The violence that preempted the talk of a prominent alt-right speaker on University of California Berkeley's campus has set off a debate over the role of free speech in American society. Did the protestors, by effectively making the area surrounding the planned talk so unsafe that it had to be cancelled, infringe on the speaker's first amendment rights? Or did they simply take a militant stance against perceived hate speech? Can it be both? It seems like a very complex issue and I'm not sure how to look at it yet.

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    It is a complex issue--with a complex history--, but unless there is a legal answer, I fear that it will only be answerable by opinion.
    – rougon
    Feb 4, 2017 at 16:48
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    @Konstatine, I intentionally left the speaker's name out to avoid the above rationalization. I'm more curious as to how people see 'freedom of speech'. What was the desired outcome of the supporters? To quell his speech or to show that it was unwanted because it's content is intentionally provacative.
    – Brad Ford
    Feb 4, 2017 at 16:56
  • @jeffronicus, i can concede that eminent may not have accomplished my desired goal, but I'm still curious as to what the protestors, and those who support them (ie not conflicted), think the ultimate purpose was.
    – Brad Ford
    Feb 4, 2017 at 17:02
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    Breitbart disputes the designation of Milo as alt-right. Can you provide some citations to back up your claim?
    – Golden Cuy
    Feb 5, 2017 at 6:35
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    If you work for the alt-right paper, espouse alt-right views and find your following mainly with self identified members of the 'alt-right', then I think the term is justified and will not change it.
    – Brad Ford
    Feb 5, 2017 at 11:49

6 Answers 6


Constitutional vs. human rights

Did the protestors, by effectively making the area surrounding the planned talk so unsafe that it had to be cancelled, infringe on the speaker's first amendment rights

Individuals cannot infringe on a speaker's first amendment rights in the United States. The first amendment is a restriction on federal power that was extended to state and local governments by the fourteenth amendment. By contrast, free speech is a natural human right, which can be blocked by other human action. Perhaps that is only a technical distinction, but it is also a legal distinction in the United States.

Infringing the first amendment

The first amendment claim is that local police were infringing on the speaker's first amendment rights by choosing not to control the violence of the protests. The question there is if they would have been equally hands off with a more liberal speaker being shouted down by conservative protesters or rioters. Of course, most protesters found on a college campus are going to be liberals, not conservatives. So it's hard to know.

Another legal issue is if official Democratic groups were involved either deliberately or accidentally in encouraging the protests. If so, the college could sue them for reimbursement of the damages. However, it seems unlikely that the college would pursue that normally. But the Trump administration may insist, as otherwise the college is wasting some of the money that the federal government pays it on repairing riot damage. Note that while the college could sue, it's unclear that there would be sufficient proof of intent such that the college would win.

Streisand effect

Note that there were a mixture of types of protesters in Berkeley. Some just wanted to use their own free speech rights and try to shout down Milo Yiannopoulos outside. Some seemed to want to disrupt the actual speech inside the hall or whatever. But then there were those that engaged in actual violence and vandalism.

Even if you sympathize with the protesters, you might consider the Streisand effect. Yiannopoulos has regular speaking engagements. But how many do you know? It's just Berkeley for me. If I had even seen a reference to a non-violent protest, I would have already forgotten it. But we'll be talking for days about this. And Yiannopoulos will be all over the news, giving him a much larger microphone than he had prior to this.

There are reasons why people like Mahatma Gandhi are famous for non-violent protests. Even those who disagree with them, can't disagree with their methods. By contrast, here, even people who agree that Yiannopoulos is an idiot can disagree with rioting. Yiannopoulos can now play the victim, where many view him more as a perpetrator.

Violent protest is stupid. It causes more reaction against than for. It is emotionally satisfying in the short term but damages the cause in the long term.

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    "Violent protest is stupid" - tell that to all the zombified western persons wearing Che Guevara shirts; or to any government that came to power as a result of a violent protest. Violent protest is only stupid when it doesn't win.
    – user4012
    Feb 4, 2017 at 19:24
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    "Violent protest is stupid" this is not only opinion, but historically and demonstrably untrue. Violent protest is often what leads to massive social changes. We can debate where the line is between violent protest and civil war, of course. That's not to say it's better than peaceful protest. But it has been an effective form of protest throughout history.
    – user1530
    Feb 4, 2017 at 19:34
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    the last part (violent protest is stupid) can be construed a number of ways and using historical revolutions as examples has its limits. The sentiment is a good one though. especially with a militarized police force and a modern army waiting in the wings if things go too far.
    – Brad Ford
    Feb 4, 2017 at 19:47
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    Peace > violence is of course a great sentiment. One humanity can benefit from. But to say it's just "stupid" is, again, factually incorrect. The answer would be better without the opinion piece tagged on to the end.
    – user1530
    Feb 4, 2017 at 20:42
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    I would take this more seriously if their goal had been damaging the university. But it wasn't. They only damaged the university so as to call attention to themselves. But it attracts far more attention to Yiannopoulos. Violent protest is stupid. Violent action might accomplish something. But it is unnecessary here. If California secedes, they could carve exceptions into their free speech that bar people like Yiannopoulos. Then they could bar him from speaking democratically without private violence.
    – Brythan
    Feb 4, 2017 at 20:54

The short and technical answer is "no."

The First Amendment has been held to prohibit federal, state, and local governments from infringing on freedom of speech (though it is permissible to impose content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions).

The protesters, not being the government, cannot infringe on rights.

There is a related issue as to whether the authorities involved could have constructively violated the speaker's rights by accepting what's called a "heckler's veto":

The common example is the termination of a speech or demonstration in the interest of maintaining the public peace based on the anticipated negative reaction of someone opposed to that speech or demonstration.

But "heckler's veto" is not a legal term of art and applies to a range of situations. It's one thing to disinvite a speaker because of disagreements or threatened protests, it's another to cancel an event due to imminent public safety concerns.

  • That makes sense from a legal standpoint. Would you say the current debate is centered more on the fact that many see it as an American 'principle' regardless of legal standing? In other words, even though civilians can shut down free speech with protests, they shouldn't because it is somehow against our national ethos?
    – Brad Ford
    Feb 4, 2017 at 16:59
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    "Freedom of speech" is clearly an American social value aside from the legal framework. One of the challenges here is that (most of?) the parties involved saw themselves as embodying that value: Speaking and freely associating with others for the speaker, to expressing an opposing viewpoint through protest. (It's not clear whether those who turned violent actually saw their violence as speech.) So what's the proper social reaction? How can we maintain both the speaker's right to speak without reacting so harshly that we infringe on the rights of other citizens to gather and speak? Feb 4, 2017 at 17:24
  • personally, I wonder what would have happened if theyd all just held a counter event elsewhere. let all the trolls have their little party. by ignoring it you make the whole thing seem lame, not 'edgey'. I get the anger, but the methodology is worrisome. Instead of cameras recording violence and feeding the conservative media what they expected, they could have used their voice to articulate themselves and dwarf his crowds.
    – Brad Ford
    Feb 4, 2017 at 17:28
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    There are quirky complicating aspects to this event: Berkeley, the community surrounding the campus, is far more liberal and protest-minded than the student body, partially due to the campus's legacy from the Free Speech Movement of the mid-1960s. (After all, the speaker was invited by a campus Republican group.) BART and other public transit make it incredibly easy to get to campus from anywhere in the San Francisco Bay area, so it's easy for anyone to join in. And there's been a meme that no one stood up to Hitler then, therefore people who fear fascism now should "punch a Nazi" to help. Feb 4, 2017 at 17:45
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    "The protesters, not being the government, cannot infringe on rights": actually, because the first amendment restricts acts of congress, only private individuals can infringe on other's free speech. For example, a private university can restrict speech in its publications.
    – phoog
    Feb 4, 2017 at 19:39

The questions of 'free speech' and 'academic freedom' at U.C. Berkeley was supposedly settled by the outcome of the 1964-1965 students' anti-Vietnam war "Free Speech Movement", and by the killing of three similarly protesting Kent State (Ohio) college students by Ohio National Guardsmen (ref. Wikipedia "Free Speech Movement", "Kent State shootings").

Although both events resulted in some administrative changes on both campuses and freer access to dissident opinion, the recent violent protest on the U.C. Berkeley campus have been completely antithetical to the ideology expressed a bit more than half a century ago on college campuses across the country.

The recent violent U.C. Berkeley student protests were intended to deny students and others from hearing a dissident speaker's thoughts and comments. That denial indicates that the unrelenting pressure on young people to conform to "political correctness" has caused a complete reversal of the underlying ideological concepts of 'freedom of speech' and 'academic freedom' among students at Berkeley over the past fifty years.

One must either observe long standing principles, or abide by the principles of "political correctness". As the saying goes, "No one can serve two masters".

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    This is a good observation, but I'm not sure it answers what was asked in the question.
    – user11810
    Feb 4, 2017 at 22:16
  • It's an oblique answer to the question asked re "can it be both?", i.e., is it okay to aggressively infringe on a speaker's first amendment rights if the perceived speech is dissident and 'not politically correct' and, is that infringement defensible if the corrective action taken is perceived as in itself being righteous because it is 'politically correct' to do so. The dichotomy is exemplified by the contrast between the results of the 50-year old 20th century U.C. and Kent State dissent I cited, and this 21st century U.C. protest against hearing what is "not politically correct" speech. Feb 4, 2017 at 23:12
  • Can you edit that context into the answer?
    – user11810
    Feb 4, 2017 at 23:23
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    I'm not sure it's accurate to call them "violent U.C. Berkeley student protests." Students were protesting, but Berkeley is an open campus, and according to this story, the three people who were arrested were non-students: sfgate.com/bayarea/article/… Feb 5, 2017 at 0:53
  • @fixer1234: Yes, I believe I can, and I promise to try do that. I know that Kent State students still memorialize (annually) the sacrifice their four KS students made with their lives to uphold everyone's right to speak freely, without fear, and as their conscience dictates. That belief is the belief I hold as well. Feb 5, 2017 at 5:48

Did the protestors, by effectively making the area surrounding the planned talk so unsafe that it had to be cancelled, infringe on the speaker's first amendment rights

the first amendment was establish against the government's infringing on the citizen's rights to speech. Not being any government entities, the violent protesters couldn't have possibly infringed on anyone's first amendment rights.

I'm sure they are violating others laws, however.

or simply take a militant stance against hate speech?

while there hasn't been challenges on that but hate speech laws are likely unconstitutional, as they are imposed by the government and should constitute direct infringement of the citizen's first amendment rights.

we have to remember that many good things were considered high offensive: abolishment of slavery, equal rights for women, civil rights, anti segregation, inter-racial marriages, LGBT rights, .... had we shut them down then as "hate speeches", we wouldn't have many things we enjoy today.

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    The nod to history is a good one, but all of those things were regularly "shut down," often by violence.
    – rougon
    Feb 4, 2017 at 17:15
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    @rougon, I think that is more towards what I'm struggling with. The movements listed above were positive, yet drowned out periodically by violence (ie KKK in Reconstruction as one example). The current situtation involves someone aiming to provoke his detractors and is in no way equatable to the above movements. Is drowning him out with violence leveling the playing field/sticking up for what you think is right or is it more akin to 'stooping to their level'?
    – Brad Ford
    Feb 4, 2017 at 17:18
  • Ethically? Maybe. Politically? Probably not. There are some big differences: namely, the protesters' rhetoric was not particularly violent or prejudiced against any broad class of individual. Also, there was some violence, but if the thing keeping the speaker from speaking was simply a few violent individuals, security could have neutralized that threat. One should note that there were hundreds (or more?) peaceful protesters who contributed to the event being canceled. I don't think violence in protesting is good or useful, but it happens and we shouldn't focus solely on that.
    – rougon
    Feb 4, 2017 at 17:22
  • agreed. i'm only focusing on violence in this thread because I worry it will become a tactic during the Trump years. The speaker in question wants to paint liberal higher education as a bunch of lunatics who can't handle someone who disagrees with them. Acts like this, in my opinion, tarnish the larger message of 'we don't want you spewing filth at our school.'
    – Brad Ford
    Feb 4, 2017 at 17:25
  • Re, "...protesters couldn't have possibly infringed on anyone's...rights" Not true. They could, and they did. "Infringement" does not imply the breaking of laws. Feb 5, 2017 at 18:29

Of course they infringed on his right to free speech. You have a right to peacefully protest. This wasn't that. There were numerous assaults, you can read about one here, destruction of property, etc. But if you want to say that the protesters should be convicted for their violence rather than on civil rights violations, I would agree with you. They should.

But don't think that the speaker's civil rights weren't violated under both the public accommodations clause of the Civil Rights Act as well as the 14th Amendment.

One thing is for certain, the rioters didn't just take a militant stance. They actively engaged in something akin to domestic terrorism.

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    I beg to disagree with K Dog. The violent protesters at Berkeley surely have broken tons of laws and should be prosecuted for that, but they have not broken the first Amendment, which gives them no obligations or interdictions, only rights. The university of Berkeley however (or the University of California, or the state of California), which is a government entity and as such must obey the first amendment, may have broken the first amendment, though it is not obvious on this case alone -- the firemen don't break the first amendment when they stop a meeting because there is a fire in the room.
    – Joël
    Feb 4, 2017 at 17:13
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    PLEASE stop linking to powerline blog as a citable source. They are a right wing punditry blog. Not a valid source. This also isn't an answer. Just a rhetorical question.
    – user1530
    Feb 4, 2017 at 19:36
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    @blip Absolutely not. Given that Steve Hayward is teaching political science at Berkeley gives him a little credence, no?
    – user9790
    Feb 4, 2017 at 19:42
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    @KDog certainly it gives him a little credence but that blog has a long history of just being a right-wing opinion piece. We need to not be linking to highly partisan sources as a 'source of truth'.
    – user1530
    Feb 4, 2017 at 20:32
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    As for being part of the zietgeist, that has no thing at all to do with being a reputable news source. Again, opinion is fine, but that's what it is opinion. I wouldn't accept Huffington Post opinion pieces as any more credible either.
    – user1530
    Feb 4, 2017 at 20:33

Did the protestors, by effectively making the area surrounding the planned talk so unsafe that it had to be cancelled, infringe on the speaker's first amendment rights or simply take a militant stance against hate speech? Can it be both? It seems like a very complex issue and I'm not sure how to look at it yet.

No some of the protesters violated the rights of everyone who wanted to attend the speech. Presumably you could make a guess that 90% of the attendees agreed with the speaker and 10% would have been there to gather evidence against him / his ideology (which frankly I do not know).

What can we do? In Canada they passed a law making it unlawful to wear a mask at a demonstration or protest. A similar law should be passed in the USA. Jail time will make these violent acts of rage relatively infrequent.

The politician who publicly stated she supported these violent acts should be jailed for inciting / justifying acts of violence.

This is an embarrassment to the people of America and they should demand the President come down hard on individuals in future violent actions when the "mob rules". Should local law enforcement, for example San Francisco Police Force decide to go on strike and not enforce new laws such as I propose, then the USA military can be ordered to go in and enforce laws effectively. They should have lots of experience by now from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and will not be as gentle as the average American Police force who usually only empty a few 9-shot clips into those fleeing arrest.

  • The post is opinion rather than a factual answer to the question. It's likely to attract downvotes on that basis (especially on this site because this view is not popular).
    – user11810
    Feb 4, 2017 at 22:54
  • @fixer1234 Thank you for the warning. I've noticed stats on SE users show a high percentage from San Jose / Silicon valley which has a high number of Trump-haters and rather narcissistic view when looking at the rest of America. Your warning is a little late as I've resigned myself to high number of down-votes from previously posting what I usually believed to be the right answers on the road to global peace and universal human rights. Feb 4, 2017 at 23:04
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    Your first paragraph seems spot on. The last 3 paragraphs don't seem to contribute to answering the question. This is a question-and-answer site, so I recommend focusing on answering the question that was asked and leaving other commentary to some other forum.
    – D.W.
    Feb 4, 2017 at 23:14
  • @D.W. what other SE politics forum is there where new laws / policies can be discussed? I've noticed a question here asking on what grounds Trump can be impeached and there were no negative comments on it (at that time) so I'm a little confused on how some answers are on-topic and some are off-topic based upon political left/right leanings. Feb 4, 2017 at 23:23
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    @WinEunuuchs2Unix, I don't know, but not here. Stack Exchange is not a forum, and it is not for discussion. It is a question-and-answer site. Not all comments or topics have a home somewhere on Stack Exchange. My comment is not based on left-right leanings. Any further discussion about moderation or scope of this site or handling of other questions is probably best taken to Politics Meta rather than here.
    – D.W.
    Feb 4, 2017 at 23:41

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