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Free Speech and the Yiannopoulos Protest

On February 1st, 2017, protestors broke windows of campus buildings in protest of a talk due to be given by Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right believer (read white supremacist) and writer for the infamous ultra-right-wing site Breitbart. The response by the university was to cancel the speech and condemn those protestor's actions. Many students who had been protesting without damaging property were eager to condemn those actions as well. Amid the argument about whether or not breaking a window delegitimizes a protest, a balanced discussion of freedom of speech was largely glossed over.

Moe's Books supports protestors' right to block intolerance, hatred, and racism. As a business that weathered the Free Speech Movement, Anti-War protests, and the People's park riots that took the city by storm in the late sixties and early seventies, freedom of speech and protest are closely intertwined with the store's history and legacy. Moe himself was never one to go along with the rules just because the government said so, and, as David Yetter writes, "he sparred with the City Council over matters ranging from business permits to civic beautification, all of which were a prelude to his involvement in the Free Speech Movement and protests against the Vietnam War." During those protests, he kept the store open as a shelter for protestors.

Recently, San Francisco bookstore The Booksmith posted this message explaining why they were not going to stock Yiannopoulous' recent book, and how they were going to show their displeasure with Simon & Schuster, the publisher. This move had critics saying that if a bookstore could do that, then clearly Yiannopoulous' right to freedom of speech was being infringed upon. When the protests on the UC Berkeley campus ramped up and the talk was cancelled, the same criticism echoed around the internet and the national news. Many spoke up against the property damage, and much discussion was had in local circles about freedom of speech, but few voices in the mainstream seemed to favor the side of the protestors.

So, considering this store's history, it seems like the time is right to once again defend those protestors who are speaking out against not just a single person, but against what appears to be a rising tide of intolerance, cronyism and corruption in our government. 

One thing that needs to be straightened up: the first amendment guarantees freedom from government censorship of one's opinions, or those of the press, whether spoken or written. It does not, however, guarantee an audience to listen to those opinions. 

Yiannopoulos had reportedly planned to release the names of undocumented students at UC Berkeley, thus singling them out for harassment and government action. This action would be directly harmful to many of the university's most vulnerable students. This goes beyond simple speech and into something much darker. But even if he had not planned to do that, and instead had given a talk in keeping with his prior writings and the website he writes for, students would still have been within their rights to shut him down. The first amendment does not mean people must tolerate white supremacist ideology.

The U.S. Government has not forced Yiannopoulos to stop writing books or giving talks. Therefore, his ability to practice freedom of speech remains intact. However, in another form, government insiders have indeed alluded to a desire to curtail this most essential of civil liberties. Steve Bannon, another former writer for Breitbart  and current White House Chief Strategist, has said the press should "keep its mouth shut" about the new administration. While not an official action, if this idea gains strength, we may have real cause to worry about the first amendment.

All of this has influenced our decision to close on Friday, February 17th in support of the nationwide general strike. While any political statement made by a business will always have its detractors, we feel compelled to act in protest of the racism and corruption of our government and the overwhelming influence of money and corporations in politics. While we could very well stay silent, to say nothing makes a statement of its own.

This is a crucial time. We need people speaking out, speaking up, and speaking truth against the dominant narrative of this country. We must protect this right at all costs. So instead of condemning the violence of the protests, condemn instead the hateful ideologies that make that protest necessary.