Freedom of speech and hypocrisy
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Civil Liberties

Hypocrisy on Both Sides: How the Freedom of Speech Debate is Misguided

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.

Free speech has been a major battleground in this decade’s culture wars. On the left, the typical response is to accuse the right’s “free speech warriors” of “weaponizing” the issue while hypocritically ignoring far worse speech violations. The right has made it a banner issue, with figures like former Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos championing “cultural libertarianism” against the rule of politically correct “nannies” who would ban insensitive speech and censor offensive art. Donald Trump recently announced a possible executive order that would make federal funding dependent on how well a campus protects free speech. In the fray, real threats to free speech—from left and right—continue unchecked, at a time when a dramatically altered media landscape poses new challenges to this fundamental freedom.

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?
Critics of “political correctness” have no shortage of tales of “PC tyranny.” Here are just a few:
  • 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.
Many on the left say that “anti-PC” free speech concerns are misguided or cynical (an article by Mari Uyehara in GQ in March 2018 derided “free speech grifters”) and that real dangers to speech come from people far more powerful than college students or social media activists. Slate writer Jamelle Bouie cites the Arizona statute that bars state entities from doing business with anyone who advocates boycotts of Israel and Trump’s call to fire football players who kneel during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.

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.
But “illiberal liberalism” is just as real. In a recent article, Canadian academic Jeffrey A. Sachs, a political science lecturer at Acadia University, argues that the “campus free speech crisis” (which he believes was dramatically exaggerated in the first place) was over by 2018. He points to a drop in campus speaker “disinvitations” and faculty firings over undesirable speech. But those are not the only measures. When speakers are shouted down, such as Sommers at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon in March 2018 or South Texas College of Law professor Josh Blackman at the City University of New York in April, 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.”
Private corporations and institutions have every right to refuse a platform to speech they consider unacceptable. Even staunch free speech defenders generally agree that some opinions (support for Nazism, advocacy of child sexual abuse) are properly shunned. But a free society demands that “beyond the pale” speech be defined very narrowly and that most ideas be open to debate. This is particularly true when it comes to “deplatforming” by giant corporations that wield massive power in today’s media landscape, from Twitter and Facebook to PayPal. As satisfying as it may be to see white nationalists get the boot, the question of what happens if a broader range of controversial views start getting targeted should worry us all. Today, such action is more likely to affect right-wing views; tomorrow, it could be unpopular views on the left.

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.

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