The Challenge of Defending Free Speech in the Age of Trump

Two recent incidents demonstrate the appeal of intolerance on college campuses.


At Middlebury College in Vermont a noisy crowd of students disrupted a debate between Charles Murray, a conservative sociologist whose work has racist overtones, and Allison Stanger, a liberal professor. The Middlebury incident came just a few days after University of North Carolina Students for Justice in Palestine withdrew an invitation to journalist Rania Khalek because of her support for the Syrian government.

In both cases, the exercise of First Amendment rights was illiberally restricted in the name of liberal politics. In both cases, students chose to eliminate an unpopular point of view, not engage and refute it. In both cases it was a bad bargain, both for free speech and progressive causes.

This is not another attack on campus “political correctness,” which is hardly the oppressive force depicted by self-pitying conservative victimologists. Nor is it an apologia for Murray or Khalek, who can defend themselves. I want to defend people who seek to learn from robust political debate, only to find themselves thwarted by others.

As Brian Sonenstein of Shadowproof reported Monday, dozens of journalists, academics, writers, and activists signed a statement criticizing the actions of UNC Students for Justice in Palestine. The statement, "Against the Blacklisting of Activists and Writers," signed by Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky, Col. Ann Wright, Medea Benjamin and others, says the cancellation of Khalek’s lecture at UNC “raises important issues of tactics and strategy within movements for social change.”

So does the shouting down of Murray and Stanger. And it's not an easy issue. With intolerant bigots controlling the White House, how does one foster the tolerance necessary in a multicultural democracy?

Some people don’t want to talk about the First Amendment in this discussion.

"This is not an issue of freedom of speech,” countered an open letter signed by hundreds of Middlebury alumni. “We think it is necessary to allow a diverse range of perspectives to be voiced at Middlebury. ... However, in this case we find the principle does not apply, due to not only the nature, but also the quality, of Dr. Murray’s scholarship. He paints arguments for the biological and intellectual superiority of white men with a thin veneer of quantitative rhetoric and academic authority.”

They go on:

“His work, including 1984’s Losing Ground and 1994’s The Bell Curve … misinterprets selective, uncorrected statistics and other faulty data to argue for the genetic inferiority of people of color, women, people with disabilities and the poor. This is the same thinking that motivates eugenics and the genocidal white supremacist ideologies which are enjoying a popular resurgence under the new presidential administration."

This is a fair summary, though mistaken on one point. Murray’s thinking, while racist in the two cited works, is not the "same" as “genocidal white supremacist ideologies.” He is not a neo-Nazi or a fascist, as any reading of his books will show. And those who shouted him down ignored the fact that he was invited by Middlebury students who wanted to hear his point of view. The protesters not only silenced a man with racist views; they silenced their fellow students who wanted to learn about Murray’s views for themselves.

Stanger’s account of the meeting on Facebook makes for a sad read.

Middlebury is now engaged in soul-searching after a spate of negative publicity, says Inside Higher Ed, but for Khalek the damage has been done. She reported that another student group, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) at Concordia University, rescinded her invitation to appear on a panel about Palestinian rights on March 9, supposedly for unrelated financial reasons.

And that is always the danger. Silencing an unpopular point of view once makes it more likely it will be silenced a second time. The persistent attacks on the free speech rights of the campus movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel have encouraged more of the same, and for the same reason: Because it's easier to silence a point of view you don't like than it is to refute it.

But maintaining the widest possible zone of free speech isn’t a favor we do for the enemies of liberalism; it is a favor we do ourselves. It is a strategy for maximizing the range of debate, strengthening democratic norms and protecting minority opinions. That is more, not less, necessary every day.

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