A professor at Augsburg University in Minnesota gets suspended for using a racial epithet while quoting a sentence from James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time. Another professor is barred from speaking at an event at Arizona State University because he won’t sign a pledge disavowing the boycott of Israel. These are just two of the recent controversies demonstrating that freedom of speech, and its infringements, should be a cause for concern in America in 2019—and not just in the academy.
Direct infringements on speech by government are relatively rare, since they are expressly prohibited by the United States Constitution. But current free speech debates are about far more complex dilemmas in which the First Amendment plays a largely symbolic role. If you demand the withdrawal of an article or the cancellation of a campus event, are you attacking freedom of speech or engaging in free speech of your own? How about if you start a shaming campaign against someone whose work or views you find offensive—or shout down a speaker? When does legitimate criticism or protest cross the line into censorship? Is there a problem if constitutionally protected but bigoted opinions get banned from social networks?
- Last September, New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma was forced out amidst outrage over an article by accused sexual predator Jian Ghomeshi.
- Three years ago, a Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibition dropped a program that allowed visitors to try on a kimono because some activists regarded it as “cultural appropriation.”
- Conservative or libertarian figures such as dissident feminist Christina Hoff Sommers, controversial scholar Charles Murray, and Black Lives Matter critic Heather McDonald have been targeted for aggressive—and occasionally violent—efforts to stop them from speaking at colleges, with tactics that range from blocking entrances to shouting and chanting.
- Even a progressive, minority comedian can be silenced for offending campus sensitivities. Late last year, Ninesh Patel, a comedian and former Saturday Night Live writer, was kicked off the stage at Columbia University during an Asian American Alliance event. Patel’s apparent offense was humor that mocked anti-black racism and homophobia, which upset some students because Patel is neither black nor gay.
This is very much a “both sides have a problem” situation.
Of course quite a few conservatives who posture as free speech advocates are eager to shut down expression they find offensive—be it a sports journalist calling Trump a “white supremacist” or the burning of the American flag (which nearly three quarters of Republicans in a 2017 Cato Institute poll wanted outlawed).
Trumpian right-wing populism, in particular, has a dangerous authoritarian streak—evident in its demonization of the press as “enemies of the people.” Popular conservative activist Candace Owens, the communications director of the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA which ostensibly champions free debate on campus, has tweeted calls to imprison Trump’s political opponents from Hillary Clinton to financier George Soros—as well as journalists who she believes have smeared the President with “#FakeNews,” such as CNN’s James Acosta and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
When speakers are shouted down students are still prevented from hearing what they have to say.
Surveys, too, continue to show that disturbing pro-censorship attitudes persist. In a recent poll by Gallup/Knight Ridder, nearly two-thirds of college students said—erroneously—that the Constitution does not protect “hate speech.” More than half said “an inclusive society” should be a higher priority than free speech. Over a third believed it was sometimes acceptable to shout down a speaker.
To today’s progressive ideologues, speech seen as disparaging “marginalized” identities (for instance, questioning claims of “rape culture” or of police racism) is not merely offensive but harmful, even “violent.” The students who tried to shut down Sommers's speaking event issued a statement that paid lip service to freedom of speech but asserted that “that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals.” One is reminded of the Soviet Constitution which supposedly guaranteed freedom of speech—but only “in accordance with the interests of the people.”
Freedom of Speech and Playboy
It is especially troubling that today, institutions traditionally associated with liberal, anti-authoritarian values—the academy and the media—are increasingly sympathetic to the suppression of “harmful” speech, not only by private actions but by the government. Experience in countries such as Russia show that hate speech laws can be readily used to target political dissent.
Right-wingers who champion free speech for their side only should to be called on their hypocrisy and opportunism. But leftists who mock all critics of “political correctness” as “free speech grifters” do so at their own peril.