Before Berkeley, there was University of New Mexico. Same scheduled speaker, very different results.

On Jan. 27, Milo Yiannapoulos, a far-right provocateur, came to UNM to speak as part of his “Dangerous Faggot Tour.” The New Mexico Daily Lobo reported that about 600 people attended his speech, with another 200 or so outside protesting his presence on campus. Both gatherings were generally peaceful, according to the newspaper’s reports.

Five days later, Yiannapoulos was scheduled to perform in California—at UC Berkeley and the protest turned violent. According to reports, a demonstration started peacefully enough but then some off-campus anarchists joined in and set fire to the situation, literally. The campus was locked down and the Yiannapoulos appearance had to be canceled (he has since said he’ll reschedule it).

What happened in Albuquerque and at Berkeley are stark reminders of just how close to the edge our country is right now. There’s a deepening schism between the right, which feels vindicated and empowered by Donald Trump’s ascendancy, and the left, which feels insulted and threatened by Trump and his most outspoken supporters.

Predictably, the conflict is erupting on our college campuses. It’s not unreasonable to expect larger protests, and rioting, in the days ahead. The age of civil discourse is rapidly coming to an end.

Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic, but that’s what noisemakers like Yiannapoulos lead me too conclude. He’s a shock-jock in the political arena, with a message that is intended to both offend and divide. It’s as if he’s part of some group of spoiled frat boys, drunk on their own voice and spoiling for a fight.

In Albuquerque, Yiannapoulos stirred up some good debate about the limits and responsibilities of free speech. He first made news on the pages of the Daily Lobo when UNM told the College Republicans, who had invited Yiannapoulos to UNM, to post a $3,400 security fee, a move UNM officials said was consistent with its policy of requiring security fees from campus groups holding rowdy events, but the high fee led to charges that the university was trying to stifle right-wing free speech.

UNM suspended the fee two days before Yiannapoulos’ arrival, but that didn’t resolve the issue. Now comes a letter to Chaouki Abdallah, UNM’s acting president, signed by 200-plus students, faculty and staff and calling for the reinstatement of the security fee, alleging UNM is now giving preferential treatment to “guests who engage in racist hate speech,” the Daily Lobo reported.

The newspaper also gave Yiannapoulos’ visit maximum attention in its coverage, dedicating a full front page to reports on the “battle of free speech.” There was a sprawling photo of Yiannapoulos giving his speech, a story about his speech and another story covering the protests outside.

For his part, Yiannapoulos may be conservative in his politics but his larger agenda appears to be to test the limits of free speech with extreme and extremely offensive speech. He’s a Larry Flint: exploitive, crass, extremist, offensive—and protected by our beloved First Amendment.

For the average American, however, it’s easier to tune out Yiannapoulos than it is to ignore what happened at Berkeley. Peaceful protests are one thing, but when a demonstration turns violent, it creates a backlash. And, in this case, it only validates those who say their free-speech rights are being violated.

I’m reminded of a story I heard (and wish I’d witnessed) of a Hollywood big shot in the northern New Mexico town of Las Vegas. Someone had parked their vehicle in the way of the planned film shoot, which angered some self-important director or producer, who entered the neighboring restaurant and started screaming about it. Whoever parked their blankety-blank car in the way, he shouted, had better move it NOW, or else.

His rant, I’m told, was quite offensive, and everyone in the café turned to listen to him. Then, after he’d finished his tirade, everyone simply turned back to their meals and their conversations. No one got up, no one confronted his rudeness, they just ignored him. He got no satisfaction from his visit to the restaurant.

I wish that kind of approach would work on guys like Yiannapoulos. Then maybe free speech wouldn’t even be an issue.

Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He may be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com.

Leota Harriman
Leota Harriman

Leota started working for The Independent in 2006, working her way up through the ranks. An employee buyout in 2010 led to her ownership of the newspaper. Leota has served on the board of the N.M. Press Association, and is currently its First Vice President. She is passionate about health and wellness, especially mental health, and loves making art. She can be reached at news.ind.editor@gmail.com.