Free speech or hate speech? Towson University debates the merits of a conservative firebrand

By Summer Evans
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

Matt Teitelbaum, a Towson student and the president of College Democrats of Maryland.

Matt Teitelbaum, a Towson student and the president of College Democrats of Maryland.

Students at Towson University fell into a peculiar situation earlier this month when they found themselves in a debate over whether the school should invite controversial media personality  Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus – even though there were no actual plans to invite the conservative firebrand.

The debate was sparked when Towson student and the president of College Democrats of Maryland, Matt Teitelbaum, wrote an article for the university’s student newspaper, the Towerlight, and the Huffington Post entitled “I’m A Liberal, And I Want Milo Yiannopoulos On My Campus.”

Teitelbaum’s argument received even more attention when he was invited to go on Fox News and discuss his opinion.

Teitelbaum’s article came after the University of California at Berkeley cancelled plans to invite Yiannopoulos to campus when violent protests erupted there on Feb. 1.

According to Teitelbaum, Yiannopoulos should be allowed to speak on college campuses so his views could be openly debated and challenged. Teitelbaum said Yiannopoulos’s speech is protected by the First Amendment.

“Rioting or heckling him is self-defeating, intellectually lazy, temper-tantrum level behavior for people who know that they can’t actually argue properly with him,” Teitelbaum said.

Teitelbaum’s article quickly became controversial among Towson students when it was posted on the Towerlight website and eventually the personal Facebook pages of both,Teitelbaum and Yiannopoulos.

Cody Boteler

Cody Boteler

“Matt is one of our columnists, so of course we were going to publish what he writes,” said Cody Boteler, editor-in-chief of the Towerlight. “While I didn’t personally agree with everything he said, I wasn’t about to block his voice.”

Teitelbaum received many comments once he posted his article on his Facebook page, with 37 comments on the link to his article and 56 comments on a later status Teitelbaum posted defending his article.  He received another 39 comments when he announced he would be going on Fox News.

Most of the comments were critical of Teitelbaum’s opinion, with a vocal minority defending him.

“There was both deep support and deep anger with what I wrote,” Teitelbaum said. “I was a bit surprised. I really didn’t think supporting freedom of speech in regards to offensive speech was a complex or controversial notion with all but the most entrenched left-wing extremists. I thought my message was simple.”

The co-president of the Towson College Democrats, Pat Mascio, disagreed with Teitelbaum’s views.

“I understand the sentiments of Matt’s article,” Mascio said. “What he was trying to get at was that we should debate our ideological differences instead of running away from them. What he actually accomplished was the alienation of many minority communities by using Milo Yiannopoulos as the standard bearer of free speech and open debate, which he is not.”

Yiannopoulos has made headlines in the past for his criticism and comments on feminism, Islam, gay rights, political correctness, and particularly for his treatment of transgender rights.

“A pressing objection I have to Milo coming to TU and other campuses is that he poses a real threat to the security, safety and health of students,” said John McTague, a political science professor at Towson.

McTague said he has mixed feelings about Yiannopoulos speaking in public in general, as well as Yiannopoulos speaking on college campuses specifically. Ultimately, McTague said the safety of students, particularly transgender students, should be placed above Yiannopoulos’s freedom of speech.

“Is free speech vital to democracy and to the mission of higher education? Absolutely. Is it a wild west, anything goes kind of freedom? I don’t think so,” McTague said. “Just as news organizations exercise editorial judgment, it’s fair for universities to evaluate the value of certain ideas and weigh the pros of free speech against the very real cons raised above. I think Milo is right there on that line.”

Milo Yiannopoulos . AP Photo.

Milo Yiannopoulos . AP Photo.

Beth Haller, who teaches media law at Towson, agrees with McTague that inviting Yiannopoulos to campus would be very complicated.

“Because of the unrest at UC Berkeley, I think Towson and other universities will be rightfully wary to bring such a provocative speaker to campus,” Haller said. “Hate speech, as long as it is just speech and not actions, is protected under the First Amendment, but that doesn’t mean a university has to invite people with those beliefs as on-campus speakers.”

Towson University Professor Beth Haller

Towson University Professor Beth Haller

Shortly after Teitelbaum’s article was published, Yiannopoulos was in the news again when a video clip surfaced of him arguing that sexual relationships between 13-year-old boys and adults can be consensual.

After that latest controversy, Yiannopoulos resigned as senior editor from the alt-right website Breitbart News and his book deal with Simon & Schuster was cancelled.

Teitelbaum still stands by his article.

“I actually would say that the surfacing of those comments proved my point,” Teitelbaum said. “Milo’s most reprehensible view, which in this case was revealed to be a soft attitude towards what is undeniable statutory rape, was revealed not through censorship, heckling, or rioting, but instead through discourse.”

Towson student Anthony Martino agreed with Teitelbaum’s original article.

“Matt wanted the guy here so that he would say something awful and get awful press,” Martino said. “Matt wanted to protect his freedom of speech so that Milo would destroy himself like he did.”

“Milo’s downfall wasn’t because people openly challenged him,” Mascio said. “Milo has been saying hateful, ignorant and disgusting things aimed at minorities throughout his whole career, but because these things did not affect the majority he was still tolerated and protected by free speech absolutists. The minute he begins to talk about pedophilia, the majority begins to not tolerate him because it’s the first thing he’s said that could directly affect them.”

4 Comments on Free speech or hate speech? Towson University debates the merits of a conservative firebrand

  1. Excellent piece! Makes you really think. Well done, Summer.

  2. Linda Bottani // March 12, 2017 at 1:10 am // Reply

    Well written, Summer! Congratulations!

  3. Alice reid // March 12, 2017 at 2:22 am // Reply

    Well done, Summer!

  4. R. Beckford // March 12, 2017 at 2:20 pm // Reply

    Well written , informative, thought-provoking.

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