The issue of free speech on college campuses is sure to be a hot one in 2018. Unfortunately, the media too often ignores genuine threats to free speech, instead focusing on the insincere outrage of fascists, racists and others with grotesque views, who cynically portray themselves as martyrs to the First Amendment. According to this misleading narrative, snowflake/terrorist students, radical universities, and increasingly, Antifa are the real threats. So how do the arguments about these alleged threats to freedom of expression hold up? Here’s a look at four claims you’re likely to hear repeated ad nauseum in 2018.
1. Claim: Students are hostile toward free speech.
Did you hear the one about how a fifth of college students think violence is an acceptable response to silence speakers who make “offensive and hurtful” statements? Last fall, Washington Post writer Catherine Rampell devoted an entire column to what she called a “chilling study.”
Sounds pretty damning. The only problem is the study suffered from so many flaws that the results are worthless. Cliff Zukin, a former president of the American Association of Public Polling, dismissed the survey as “junk science” that “never should have appeared in the press,” noting that it was given to an opt-in online panel of people who identified as current college students.
Additionally, Chris Ladd in Forbes informs readers that the poll was funded by the Koch brothers, Villasenor had never conducted a public poll before, has no experience in the field, and if you actually look at the results, the poll demonstrates, “College students are much more open to free speech than the general public.” According to Ladd, “Having lost the battle of persuasion….right-wing speakers have to be foisted onto universities from the outside…funded by extremist donors.”
2. Claim: Conservative speakers can’t speak.
After Ann Coulter’s speech at the University of California was canceled last year, two conservative organizations filed a federal lawsuit, accusing the university of trying to ‘restrict conservative speech’ on campus.”
The reality is that speakers like Coulter and self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer are given platforms all the time. Why are universities obligated to invite people who spew hatred for a living? It’s one thing for news outlets to cover disgusting comments made by a person in a position of power or influence, but do they have to go out of their way to give a platform to every internet troll or fascist, especially those who are funded by Robert Mercer and the Koch brothers? Nor is it fair to claim that not allowing professional provocateurs is the same as preventing someone who might have something meaningful to contribute from speaking. College campuses are a place for ideas to be debated, but that doesn’t mean everyone with something cruel to say deserves a microphone and a university-sanctioned platform.
One of the people scheduled to have such a platform at Berkeley was Mike Cernovich, who was among those behind the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which led to a man shooting up a restaurant in an attempt to save children he believed were being kept there as sex slaves for Hillary Clinton. (There are various versions of this conspiracy theory, all of them equally bizarre and evidence-free). The only reason Cernovich didn’t get to speak was because the alt-right organizers did such a poor job planning that the entire event fell apart.
Universities may be a place where ideas can be freely debated, but the value of a human being is not up for debate. When Charles Murray argues black people are genetically inferior to white people, his ideas are not abstractions to the black students at the universities that allow him to present his morally repugnant and scientifically baseless views. Even if we were to say that these sorts of ideas should be debated, what exactly is there to debate? Is it really necessary to treat the ideas of people like Murray or Ann Coulter or Spencer as if they are worthy of consideration? As Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. argued in Time, “[Richard] Spencer believes white people are superior to black people. How can I reasonably argue with someone who believes he is innately better? It’s as intellectually valid as saying, ‘Kiss my ass.’”
Universities have a right to demand rationality and a basic respect for human beings from those who want to debate any issue. That does not make them a threat to free speech.
3. Claim: Antifa is a massive, destructive force.
Given the hysteria surrounding Antifa (short for antifascist) captured by Vox in the wake of Charlottesville last year, it’s worth asking whether there might be a law of politics analogous to Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Just as Newton’s law states, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” it seems that for every political stance, there must be an equal and opposite political stance.” In other words, there are always, in the words of President Trump, “very fine people,” on both sides of any issue.
It’s a convenient stance—if you believe both sides are equally flawed, you never have to make a moral decision. But as Winston Churchill once said, “Do you have enemies? Good. That means you stood for something.”
It’s undeniable that some Antifa members have employed violence. But as Vox shows, the number of instances where Antifa members have been arrested or committed any act of violence is minuscule when compared to the tens of thousands of protesters who peacefully stand up against hate. Unfortunately, the media invariably gravitates toward the dramatic handful of violent acts, giving the public the false impression that all protesters are just as violent.
This narrative that Antifa is some kind of massive, destructive force plays right into the hands of the alt-right, who use the fear of Antifa to make themselves out as the ones being terrorized. The mayor of Gainesville called Spencer a “terrorist leader” in a refreshing moment of blunt moral clarity. He urged people in his community to, “live our lives as normal and not let them disrupt us…Because that’s what terrorists do—they want to disrupt your life, they want to get into your psyche and make you afraid to live a normal, free life.”
In case you think this is hyperbole, consider some of Spencer’s ideas that have already been noted, such as his desire for ethnic-cleansing in the United States, or that he solicited help from an alt-right group that discussed bombing a federal building, or that Andrew Anglin, who runs the Daily Stormer, encouraged those who couldn’t attend Spencer’s speech “to target Jewish and black religious and cultural institutions." The purpose of all this, Anglin explained, was “to make the community think that ‘the entire city is taken over by our guys.” There are plenty of other instances where the alt-right has either encouraged or participated in violence. However, hopefully it’s sufficient to remember the millions who suffered at the hands of Nazis not so many decades ago.
4. Claim: Freedom of speech guarantees freedom from criticism.
What about all those students who consistently protest events, like thousands did recently at the University of Florida when Richard Spencer came by to spread a little fascism? First of all, freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from criticism. One would think that massive numbers of young people coming together to loudly remind everyone that malicious ideas will not go unchallenged would be a cause for pride, not shame.
Because that is exactly what they’re are doing. Spencer has the right to speak, but students have the right to voice their objection to someone who believes “mass democracy is a bit of a joke,” is “not terribly excited about voting,” doesn’t believe it’s “necessarily…a great thing” that women can vote, let alone make foreign policy since “their vindictiveness knows no bounds,” and has called for the peaceful ethnic cleansing of the United States."
It is absurd to think that students exercising their right to free speech somehow undermines that very right. Nor is it reasonable to argue that any student protest could silence anyone, not when social media makes it possible to reach anyone with any idea, no matter how vile. In fact, the only reason these speakers are invited to campus is because they have already built up a significant following – a following they won’t lose if a college rescinds an invitation to give a speech on campus.
Spencer seems to believe the alt-right has already succeeded in injecting its ideas into mainstream culture, saying, “We’re here to stay. People need to get used to us, they need to get used to our ideas.”
If Richard Spencer expects us to get used to his ideas, he'd better get used to people protesting them.