What Does Free Speech Require?

Don’t focus on canceling right-wing speakers, focus on reducing right-wing power…

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Let’s make one thing clear right away: attempts to suppress free speech come from all political camps. The United States has a long and sordid history of attacks on expression, traceable back to John Adams. Wherever there is politics, there are attempts to keep the other side from talking. As the late journalist Phil Kerby used to memorably quip, “censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”

In the 21st century, outright government censorship of dissent has at least somewhat abated. While you might still land in jail for exposing a war crime or filming a factory farm, American dissent is generally flourishing. Political speech is more delightfully vulgar and hostile than ever, and almost nobody fears prosecution for what they say on their podcast, blog, video blog, or vodcast.

If there is any impending free speech threat to worry about, it probably comes from the unhinged occupant of the White House. Donald Trump, after all, hates the press. He wanted to “open up our libel laws” in order to make it easier to bring lawsuits. He has pondered aloud on Twitter whether individuals who burn the American flag should be imprisoned or have their citizenship revoked. He has also indicated he’ll investigate and prosecute leakers at least as aggressively as President Obama. Journalists writing critical stories about Trump have been told they will have their “lives messed up.” And with Trump having inherited a powerful apparatus for surveillance and violence, the country is now counting on his somehow turning out to be a person of good judgment with a sense of inner restraint.

But the country’s most visible (as opposed to most consequential) contemporary free speech controversy concerns the actions of left-wing activists on college campuses. In particular, there has been considerable anguish over the college tour of Breitbart “tech editor” (it has long been unclear what he edits, or what he knows about technology) Milo Yiannopoulos. Activists on the left have tried to have Yiannopoulos’s events canceled for promoting hate speech, while conservatives have treated the left’s response as proof that conservative thought is suppressed on college campuses. At Berkeley, Yiannopoulos was instructed by the police to flee the campus for his own safety when a group of masked anarchists disrupted the peaceful protests outside, setting a large fire and pepper spraying a female attendee.

Debates over free speech are often messy and confused, in part because nobody believes the right is unlimited, yet everybody has a self-interested conception of where that limit is. Should Nazis get to speak on campus, and if they shouldn’t, who should get to determine who the Nazis are? Should anti-Semites get to book an open access meeting space? Does the principle of free speech only apply to government repression, or can private acts threaten free speech as well? If powerful corporations like Twitter are the new gatekeepers to the public square, do their decisions affect speech rights? To what extent does having the right to speak necessitate having the capacity to speak? (E.g. if you can speak freely, but you get punched in the face every time you do, is your right meaningful?) What about the fact that the amount of speech you get depends on the amount of money you have? Nobody should think the answers to these questions are easy.

There is also a great deal of hypocrisy and selectivity in outrage over violations of the right of expression. The right-wingers who profess to be so sincerely concerned with free speech only care when it is conservative views that are targeted. On university campuses, criticism of Israel has been stifled for years with frightening zeal. Fordham University, in a blatant case of censorship, recently banned the university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine on the grounds that the organization’s “sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group” which would be too “polarizing.”

Nor is censorship from the right limited to college campuses. As part of a competition, a painting by a high schooler—depicting Black Lives Matter protesters being confronted by animals donning police uniforms—was hung in the U.S. Capitol. The painting was taken down repeatedly by Congressional Republicans, who described their actions as a protest against an “offensive” and disrespectful representation of police. The ever-consistent and freedom-loving Breitbart sided with the censors, condemning those who were “using the Constitution as an excuse to spread hate.” Which side was supposed to have the delicate and easily offended sensibilities again?

At the same time, it’s also true that for a substantial portion of the left, the concept of free speech has lost a lot of currency. At least some censorship of people whose values we oppose has come to be viewed as acceptable, ethical, and necessary. For decades much of the left has supported the expansion and broadening of prohibitive speech codes at universities. Outside the classroom, people like Catharine MacKinnon lobbied forcefully for legislation that suppressed objectionable materials. Speakers like Daily Wire editor and attempted novelist Ben Shapiro have been banned from speaking on campus universities. (In at least one case, university police literally threatened Shapiro with arrest if he entered the university building to attend an event, let alone deliver his lecture. Since when is allying, in effect, with police to achieve our goals consistent with leftist values?) Now, every couple of weeks there’s another story of an individual being prevented from speaking at a college campus. If speakers aren’t disinvited outright, community members and students protest and disrupt these events, making it impossible for the speaker to proceed.

The arguments that are made for these practices are straightforward: free speech doesn’t mean the freedom to issue hate speech. Free speech doesn’t guarantee one a platform. And free speech doesn’t mean speech is free of consequences.

All of which may be true, depending on what one means by “consequences,” “platform,” and “hate speech.” But leftists making arguments for why speakers should be disinvited from schools should recognize that every argument they make will soon come back to haunt them. If we continue to advance an agenda that privileges our particular worldview over universal free speech, it won’t be long before our own tactics are turned on us as a cudgel. (The last words you may hear as the fascists pummel you to death are: “freedom of speech doesn’t mean that speech has no consequences.”)

Indeed, we have already seen the use of anti-hate principles of speech suppression against the left. In March of this past year, the University of California Board of Regents, in an overly broad statement of principles, lumped anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. Both of these, they said, “have no place at the University of California…” They further noted that anti-Zionism “often is” linked to bigotry against Jews. (Facing an outpouring of criticism, the Regents later removed the blanket condemnation of anti-Zionism from their statement.)

Now someone on the left can draw a distinction here: Milo Yiannopoulos, one might insist, is clearly spreading hate speech while a BLM activist or a speaker discussing Palestine clearly is not. But it’s nearly impossible to define “hate speech” narrowly and specifically enough to prevent leftist speech from also being caught up in the web. And even if “hate speech” could be defined in a sufficiently narrow and specific fashion, any prohibition empowers someone to act in the role of censor.

Time and again, in universities around the country, we have seen signs of how a failure to support a pro-speech culture can harm the left. A year before the University of California debacle, rapper/actor Common was disinvited from Kean University’s commencement ceremony after the law enforcement community complained about his song in which Assata Shakur is portrayed sympathetically. Only months before this, a petition was circulated at Texas Tech that attempted to prevent Angela Davis from speaking. Around the same time, Bill Ayers was subject to a similar attempt by students at Dickinson School of Law. The need to protect the freedom of students to invite whomever they please is therefore crucial, because it protects our speakers. Freedom for all means freedom for leftist student groups, a right they absolutely need.

At the same time, Milo Yiannopoulos presents an unusual case. It’s particularly understandable why leftists want to see his events canceled in particular. Yiannopoulos is no ordinary conservative ideologue. He is often called a “provocateur,” but this whitewashes the content of his talks. At them, Yiannopoulos regularly calls people “cunts” and “retards.” To a Muslim woman who spoke up against him during an event, he replied: “You’re wearing a hijab in the United States of America, what is wrong with you?” He gave his audience the phone number for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, encouraging people turn in suspected unauthorized immigrants and “purge your local illegals.” Displaying the photograph of a transgender student at the University of Wisconsin, Yiannopoulos said: “I’ve known some passing trannies in my life… The way that you know he’s failing is I’d almost still bang him… It’s just a man in a dress, isn’t it?” The student in question, who was present in the audience, professed herself to have been terrified and humiliated, writing: “Do you know what it’s like to be in a room full of people who are laughing at you as if you’re some sort of perverted freak?” Afterward, she “broke down sobbing uncontrollably” and dropped out of school.

Those who think that calling on universities to cancel these events is simply “suppressing conservative ideas” have a strange notion of what “ideas” are. They are also implicitly conceding that conservative intellectual discourse consists of calling people “cunts” and giving lectures on how feminists are ugly. (By the way, this is also what Simon & Schuster are paying $250,000 for.)

It’s very important not to sanitize Yiannopoulos’s conduct if one argues the events should proceed. Yet many liberals, while acknowledging that Yiannopoulous is “inflammatory” or “provocative,” end up failing to fully convey the reality. For example, a recent Huffington Post column by a liberal suggested that while you could disagree with Yiannopoulos, this was no reason to keep him away from campus:

Milo is not an oppressor, he’s a messenger. I don’t agree with every aspect of his message… [But] it’s important for people from different sides of the isle [sic] to listen to one another…When you listen and engage in a respectful dialogue about your differences, that’s called making an argument; something many liberals, the regressives, are forgetting how to do.

This goes too far in affirming the myth that Yiannopoulos is doing anything close to “respectful dialogue.” Actually, what he does is extremely clever. His lectures combine dirty jokes, intentionally cruel or bigoted statements, and serious speechifying from a fairly conventional right-wing perspective. The vicious and bullying remarks, such as talking about whether he would bang a particular student, are what make left-wing activists so angry. Then when the activists respond as anyone could be expected to, he declares that his true passion is the open exchange of serious ideas, and the rest is just entertainment.

That means that left-wing activists who spend energy opposing Yiannopoulos, instead of ignoring him, are falling into a trap. He is intentionally baiting them, and they are playing right along. After the Berkeley incident, Yiannopoulos’s book sales went up by 12,740%. Note what this means: it means that anyone who wishes to stop Yiannopoulos from “spreading hate” should oppose shutting down his events. Those who claim to be “fighting fascism” by disrupting Yiannopoulos’s talks are doing nothing of the kind. They are directly causing the ideas they hate to become more and more popular, by handing the right an incredible gift. (They are also fixing their attention on someone who doesn’t really matter terribly much. It’s understandably hard to resist paying attention to a British man in a feather boa shouting about hijabs. But it’s not where the true source of political power in this country lies.)

Thus one can make an argument against shutting down Yiannopoulos’s events while still acknowledging just how reprehensible some of his “ideas” truly are. When leftists try to stop Yiannopoulos by force, they end up allowing him to further the impression that he cares about discourse. It’s only if people heard what he has to say that they will be able to realize how false this is.

In another context, leftists seem to understand the point that you can’t stop the spread of an ideology by trying to smother it. This is precisely the argument made for why a “War on Terror” can never succeed: one can’t bomb an ideology; one can only bomb people. We realize that waging war can actually help to spread the fundamentalism that the United States ostensibly seeks to extinguish. Yet we don’t recognize that the same can be said of the left’s efforts to stifle hateful rhetoric.

It is sometimes claimed that the words of an individual like Milo Yiannopoulos incite hatred, contributing to a campus climate where marginalized students already feel, and are in fact, unsafe. That may be true. Nevertheless, it remains true that preventing him from speaking incites even more hatred. It’s unclear how stopping the event, risking arrest, potentially escalating the violence, turning the individuals who invited Yiannopoulos to speak into a besieged and victimized minority, and further angering an auditorium of people—some of whom were likely attending because they were merely curious—makes anyone any safer. But it certainly makes a lot of people more interested in finding out what Yiannopoulos has to say.

Some on the left have insisted that not just protest, but outright violence, is both a justified and useful way to deal with Yiannopoulos. In a recent article in Left Voice, Hart Eagleburger and Jack Rusk issue a rousing call to fighting fascists and racists like Yiannopoulos in America. While they admit they don’t believe “that the United States is fascist or descending into fascism” Eagleburger and Rusk make clear that “fascists must be stopped. They must be stopped at all costs. And this includes confronting them violently in the streets…” If they aren’t violently confronted, the consequences are clear: “the right is empowered, the left is disheartened, and bystanders—including, importantly, vulnerable oppressed groups—become convinced the far-left does not offer them a dependable protection against fascists.” It’s therefore violence or defeat.

This seems worse than useless. Any battle of force against the American right will end up badly for the left, who tend not to have the guns. As Noam Chomsky observed after the recent punching of a neo-Nazi: “When we move to the arena of violence, the most brutal guys win—and that’s not us.” Indeed, the most vicious attack during Yiannopoulos’s entire tour came from one of his supporters, who shot a demonstrator in the abdomen. (A fact that Yiannopoulos and the right prefer not to discuss.) For leftists, there is simply no alternative to fighting on the terrain of words and thoughts rather than physical force.

Many on the left are understandably skeptical of the power of reasoned discourse and persuasion. But that’s partially because we don’t really do them very well. Yiannopoulos is an incredibly charismatic speaker, a person who even left-wing feminist writer Laurie Penny conceded was “a charming devil.” He succeeds at winning converts entirely through his (sometimes hideous, sometimes beguiling) speech. Our side needs to understand how people are persuaded towards ideas using language, and counter it not just with “facts” and “decency” but with equally persuasive rhetoric and charm. It’s essential to fight horrible speech with better and more powerful speech.

A certain school of thought says that to allow a reprehensible person to speak at a prestigious venue is to confer “legitimacy” on them. But legitimacy is not a particularly useful concept. The fact is that when things are popular, they automatically become “legitimate,” insofar as they need to be heard, understood, confronted, and dealt with. Once Donald Trump is the President of the United States, it becomes hard to argue that his worldview should or can be kept “non-mainstream.” It’s already the mainstream, insofar as a lot of people believe it. Sapping Trumpism of “legitimacy” does nothing to diminish its popularity. And it’s popularity that we should be focusing on: the question is not whether canceling a speech reduces a speaker’s legitimacy, but what it does to the size of their audience.

Ultimately, it’s inescapably true that the principle of free speech is an essential component to a well-functioning democracy. That’s true (to differing degrees) in both public and private spaces. And it’s especially true on university campuses, where students need to be maximally free to listen to whomever they want. That’s partially out of principle, and partially because in accepting the censorship of reprehensible individuals like Yiannopoulos, we pave the way for our own muzzling. With Donald Trump as this country’s president, it’s crucial now more than ever that we embrace radical free speech and defend one another’s right to say and write things that elicit outrage, disdain, and discomfort. Otherwise, we should not be surprised to find ourselves being stifled by the very techniques we have wielded against our ideological opponents.

Author: Eli Massey

is a freelance journalist, editor, and researcher whose work has appeared in Jacobin, Mondoweiss, and In These Times.