. For example, a communication adjunct at Essex County College was fired after she appeared on Fox News to defend Black Lives Matter protestors who wanted all-black protest spaces on Memorial Day in 2017 (Flaherty, 2017). In another case, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Delware found herself without a job after she made a disparaging remark about Otto Warmbier, a college student who died after imprisonment in North Korea, asserting on Facebook that he “got exactly what he deserved” and calling him typical of “a lot of the young, White, rich, clueless males” that she teaches (Flaherty, 2017). While this comment may be in poor taste, it certainly does not constitute a “true threat,” in legal or linguistic terms.
The effects of the neoliberalization of the university system are clearly signaled by the lack of tenure-track appointments; in the United States today, 75% of all faculty are adjuncts, a statistic that quadrupled between 1975 and 2011 (Allison & Platzer, 2018). Anthropologists Anne Allison and David Platzer remark
Nationwide, the median pay for one course as an adjunct is $2,700: a salary so low that 31 percent of part-time faculty live near or below the poverty line and 25 percent receive public assistance. Reliance on such contract labor is not simply a matter of financial need. The largest increases in the proportion of adjunct faculty have occurred during periods of economic growth. By underpaying and overrelying on such faculty, universities can divert funds from teaching to other big-ticket items: a new athletic stadium with better concession stands. (Allison & Platzer, 2018)
As a result of this precarity, contingent faculty are perennially on the job market, publicly measured according to online metrics while actively engaging in self-promotion via the Internet, making them acutely vulnerable to cyberbullying and doxing.
Such cases of colleges and universities punishing adjunct faculty for publicly airing their political views and frustrations, particularly on social media, are on the rise. In August 2017, an adjunct instructor of economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York tweeted, “Some of y’all might think it sucks being an anti-fascist teaching at John Jay College but I think it’s a privilege to teach future dead cops” (Gross, 2017). Though this adjunct instructor later claimed that he was not wishing for his students’ deaths but merely predicting that some would die in the line of duty, he received death threats and was suspended from his job, ostensibly in the interest of campus safety (Gross, 2017). California State University, Fresno, fired a history lecturer for tweeting that “Trump must hang,” and an adjunct instructor in gender studies lost his fall employment offer from Montclair State University after school officials discovered that he tweeted that he wished to see President Trump shot (Gross, 2017). While such comments are emotionally charged, they do not aim to inflict harm in the way that Yiannopoulos’s hateful speech does. Adjunct faculty are underpaid, undervalued, alienated, isolated, and disposable, leaving them in vulnerable positions as employees of universities that have no issue with policing their speech on social media. In turn, administrations encourage self-censorship among contingent faculty – the majority of its population of teachers – online and in the classroom. Meanwhile, the right of Yiannopoulos to spew anti-Muslim, trans, immigrant, and feminist vitriol onstage is ardently and adamantly protected in order to mitigate legal costs, pacify conservative critics, spin media attention, and project the illusion that the public square of higher education defends and arbitrates free speech for all.
Milo intends to do more than hurt individuals; he aims to reinforce racist, heteropatriarchal norms as he performatively flouts the norms of political correctness in the name of free speech for cheap laughs. He incites violence against vulnerable bodies and hatred against vulnerable populations while hypberbolically exercising his rights in masculinist terms to excite and recruit processes of corporatization that are eroding the infrastructure and corroding the purpose of higher education. Administrators are playing into Milo’s hand, and abetting the demise of public higher education, when they endeavor to protect one White man’s right to free speech over the security of the vulnerable populations that comprise college campuses today, including students with varying national, racial, ethnic, gendered, and sexual backgrounds and identities. While “diversity” may be a buzzword in the mission statements of universities, its substantive defense on campus grounds does not appear to be an institutional priority.
Hate Speech as Contagion
Weeks after the Yiannopoulos event, I spoke with a Milo fan that had tried to barrel his way through the human barrier into the event but failed and left. He told me that if he had stayed any longer, he would have punched someone. Milo was onstage by 8 p.m. and no one was getting in, but there was no announcement to that effect; outside, instead of the crowd dispersing, tempers continued to flare. Just before 8.30 p.m., a group from an anti-Trump rally downtown arrived on campus. Drummers flushed up the stairs of the square and the air pulsed with the staccato of snare. Then, a bang rang out to my right behind another smoky cloud of what I presumed was pepper spray or tear gas. I heard someone cry, “I’m out” as they ran past me, tears streaming down their face. Bike police circled around someone on the ground.
Thirty-four-year-old Josh Dukes, an anarchist and computer security engineer, was transported to the hospital for a life-threatening gunshot wound to his abdomen. According to eyewitnesses, Dukes was trying to de-escalate the violence, but the shooter, 29-year-old Elizabeth Hokoana, claimed that she acted in self-defense out of fear for her husband Mark, a UW alum and supporter of Yiannopoulos, Trump, and the NRA. Before the shooting, Mark Hokoana sent Milo a Facebook message:
I’m outside in line to your UW event. I got sucker punched (he was a bit limp wristed) and someone jacked my #MAGA hat. Anyway for me to get a replacement signed by you? (Owens, 2017)
In her essay on vulnerability in resistance, Judith Butler calls for a rethinking of the relationship between the human body and infrastructure so as to understand embodiment as performative and relational rather than discrete, singular, and self-sufficient, to expose what she names “the disavowed dependency at the heart of the masculinist idea of the body” (Butler, 2014, p. 11). Whereas Mark Hokoana posed as a tough guy to get a free Make America Great hat autographed by Milo, Josh Dukes sought restitution for the harm done to him outside legal channels that would likely lead to Elizabeth Hokoana’s imprisonment. In an interview, Dukes stated, “Me getting shot is a manifestation of Trump’s and Milo’s violent ideology” and added that rather than contributing to the escalation of conflict via the court system, he would like to join the Hokoanas in a restorative justice process (Wong, 2017). “Shooting me or someone else cuts off all the things I could do with my life, my job, my relationships,” said Dukes, “Prison does something similar” (Wong, 2017). The contrasts between the strategy of the Hokoana self-defense and the sensibility of Dukes’ overture to restorative justice illustrate how the masculinist idea of the body is upheld by the state to obscure and undermine performative embodiments of vulnerability in resistance.
Despite Dukes’ wish to find resolution and justice outside of legal perimeters, the offer of restorative justice was rejected by the attorneys for the Hokoanas in a joint statement which read:
We agree that a restorative justice process could be helpful to both Mr. Dukes and the Hokoanas. But while this is an open investigation and the state has the power to file charges, despite Mr. Dukes’ wishes, Elizabeth and Marc are not able to participate. Washington law permits the use of force in order to defend someone in imminent danger of injury. We are confident that a jury, upon hearing what Elizabeth Hokoana saw, heard, and experienced, would find that she reasonably believed her husband was in immediate danger of great injury or death. (Wong, 2017)
The legal aim of and masculinist argument for self-defense mitigated any hope for social justice or relational healing. Rather than disinvesting in the prison–industrial complex as the man most harmed by the events of that night requested, the state unilaterally determined that more violence needed to be done.
Yiannopoulos’s right to make the self-serving, ironic assertion that “cyberbullying isn’t real” was unwaveringly defended by the University of Washington, yet the administration demonstrated no urgency, competency, or sensitivity when it came to physically protecting its vulnerable population(s) on campus that night or in the days and months to follow. After the shooting, there was no text or email message alerting the UW community; no one received a security warning about an active, unidentified gunman at-large. Such alerts are standard procedure when there is any criminal activity in the vicinity of the university, yet this protocol was not followed on the evening of Milo’s talk. In addition, the administration demonstrated that it was woefully ill-equipped, despite all of its bureaucratic costs and oversight, to support a graduate student who received a barrage of threats after he organized and participated in a series of peaceful tech-ins at the Odegaard Library during the J20 Festival of Resistance. Alan-Michael Weatherford was filmed while protecting students of color, trans students, and undocumented students from being caught on camera and identified online, so that they did not have to endure the doxing and abuse that he soon received.
In an opinion piece for the university newspaper, Weatherford described the online assault against him in detail:
Saturday morning, January 21st at 4am, I woke up to several homophobic and transphobic slurs as well as (sexual) threats on my twitter, Facebook, UW email and ratemyprofessor.com platforms. These attacks included: Receiving several photos, memes, and messages derived from two youtube videos of myself. Finding three entire 4chan forums dedicated to doxing me, a form of publicly outing and targeting individuals by listing their personal information widely. (Weatherford, 2017)
A sampling of the anti-gay and sexualized threats included, “hows the electric therapy from mike pence going, gaywad?”; “alan-michael-weatherford IS A FAGGOT WHO NEEDS HIS HEAD SPLIT”; and, “bend over they are coming” (Weatherford, 2017).
Weatherford’s ratemyprofessor.com profile was also bombarded with anti-gay, sexualized slander and false accusations of violent behavior in the classroom:
He once pulled me after class and tried to touch my p*nis when I asked if he could look at my assignment again because I thought that I deserved a better grade. Extremely dangerous man, be careful!”; “I went to speak to him to see if he offered extra-credit for bad grades and he started to get very ‘suggestive’. He sat on his desk and said ‘you have to earn that grade, big boy’, before spreading his legs. I got so uncomfortable that I tried to leave, but he blocked the door. He told me that he would give me an A if I didn’t report him”; “I do not recommend this professor, if you disagree with him you might get physically attacked”. (Weatherford, 2017)
In return for offering the protection to vulnerable students that the university would not, Weatherford’s livelihood and life were jeopardized by true threats that had an immediate and enduring effective and material impact on not only his body and labor but also the university’s infrastructure and population.
the speech act affects and animates us in an embodied way – indeed, the field of susceptibility and affect is already a matter of a corporeal registration of some kind. Indeed, the embodiment implied by both gender and performance is one that dependent on institutional structures and broader social worlds. We cannot talk about a body without knowing what supports that body, and what its relation to that support – or lack of support – might be. In this way, the body is less an entity than a relation, and it cannot be fully dissociated from the infrastructural and environmental conditions of its living. (Butler, 2014, p. 9)
According to her discussion, the violent events before, during, and after Milo’s talk are situated by, and bodily entangled with, the University of Washington’s corroding infrastructure and precarious environment.
In a direct retort to the focal claim of Milo’s talk on inauguration day that cyberbullying is not real, Weatherford wrote:
Let me just say very clearly that having an entire internet presence solely dedicated to finding, contacting and harassing with the promise of potentially harming you is petrifying […] because I teach diversity courses, such as my queer studies course dedicated to Postcolonial and Queer of Color Critique, it has actually made me an exemplary target […] precisely at the moment when I am about to embark onto the job market. (Weatherford, 2017)
This online harassment and public doxing led to tangible fear and rational concern on Weatherford’s part over safety in the classroom for both himself and his students. As a graduate instructor, information concerning his office hours and location, teaching schedule, and classroom was all readily available through a quick search online.
In response to a letter seeking support from President Cauce and protection from the University of Washington, Weatherford received the reply, “Sent to campus police and student life. So sorry you are experiencing this,” signed not with Ana Mari Cauce’s name, but “Sent from my iPad” (Weatherford, 2017). Butler writes:
we are invariably acted upon and acting, and that this is one reason why performativity cannot be reduced to the idea of free, individual performance. We are called names and find ourselves living in a world of categories and descriptions way before we start to sort them critically and endeavour to change or make them on our own. In this way, we are, quite in spite of ourselves, vulnerable to, and affected by, discourses that we never chose. (Butler, 2014, p. 14)
In Weatherford’s case, his vulnerability in resistance was on display for all to see, and yet, the University of Washington still had no plan or compassionate response with regard to ensuring his physical safety.
If, as Stanely Fish has argued, “there’s no such thing as free speech” (Fish, 1994), because what speech counts as “free” is always collectively decided upon, then the vulgar bullying of Trump and the violent trolling of Milo have become the law of the land in the United States. Through bodily and infrastructurally harmful speech acts, state and nonstate media celebrities are imposing a newly masculinist version of censorship while flexing the muscle of old forms as well; meanwhile, public universities docilely fall into step at all cost.
Halfway into his talk, Milo was informed of the shooting and said:
It is my suggestion that the show should go on. If you think that is insensitive or inappropriate I absolutely understand and please, please, make yourself heard now, but my view is that if we don’t continue, they’ve won. (Bruell, 2017)
The audience erupted in applause and he added:
If we don’t continue we are setting a precedent. We would send a message to these people that this is the way to stop events. I’m not prepared to do that. (Bruell, 2017)
Yiannopoulos conjures a “winning” moment out of an indiscriminate shooting by the wife of a fan that inflicted bodily harm and signaled conditions of infrastructural precarity through which hate circulated in the name of free speech.
After his talk ended, a caravan of police SUVs were waiting in the underground parking garage to escort Milo and his audience, who were told to remove their MAGA hats before exiting the venue, to safety. By contrast, there were no security alerts sent to students or faculty concerning the shooting or the fact that an unidentified gunman was at-large on campus that night. Butler writes:
All public assembly is haunted by the police and the prison […] the freedom to gather as a people is always haunted by the imprisonment of those who exercised that freedom and were taken to prison. And when one arrives in public or common spaces with radical and critical views, there is always an anxious or certain anticipation that imprisonment will follow. (Butler, 2014, p. 9)
In the current infrastructural conditions under which public universities operate, they are not so much haunted by the police and the prison as they are perpetually policing and affectively imprisoning vulnerable populations themselves.
When Yiannopolous announced that he would hold a “Free Speech Week” at the University of California, Berkeley, in September 2017, it was the school that footed the bill for his biggest publicity stunt yet. Big name conservative speakers such as Ann Coulter and Stephen Bannon were supposed to talk at the four-day event hosted with the help of a student group called the Berkeley Patriot, but the necessary paperwork to book campus venues and the speakers was never filed (Hanlon, 2017). While the University of California, Berkeley, typically allocates US $200,000 to pay for security at campus protests, since February 2017, it had spent US $1.5 million, and during Milo’s Free Speech Week, it expected to pay an additional US $1 million while struggling to reduce a budget deficit of US $150 million (Hanlon, 2017). Janet Napolitano, the President of University of California, offered US $300,000 out of her own pocket to help with security during the unsponsored, disorganized event. “It’s a cost that the university is bearing to protect the speakers but also to protect the value of free speech,” she said (Hanlon, 2017). Meanwhile, security concerns surrounding Free Speech Week resulted in the cancellation of a previously scheduled talk by Anna Tsing, a distinguished anthropologist. Such instances signal how public universities have adopted the infrastructure of the police state, militarizing its population while undermining the mission of learning.
On February 9, 2018, University of Washington President Cauce emailed a message to the campus community that encouraged everyone to stay away from the grounds and facilities on the following day. That Saturday, the UWCR sponsored a rally by a far right, free speech advocacy group called the Patriot Prayer whose rallies in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle had previously escalated into violence. In her letter, Cauce referenced the shooting in Red Square in January 2017 and maintained, “we uphold and promote the ideals and constitutional rights of freedom of expression through our work as a public university” (Cauce, 2018). Then, she mentioned that although “campus leadership and the UW Police Department have worked with the sponsoring club for the past month to maintain a safe environment for this event,” the UWPD had acquired “credible information that groups from outside the UW community are planning to join the event with the intent to instigate violence” (Cauce, 2018). Ignoring the fact that it was Black History Month, Cauce added:
For the safety of campus visitors and others not associated with the events several organizations have cancelled or postponed their campus events that day and access to Red Square will be limited. Your safety is important to us […] I encourage you to avoid Red Square and the surrounding area from 8am to 5pm on Saturday to ensure your own personal safety. (Cauce, 2018)
By indexing “groups from outside” as the problem and cause for alarm, Cauce reframed the events that unfolded on the night of shooting such that the identities of the man shot and the shooter were elided, and a policing gaze was focused on anyone who protested, rather than organized or attended, the Patriot Prayer rally.
When I arrived on campus an hour before the event, I did not find any rationale for the lockdown; both the undergraduate and graduate libraries were closed, just in time for mid-term week, and I watched as several unknowing students turned away from their doors with dismay. There was a peaceful but boisterous demonstration in front of the Husky Union Building (HUB) organized by a small group of protestors who marched into Red Square as the Patriot Prayer rally began. The administration asked the UW College Republicans to pay US $17,000 for the cost of security, but they took the university to court on the grounds that the institution was violating the club’s constitutional right to free speech. A federal judge granted the temporary restraining order that allowed the rally to be held without the imposition of any fee (Turner, 2018).
During the hour that I was in attendance, I noticed packs of police keeping watch over walkways and a wall of metal barriers surrounding the outdoor rally space just beyond the main doors of the Odegaard Undergraduate Library. The security force was far more vigilant and the physical barriers far more dense than those rigged for the Milo event; no one who was not a rally supporter was getting behind enemy lines. After an hour, I left with the assumption that the event was winding down with a few songs, and it was difficult to make out what anyone was saying over the loudspeaker given the protestors’ chants frequently drowned out Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson and UW College Republican president Chevy Swanson. One news report stated that the protestors outnumbered the rally attendees by four to one (Turner, 2018).
Seventy-five minutes into the event members of the Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys – a far right masculinist group started by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes – went looking for a fight (Bazzaz, Lee, & Willmsen, 2018; Turner, 2018). I had watched a pack of them weaving into, then crashing out of, the group of protestors earlier, but they had emerged without exchanging blows with anyone. However, the desired violence broke out after all and once punches were thrown, the police deployed their pepper spray and made five arrests (Bazzaz et al., 2018; Turner, 2018).
The most memorable moment for me that day happened while I was standing at the top of the stairs of the Suzzalo Graduate Library that looks out onto Red Square. I watched a woman turned away by the closed sign on the door start videoing the rally on her cell while shouting into its microphone, presumably to a Trump supporter, “You’re probably going to pull that passive aggressive bullshit, but I have to show you what you voted for.” Once again, the right to free speech had become the excuse for a publicity stunt that had shrunk the university to the size of a sandbox.
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Allison & Platzer (2018) Allison, A. , & Platzer, D. (2018). Academic precarity in American anthropology. Cultural Anthropology. Retrieved from https://culanth.org/fieldsights/1310-academic-precarity-in-american-anthropology. Accessed on February 12, 2018.
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- Section I General Articles
- By Other Means: The Continuation of Affirmative Action Policy at the University of Michigan
- Making “Adversarial Legalism” the H-2 Way of Law
- Section II Ethnographic Investigations: Perspectives on Contemporary Law and Politics
- Ethnography, Jurisdiction, and the Meaning of Meaningful Tribal Consultations
- Governing Futures: Oceanic Possibilities, Uncertainties, and Expertise
- When Hate Circulates on Campus to Uphold Free Speech