Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
columns

December 2015

Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee

Drawing on her memories of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, Presley calls for a renewed commitment to free speech on college campuses.

The title of Nat Hentoff’s book could be the slogan of the month. Or the year. The flurry of attacks on free speech by students and even some professors has reached a fever pitch this last month. Students at Yale spit on attendees at a talk on free speech.  A communications(!) professor at the University of Missouri (now ex-professor because she resigned from the department, but still works for the school) tried to muscle out a journalist from a public meeting on campus. (She later publicly apologized.) But it’s been going on for some time now. Some students—it’s important to point out that it’s only a small minority—have been complaining about speech and people they don’t like. Such students don’t want to hear thoughts that they disagree with and they are willing to try to stop those thoughts from being heard.

At Amherst, students even demanded that free speech signs be taken down. According to the Daily Beast, “Going further, the students demand the people behind “free speech” fliers be required to go through a disciplinary process as well as “extensive training for racial and cultural competency.” What? Just for supporting free speech? But the most appalling case may be the black students at the University of Missouri who complained that the killings in Paris stole their headlines. “Black Lives Matter and Mizzou protesters on Twitter said their struggles with racial oppression were being “erased” by the overwhelming news coverage of the killings of 129 people at the hands of Islamic State extremists.”  There is no question that blacks have been the objects of discrimination and bigotry but to be so callous about the deaths of so many innocent people strikes me as narcissistic and boorish. They have no right to have all the attention of the media on them all the time to the exclusion of others. This attitude detracts from rather than helps their reasonable complaints.

I have special reason to be appalled at the attacks on free speech by students. I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley (“Cal”), at the time of the famous Free Speech Movement (FSM) in 1964. The administration there did what college administrations often do—act stupidly. They stopped student groups from having tables and passing out flyers at the entrance to the University, claiming that they interfered with traffic. This was a bald-faced lie and students could see that. Even Cal Conservatives for Political Action could see that. We were even part of the FSM when it first began. Many students at that time valued free speech and were willing to protest to get it but they weren’t trying to stop others from speaking.

In an ironic twist, the current Chancellor at Cal has used the FSM to tout “civility.” According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (“FIRE”):

“…in a development that demonstrates just how pervasive the ‘civility’ mantra has become, the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley used the 50th anniversary of the famous ‘Free Speech Movement,’ which took place on the university’s campus in the 1960s, as the catalyst for an email to the student body about the importance of civility on campus. In an email titled ‘Civility and Free Speech,’ Chancellor Nicholas Dirks cited the Free Speech Movement before writing:

[W]e can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin—the coin of open, democratic society.

I think civility is a good thing but in this context, the idea has a creepy tone. Shall civility be required? Enforced?  What happened if arguments get rowdy? Will the participants be kicked out?  Personally I doubt if Mario Savio, the leader of the FSM, who was himself a very civil person, would have approved of this statement in the current context.

So what do we see now? Some students trying to stifle speech they don’t like and some administrations going along with it. Savio would shake his head in disgust if he were still alive. The protestors in the FSM were not trying to restrict views they didn’t like; only the administrators were trying to do that. These modern protestors have sold their “birthright” of free speech for a pottage of self-indulgent, my-feelings-are-hurt censorship.  This is a foolish thing for students to do and a foolish thing for feminists among them to do as well.

Feminists should be especially wary of attacks on free speech. In the 19th century, women who spoke in public were scorned as Jezebels. They were told they belonged in the home, not in public. Ministers attacked them from the pulpits. Editorials attacked them in major newspapers, calling them “whores.” They were turned away from medical schools and not allowed to practice law in some states.  Sending information about birth control was illegal after 1873 thanks to the infamous Comstock Law.  Anarchist feminists Ezra Heywood and Moses Harman went to jail for discussing birth control in their publications. Why would any sensible feminist want to bring back censorship? Many don’t, of course.  Women like Nadine Strossen, Ellen Willis, Marcia Pally, the late libertarian feminist Joan Kennedy Taylor, and other women in Feminists for Free Expression have spoken out against censorship.

But we now have the spectacle of women objecting to feminist writer Germaine Greer speaking because she has views about transgender people they don’t like. I think Greer’s views on that subject are foolish and ill-informed, but so what? The best way to deal with her views is to engage with her publicly and challenge her, not to prevent her from speaking. They aren’t even interested in what else she may have to say that might very well be welcome and relevant to modern feminism. Students have done the same thing to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, too. No matter that Hirsi Ali has been an outspoken critic of genital mutilation of women and other anti-women practices. How dare she speak out against Islam, they said.  However, in this case, some suspect that the attack on Hirsi Ali was generated more by student Islamic groups rather than students in general. But some craven universities have backed down and un-invited her anyway. 

What these students don’t understand is that a university that can turn away Greer and Hirsi Ali can turn away other kinds of speakers. Other pressure groups of students may decide that they don’t like the speakers that the student censors do. What then? The precedent has been set for censorship. So, sorry—turnabout is not fair play.

In another incident reported by The Economist, even feminist scholars can get attacked if they dare to look at both sides of an issue or suggest that the issues are complex. Writes The Economist:

Not all trauma is imagined. Many colleges spent years downplaying sexual assaults on students. But even sympathetic teachers worry that tools intended to fight real ills are being misused, including Title IX, a civil-rights statute that, among other things, obliges universities to ensure that women do not face a “hostile environment.” Laura Kipnis, a feminist scholar at Northwestern University, caused a stir when she revealed that students had sued her under Title IX after she wrote that some sexual-harassment complaints are exaggerated. Ms Kipnis was cleared after a 72-day investigation.

For stating a fact that even the FBI agrees happens, albeit infrequently? Something is very very wrong here.

Universities that give in to this kind of pressure are abdicating their responsibilities to the students to provide an atmosphere of learning that includes uncomfortable as well as comfortable thoughts. Universities are not there to make students feel good; they are there to guide students in what should be their quest to learn how to think and to think critically. Some colleges, like the University of Chicago, Purdue, and Yale, understand this and have come out on the side of free speech. Speaking about Yale’s response, FIRE reports:

The statement, based on the university’s 1975 Woodward Report, demonstrates the need to be free to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” It even goes so far as to inform Yale students that “when you agree to matriculate, you join a community where ‘the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox’ must be tolerated. When you encounter people who think differently than you do, you will be expected to honor their free expression, even when what they have to say seems wrong or offensive to you.

But all too many have given in: for example, Georgetown and the University of Iowa. Speaking out against this dangerous trend by some colleges, a USA Today editorial wrote:

Yet college administrators are often too happy to oblige their fragile students with speech codes, speech zones, disinvitations of controversial speakers and heavy-handed sanctions on anyone who dares to defy the strict rules — rules that seldom stand up to legal scrutiny when someone challenges them in court. More than half of 437 institutions surveyed last year by FIRE, a free-speech advocacy group, had restrictive speech codes; one in six confined anything that smacked of students’ free expression to a special zone, often some out-of-the-way patch of campus land.

So free speech goes to the back of the bus? Shades of McCarthyism. Do we want that nightmare again?

Not that there aren’t genuine issues to be protested. It’s important to understand that there are legitimate issues to be concerned with on college campuses. Discrimination is not a thing of the past. The ACLU reports, for example:

In recent years, a rise in verbal abuse and violence directed at people of color, lesbians and gay men, and other historically persecuted groups has plagued the United States. Among the settings of these expressions of intolerance are college and university campuses, where bias incidents have occurred sporadically since the mid-1980s. Outrage, indignation and demands for change have greeted such incidents — understandably, given the lack of racial and social diversity among students, faculty and administrators on most campuses.

However, the ACLU, as one would expect, doesn’t think that censorship is the right way to deal with such problems. “…the ACLU believes that all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.”

The New York Times also reports a series of disturbing incidences of bigotry and racism on campus: for example, a young white woman wearing a “Pocahottie” costume (that even offends me though my Native American ancestry is only a few percent), a makeshift noose hung at the student center, a Hispanic-American women being told “You’re not American. Where are you from?” Some might dismiss such incidents as minor but they can have the effect of making some students feel unwelcome and afraid.  Curbing speech is not the answer but such ugly incidents should not be ignored either. It is entirely reasonable to use them as teaching moments and speak out against them.

Objecting to speech codes, the ACLU rightly states:

College administrators may find speech codes attractive as a quick fix, but as one critic put it: “Verbal purity is not social change.” Codes that punish bigoted speech treat only the symptom: The problem itself is bigotry. The ACLU believes that instead of opting for gestures that only appear to cure the disease, universities have to do the hard work of recruitment to increase faculty and student diversity; counseling to raise awareness about bigotry and its history, and changing curricula to institutionalize more inclusive approaches to all subject matter.

Jonathan Rauch, author of “Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought”, has an interesting suggestion in regard to the idea of “safe spaces” (a frequent student demand). He writes, “The trouble is that intellectually safe places are finishing schools, not universities. They can confer connections, polish and useful skills, but they will not educate, because to educate is to inflict and to endure criticism, which is not comfortable.”  He has a suggested solution, even if a bit tongue in cheek.

So it is only fair to warn students and their parents that higher education is not a Disney cruise. Tell them in advance so they can prepare. Not, however, with multiple trigger warnings festooning syllabi. One will suffice:

“Warning: Although this university values and encourages civil expression and respectful personal behavior, you may at any moment, and without further notice, encounter ideas, expressions and images that are mistaken, upsetting, dangerous, prejudiced, insulting or deeply offensive. We call this education.”

Some critics of these student protests (Rauch is one) point to helicopter parenting as a contributor to the students who are so upset by differing points of view that they demand censorship or cry that their feelings are hurt. Human behavior is complex and many factors feed into such a widespread phenomenon, but I suspect he has a point. Children who are protected from responsibility will have a hard time being responsible as adults. The factors that may have contributed to these attacks on free speech could be, of course, another whole essay.

But the bottom line is this: free speech on campus is being seriously challenged. May be it’s time for another Free Speech Movement. Those who value free speech, education, and genuine intellectual discourse need to make their voices heard: libertarian students, liberal students who understand the value of free speech, pro-free speech feminists, administrators who believe in the real purpose of colleges. Don’t let those who want pabulum instead of education, who only want voices they agree with to be heard, rule the universities. Stand up for freedom of speech and freedom of opinion before we have another wave of McCarthyism on campus.