Milo Yiannopoulos is many things: a onetime editor at the alt-right website Breitbart, a gay and partly Jewish man who regularly disparaged gays and Jews, the self-described “most fabulous supervillain of the Internet” and, in his own words, a “free-speech warrior.” Yiannopoulos’ expert trolling earned him prominence on the far right, proof to many on that side that theirs was the true party of free speech–not politically correct liberals more worried about people’s feelings than about the First Amendment.
As it turns out, free speech has limits, even among the party of free speech. Shortly before he was set to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, video resurfaced of Yiannopoulos defending the idea of “13-year-olds” having sex with “older men,” and although he apologized, Yiannopoulos was swiftly disinvited, resigned from Breitbart under pressure and had a book deal with Simon & Schuster canceled. The left cheered at Yiannopoulos’ fall, while noting that it took praising pedophilia–not his long rap sheet of racist and sexist statements–before conservatives turned their backs. The country won’t miss Yiannopoulos. But his rise and fall shows that speech in America has been weaponized and privatized. Finding the proper balance between civil liberty and civility is going to prove increasingly elusive.
In some ways, free speech is more robust than ever. Whatever the feelings of the current occupant of the White House, the courts have proved to be a reliable protector of First Amendment rights. The growth of social media has amplified the voices of average Americans–including voices that are critical of the government. At a moment when free speech is very much under assault in authoritarian countries like China, where the government controls the press and the Internet, Americans are practically drowning in spoken thought.
But look closer. The speech being amplified by Facebook or Twitter–Yiannopoulos’ favorite venue before he was banned last year–isn’t happening in town halls. These are corporations answerable not to the public but to their shareholders. The First Amendment may prohibit Congress from passing any law that forbids the expression of free speech, but it has given wide latitude to digital companies to censor voices at will. And given how dominant those platforms are, the decisions they make about what is allowable can be absolute.
Free speech is also under pressure on college campuses, where some groups have sought to block speakers whose views they find offensive. That happened to Yiannopoulos himself, whose talk last month at Berkeley was scratched, but also to more mainstream speakers like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who canceled her commencement address at Rutgers University in 2014 in the face of student protests. In his commencement speech at Howard University last spring, President Obama reminded graduates of the importance of “listening to those with whom you disagree.”
There is some evidence that younger people may be less protective of free speech. A 2015 Pew survey found that 40% of millennials believe the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive things about minority groups, compared with 24% of baby boomers. As l’affaire Yiannopoulos demonstrates, we’re all a little hypocritical. While Americans don’t want the government telling them what they can and cannot say, they’ve been happy enough to accept some limitations for the sake of basic civility.
But that’s changing–we now live in an increasingly polarized and tribal country. We’ve sorted ourselves digitally, which makes us less likely to encounter opposing viewpoints and less worried about offending our like-minded pals. Instead of fueling a marketplace of ideas, as the founders envisioned, speech becomes a way for groups to police their own boundaries while lobbing rhetorical bombs against opponents. The aim is not to debate but to dominate.
There was no debating Yiannopoulos–his was a one-way instrument, and that’s why conservatives embraced him. But as soon as he became toxic to his own group, he was dropped. Absolute principles mattered less than winning. In America today, speech is everywhere. It’s the listening that has gone missing.
This appears in the March 13, 2017 issue of TIME.
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