We must denounce the idea of speech as violence

That argument was on toxic display during the last big free-speech controversy at UC Berkeley, over a scheduled speech in 2017 by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Because Yiannopolous’ inflammatory comments were expressions of violence, protesters argued, it was legitimate or even necessary to counter them with physical violence.

Indeed, some demonstrators claimed, any riposte to that argument was itself violent. “Asking people to maintain peaceful dialogue with those who legitimately do not think their lives matter is a violent act,” wrote one Berkeley graduate, in the student newspaper.

So I guess she would read this column, too, as a form of violence. And she wouldn’t be alone. According to a 2017 survey of 800 undergraduates around the country, 81 percent think that words can be violent. And 30 percent — that is, almost 1 out of 3 — think that physical violence can be justified to prevent someone from using hateful words.

You can’t have a free university — or a free society — on those terms. Words will always offend someone. And if you construe them as violent, you clear the way for physical assault upon anyone who gives offense.