A Mentor's Advice to UCLA's Campus Republicans

The sociologist Gabriel Rossman offered valuable advice to UCLA students on the responsibilities that accompany free speech—and modeled the importance of having conservative faculty on campus.

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Earlier this month, the Bruin Republicans at UCLA invited the performance artist Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at an event tilted “Ten Things I Hate About Mexico.”

Days later, they thought better of their decision, cancelling their event with a vacuous, nihilistic enabler of bigots, to the credit of a faction in their leadership. “The decision to host Milo has polarized the leadership of the organization between those wishing to move forward with the event and those who wish to cancel it,” they wrote on their Facebook page, adding, “We would like to make it clear that any public backlash to this event has nothing to do with our cancellation and that we have been more than willing to stand up to both protesters and administrative figures as evidenced by our Ben Shapiro event last quarter.”

In addition to the expected backlash, the initial announcement of the event had caused Gabriel Rossman, a conservative professor sympathetic to the group, to publish an open letter in The Weekly Standard affirming the Bruin Republicans’ First Amendment right to host Yiannopoulos while forcefully arguing that they ought to voluntarily cancel their invitation.

Whether or not Rossman’s advice had any influence on their decision, his letter ought to be read by Republican college students on other campuses as they ponder whether or not to affiliate themselves with a given speaker, and by liberal faculty and administrators as an example of the counsel young people on the right can receive when there are ideologically friendly members of the faculty to mentor and advise them.

He wrote:

As one of the few conservative faculty at UCLA, and one of a very few who knows the campus club, I feel obligated to provide some mentorship here: I strongly urge you to rescind your invitation to Yiannopoulos.

Allow me to explain why.

The most important reason not to host such a talk is that it is evil on the merits. Your conscience should tell you that you never want anything to do with someone whose entire career is not reasoned argument, but shock jock performance art. In the 1980s conservatives made fun of “artists” who defecated on stage for the purpose of upsetting conservatives. Now apparently, conservatives are willing to embrace a man who says despicable things for the purpose of “triggering snowflakes.”

The change in performance art from the fecal era to the present is yet another sign that no matter how low civilization goes, there is still room for further decline. I want to be clear that my point here is not that some people will be offended, but that the speaker is purely malicious.

He went on to note that many legitimate speakers on a college campus will offend—and that figures like Ben Shapiro, Heather Mac Donald, and Charles Murray are not vacuous or malicious—but that Yiannopoulos’s dearth of earnest, reasoned argument coupled with his flagrantly malicious tendencies cross a threshold that ought to trouble their consciences and would hurt their reputation:

The merits are more important than appearances, of course, but the fact is that people will notice if the Bruin Republicans host someone offering nothing more than alt-right camp and this is a secondary reason not to do so. You need to ask yourselves, what is your goal as an organization?

If you’re in it for the lulz and just want to see the world burn, then I guess go ahead and bring in a vapid provocateur. But if your mission is to spread conservative ideas, you should recognize that hosting Yiannopoulos will only render your organization and our ideas toxic. The left often suspects that principled conservative positions are actually born of racism. Conservatives have traditionally pushed back against this criticism. Here at UCLA, that will be a much less tenable argument for Bruin Republicans to make if they host a talk by someone whose sole recommendation is that his offensiveness to others is his big idea.

“If you go through with hosting Yiannopoulos, I will vociferously support your right to do so—and the duty of the UCPD to use force if necessary to maintain order and prevent a heckler’s veto,” he concluded. “However,” he added, “I must just as vehemently and publicly disagree with your decision to host him. Specifically, should the event go forward, I will decline to have any association with the Bruin Republicans until it has experienced a complete turnover in membership.”

Fortunately, the present membership salvaged its integrity.

Campus speech encompasses rights, responsibilities, and social consequences; Rossman modeled how to think rigorously about all three. The Weekly Standard did a service by publishing his open letter, which is worth reading in full. I hope it reaches all readers of mine who are working through free-speech controversies on college campuses without a mentor of his caliber, and to folks hoping no Yiannopoulos-type ever comes to their campus—as best I can tell, Rossman’s methods are more effective than Antifa at keeping him away.