Free Speech on Campus (2): How Times Change

One of the striking points the authors make in chapter 2 is that today’s generation of students don’t value free speech like previous generations did, because the idea is more of an abstraction to them. They didn’t grow up in times when the act of punishing speech was associated with undermining good values — the eras of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests. Those who experienced these generations saw how officials tried to silence or punish protesters in the name of community values and protecting public peace, which is the same rationale used by today’s liberals.

Back in those days (the 60s-80s), liberals “owned” free speech, in the way conservatives “own” the right to bear arms. Liberals and minorities fought racism, sexism, and homophobia tooth and nail, but they drew the line at trying to silence their foes. They were better than that. The right to speak your racist/sexist/homophobic mind — whether on campus or not — was for the most part taken for granted. The reason for this is as the authors say: the enemies of free speech tended to be conservatives, not liberals, right up to the end of the ’80s, when it almost became illegal to burn the American flag. Threats to free speech were identified as a right-wing issue, and liberals didn’t want to be hypocrites. That all began changing in the ’90s.

Throughout history the alternative to free speech — governmental control of ideas — has always led to disaster, regardless of what end of the political spectrum is in control. Censorship is on the side of conformity, authoritarianism, and the status quo. Today’s liberals suggest the opposite: that governmental control of ideas can be used for positive things, like protecting the vulnerable. But history refutes this. Social progress has never come by silencing offensive speakers. It has come by ensuring that previously silenced or marginalized groups are empowered to find their voice and express their views. That’s the way to fight discriminatory and bigoted speech.

Every generation tries to suppress speech for reasons that seem noble at the time. Today it’s to help create inclusive learning environments for minorities. Before that it was to stop pornography which offended women. Before that it was to stop flag burning out of respect for one’s country. Decades before, it was to stop communism. Further back, during World War I, it was to preserve the draft and win the war. Hindsight always shows, with embarrassing clarity, how misguided these efforts are. It will show the same thing for today’s efforts to silence hate speech.

How so? The authors address hate speech in chapter 4, which I’ll cover in detail, but for now I’ll mention an obvious problem. One person’s hate speech is another person’s lone voice crying against oppression and injustice. Aayan Hirsi Ali (a human rights activist) and Maajid Nawaz (a Muslim reformer) are examples of progressive-minded liberals who have been branded as hateful for speaking facts about the Islamic religion. “Hate speech” accusations have been attempts to silence them for their views which are inconvenient but certainly not hateful. In the case of Aayan Hirsi Ali, she has been banned from college campuses for her “hateful” opinions. That alone shows why hate speech codes are a bad idea, and we’ll see more when we look at chapter 4.

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