Berkeley riot shows the threat to free speech

The events on Wednesday night at the University of California-Berkeley remind me of a Christopher Hitchens’s speech:

Bear in mind, ladies and gentlemen, that every time you violate or propose to violate the free speech of someone else, in potencia, you’re making a rod for own back. Because the other question raised by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is simply this: who’s going to decide?

To whom do you award the right to decide which speech is harmful or who is the harmful speaker? Or determine in advance what are the harmful consequences going to be, that we know enough about in advance to prevent?

To whom would you give this job? To whom are you going to award the job of being the censor? Isn’t it a famous old story that the man who has to read all the pornography, in order to decide what’s fit to be passed and what’s fit not to be, is the man most likely to be debauched?

Did you hear any speaker, the opposition to this motion — eloquent as… one of them was — to whom you would delegate the task of deciding for you what you could read? To whom you would give the job of deciding for you, relieve you of the responsibility of hearing what you might have to hear?

Do you know anyone — hands up — do you know anyone to whom you’d give this job? Does anyone have a nominee? You mean there’s no one in Canada good enough to decide what I can read? Or hear? I had no idea. But there’s a law that says there must be such a person. Or there’s a subsection of some piddling law that says it. Well, the hell with that law then. It’s inviting you to be liars and hypocrites and to deny what you evidently know already.

About the censorious instinct we basically know all that we need to know, and we’ve known it for a long time. […] It may not be determined in advance what words are apt or inapt. No one has the knowledge that would be required to make that call.

And, more to the point, one has to suspect the motives of those who do so. In particular, the motives of those who are determined to be offended, those who will go through a treasure house of English, like Dr. Johnson’s first lexicon, in search of filthy words, to satisfy themselves and some instinct about which I dare not speculate.

The riot happened at UCB over a speech Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos intended to give. According to Yiannopoulos, the speech focused on the topic of cultural appropriation. As he noted in his video response to the riot, that hardly seems a topic worthy of burning cars, smashing windows, and assaulting people. Yet that is what occurred. Continue reading