Just Sayin’: The ACLU Defends Milo Yiannopoulos

Milo Yiannopoulos (photo by Kmeron)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing the DC Metro for banning (and in one case removing) political ads its advertising department deemed noncompliant with its commercial guidelines. The civil rights organization is challenging the constitutionality of these guidelines. Since the transit is a government agency, the ACLU contests, it has no business prohibiting speech, however “controversial” its advertising department or board of directors think that speech is. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the ACLU itself, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Carafem (“a health care network that specializes in getting women access to birth control and medication abortion”), and Milo Yiannopoulos. Inclusion of the latter has caused a stir—or at least so the press is saying.

Yiannopoulos was the tech editor of Breitbart News until he was fired for promoting pedophilia. He’s now a member of what was called before the welfare state the “deserving poor.” He lives off hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer.

Yiannopoulos is “provocative.” In other words, his politics are kitsch for the less benevolent wing of the ruling class. He’s entertainment for those who think it’s “transgressive” to hate homosexuals, feminists, Muslims, blacks, and migrant workers and also for those who tell themselves they hate these people only because they’re sick of being called out for hating them. As a fighter in the so-called culture wars, Yiannopoulos is against political correctness, multiculturalism, transgenderism, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. He’s for such controversial things as respecting the police and listening to your boss. He’s everything he accuses his opponents of being: grievance-burdened, inconsistent, dishonest, and mercenary. He’s as brazen as you were at thirteen and as insightful as your racist social studies teacher. So why is the ACLU spending time and resources defending him? Their answer is because free speech is a principle not a partisan issue—that “our free speech rights rise and fall together—whether left, right, pro-choice, anti-choice, vegan, carnivore, or none of the above.” In truth, the ACLU has always fetishized defending those who hate them the most. And this is just another instance of that. They could’ve found a million other occurrences of political censorship to fight, but they chose this one because it signals to their wealthy donors how principled they are. Is that a problem? If it is, it doesn’t seem to be a serious one.

Yiannopoulos’ ads were for his memoir, Dangerous. Unlike the other three plaintiffs, whose ads were rejected outright, Yiannopoulos’s were hung up in the subways after some give-and-take between him and the metro’s advertising department. The finalized, agreed-upon ads were just his face, the title of his book, and a blurb from The Nation referring to him as “The most hated man on the Internet.” After receiving complaints from passengers, however, they were taken down. The ACLU has filed a motion on behalf of Yiannopoulos for “immediate relief from the court” (i.e., to have the courts force the metro to put the ads back up at once), “given the ongoing loss of revenue from book sales caused by the wrongful removal of advertisements for Mr. Yiannopoulos’ book.”

The ACLU made a point to assure its liberal and left-leaning patrons they didn’t take the decision to represent Yiannopoulos “lightly.” They “understand the pain caused by Mr. Yiannopoulos’ views” and “vehemently disagree” with them. But the “government can’t censor our speech just because it doesn’t like what we say.” And “allowing government the leeway to ‘protect’ others from our views silences us.” Besides one of their own attorneys, no one seems to be arguing with them. One gathers they were suspecting (and hoping for?) more of a backlash.

Free speech (or rather “free speech”) is a contentious subject nowadays. It’s become both a rallying cry and a code word for right-wing media. For example, when employees are fired for complaining about safety conditions, that isn’t a free-speech issue for them. But when an employee’s fired for sending out a manifesto on gender differences, that is. Part of this is obviously just determined by the class interests they represent. Employees are fired for the first; management and owners aren’t.

In Portland, Oregon, a man shouted at two Muslim girls on a public train, murdered the two men who told him to take his bullshit elsewhere, then in the courtroom yelled “free speech or die!” Online commentators make a living “protecting” free speech from its eternal enemies. Students protest lectures on campus, then for weeks afterward mainstream publications denounce their capricious behavior. In almost every one of these cases, there’s a strange symmetry between those who champion “free speech” and those who seek to destroy anyone who speaks freely against them.

Today the term “free speech” is used just the same as “states’ rights” was in the cause of slavery or “free markets” was in the cause of crushing organized workers. A noble principle exploited to manipulate the politically naïve and mentally slavish. Yiannopoulos has the right to carry on his shtick. The ACLU will do well for itself in fundraising by making sure he keeps that right. They’re wrong, however, on the theoretical point of our rights “rising and falling together.” If Yiannopoulos’s funders got their way, there’d be even less free speech than if his detractors got theirs.

Should a stockbroker be punished for lying about the value of a stock? Should a kid be punished for vandalizing one of Yiannopoulos’s ads? Should you be allowed to stand outside a Jewish fraternity shouting anti-Semitic slurs? Or walk through a female dorm shouting anti-female ones? Should you be allowed to lie to an officer about your identity? Or call someone a “Nazi” or “terrorist sympathizer” when they clearly aren’t? Should you be allowed to hang up political ads accusing George Soros (the Rothschild of neo-Nazism) of being the mastermind of an international Jewish conspiracy? Or the picture of a guillotine with the phrase, “We’re watching you, Mr. Mercer” written underneath it?

All of these are free-speech issues as well issues involving other important political and civil rights. Common sense and common decency might give us one set of answers; while political consistency might give us another. Let Yiannopoulos’s ads back up. Let him and his cohorts have nothing to hide behind. Let the ACLU have its moment of self-satisfaction. They’ve earned it. If not here, then elsewhere.