Don't Worry, There's Plenty of Censorious Hackery To Go Around

My recent series of posts about perils of proposed blasphemy laws should not be read to suggest that Muslims are the source of all censorious demands in the modern world. Censorious twatwafflery can be found amongst all religious, ethnic, and political groups.

Today's example: Amy Alkon points us to an update to story I covered in August here and at Salon about a censorious, insipid, and quintessentially academic recommendation by a University of California advisory committee that thought that the UC should pass "hate speech" rules to limit vigorous and vivid political arguments about Israel. The UC's response has given reason to hope that its leadership recognizes that the proposal is wantonly unconstitutional.

But some people don't want to wait for the UC to decide. They prefer to use the power of the state to compel suppression of speech they don't like. Via Amy, the civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into complaints that anti-Israel protests violate the rights of Jewish students to be free of harassment:

The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office confirmed this week that it has launched an investigation into the charges, first filed in July by two recent Berkeley graduates. They complained that an annual “Apartheid Week” in February featuring protests against Israel's treatment of Palestinians was one of several campus events that have stoked anti-Semitic hate speech.

By failing to curb such activities, the university is presenting “a disturbing echo of incitement, intimidation, harassment and violence carried out under the Nazi regime and those of its allies in Europe against Jewish students and scholars … during the turbulent years leading up to and including the Holocaust,” the complaint alleges.

Godwinized right out of the gate.

California attorney Joel Siegal believes that the Department of Education should help determine what protest rhetoric is permissible and what is not.

Joel H. Siegal, one of two attorneys who filed the complaint, said the actions by activists with the Muslim Student Assn. and Students for Justice in Palestine went beyond protected political protest. During “Apartheid Week,” the San Francisco attorney said, student activists posing as Israeli guards forcing people through mock checkpoints wore Stars of David and skullcaps to attack Judaism and portray all Jews as “bloodthirsty barbarians.”

Siegal demonstrates the insidious and pervasive nature of censorship: it always looks for a way in the door, a way to allow the state to dictate what words can be uttered. If protests can't be shut down based on clear legal precedent regarding incitement, then someone will argue that the protests violate a protected right not to be offended. Perversely, under this way of thinking, the more controversial the subject matter — the more vivid the political circumstances being criticized — the more dangerous it will be to speak. Imagine, for instance, someone arguing that it is impermissible to discuss the atrocities committed in the name of anti-blasphemy laws on campus because it might create a hostile environment for Muslim students. This is madness. The remedy for hateful or offensive speech is more speech. Future Holocausts will be encouraged — not prevented — by inviting the government to dictate what expression is permissible.

The position of Siegal and the other complainants is unprincipled, thuggish, and un-American. But it's important to note that it's not a "Jewish position." In fact, many Jewish Americans have condemned censorship efforts at UC. Perhaps they recognize that exceptions to free speech are inevitably used against the least powerful and popular.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    Whence came the idea that there was any such thing as a "right" to be liked, or popular, or free of criticism, or approved of? All of these, and many variants thereof, ultimately boil down to the self-evidently ridiculous concept that there's a "right" to control what other people think about you, or at least if they're permitted to make any expression of those thoughts.

    For the umpteenth time I repeat: There's 7 billion people on this planet, and there's just about nothing that 100% of them can agree on. (There are, after all, people who believe you do not need to eat or drink in order to live.) We do not need to teach college students sensitivity — we need to teach them INSENSITIVITY, in the sense that they should learn to put up with opinions or viewpoints they find insulting, offensive, ignorant, or even evil. (Or to protest or refute them[1] without running to Uncle Sam to protect them, at least.) I have very little sympathy for the actual opinions of the Usual Suspects in Berkeley; it's narcissistic street theater whose function is to make the protesters feel morally superior while convincing no one and accomplishing nothing. (See also:OWS). (I lived in the Bay Area for a decade; I know whereof I speak.) The fact I have utter contempt for them does not in any way deprive them of their right to be contemptible, and it does not justify any legal action taken against them.

    Making people uncomfortable, forcing them to acknowledge issues they'd rather not, being rude, obnoxious, melodramatic, and transgressive are all well established aspects of social movements. Whether or not you agree with the goals of the movements are irrelevant. ACT-UP conducted raucous protests and demonstrations at funerals and solemn ceremonies in the 1980s just as the WBC does today. The right of people to be assholes in the name of promoting their cause does not vary with the degree to which you agree with their cause. There is no difference, in terms of their right to do so, between a hippie burning an American flag and Terry Jones burning a Koran.

    This is so self-evident to me, I have real trouble putting myself in the mindset of people to whom it is NOT self-evident — yet such people provably exist, and do not seem, in general, to be insane, evil, or irrational. I understand their benign motivations in wanting offensive, insulting, or hurtful speech to not exist, but I do not understand how they can believe this is not a violation of basic human, never mind legal, rights. There are few rights more innate than the right of someone to think what they wish, and saying what you think is barely a hair's breadth away from thinking it.

    [1]When I was in third or fourth grade, we read Dr. Seuss' "The Sneeches" in school. When time came for the inevitable consciousness raising discussion (mind you, this was around 1973, 1974, or so), I asked why the plain-bellied Sneeches just stood around moping, instead of having their own picnics, parties, etc, to which the star-bellied Sneeches would be excluded. This was, I recall, NOT the question I was supposed to ask.

  2. Grifter says


    I think it eventually comes down to not fully understanding what a "right" actually is. And if you don't understand the concept, you will almost certainly not understand its application.

  3. C. S. P. Schofield says

    Is it just me, or do others here recall routinely seeing protesters on college campuses invade the personal space of passersby and scream at them? I'm not in favor of censorship, ever, but on the other hand I cannot recall a college administration that I thought had the guts to throw such 'Protesters' off campus. There is a difference between 'hateful speech' and direct and confrontational verbal assault. And it is a distinction that, in this day and age of ever-present digital cameras would be a lot easier to make. I think campus authorities should be encouraged to make it. If only to teach protest groups the need for discipline in their ranks.

    Am I totally off base here?

  4. EH says

    Yes you are off-base: from where does this "need" for discipline arise aside from your personal preferences?

  5. wgering says

    @C.S.P. Schofield: are there existing laws that prohibit "direct and confrontational verbal assault," and if so, how is said assault defined and separated from other forms of expression (IANAL, so small words please)?

  6. C. S. P. Schofield says


    It is my understanding that you don't have to actually touch somebody to be guilty of assault. If this is right, then a good many protesters of the 'get in their face and scream' school are guilty of assault.

    Throwing things at people is CERTAINLY illegal, but protesters do it often enough, and if they get jailed for it routinely it has escaped my notice. And I'm not just talking about Leftwing protesters here. The Pro-life crowd includes knuckle draggers who throw 'symbolic' blood – and frankly that 'blood' should symbolize some time in the pokey, preferably in the place of somebody jailed for quietly smoking themselves into a stupor.


    I will take mass protests seriously when they have the organizational discipline to avoid assaulting passersby. I don't, Don't, DON'T advocate censorship, but a lot goes on at protests like OCW that doesn't seem, at least to me, to be legitimate speech – and I'm NOT talking about message content. I'm talking about threatening behavior.

    Of course the cops need to be seriously reigned in too. Some of the crap they pulled on the Occupy protests makes the worst of the Protesters look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

  7. says

    @CSP: Protesters in public spaces — sidewalks, parks, and college campuses (at least, they're quasi public, based on various policies; certainly, they're "public" to the students there) routinely do get confrontational, and this is an area where the law is still evolving. We've seen various "buffer zone" laws enacted and sometimes upheld, sometimes not, depending on how restrictive they are and the specific situations involved. On the one hand, the law rightly recognizes a difference between the generic and the personal. The more an individual is specifically targeted or harassed, the more likely it is the activity crosses the line from speech to threat, harassment, etc. On the other hand, a protest where the targets of the protest never see it isn't much of a protest, and saying "You have a right to free speech as long as no one can hear you" is pretty bollocks.

    I have had to personally deal with the emotional fallout when a woman, already in a fragile state, is harassed by shrieking "pro life" activists. As the saying goes, if I saw one of them on fire, I wouldn't piss on them to put it out. (It would take a tremendous amount of willpower not to look for some gasoline…) But I still defend their right to be the repugnant, sadistic, monsters that they are with only minor limitations, a small buffer zone to prevent touch or violation of general "personal space", but not to prevent sight or sound. As the last several weeks of posts here have shown, as soon as you make exceptions in the name of compassion or empathy or any other appeal to the feelings of those who are targeted by speech, you must make exceptions for everyone, and then there is nothing but silence.

    So, as is the case when the real world of shades and caveats hits the boolean world of law, there's a constantly evolving dynamic. I think that filming people's behavior (by other private citizens, NOT the authorities), and then presenting it (ideally where the parents of the jerkwads are likely to see it, and ask why they're spending umpty-thousand a year on their spoiled brat's "education"), is far superior to any sort of legal action.

    The answer to speech is more speech. If the protesters are going to be jerks in public, let the public off-campus see them in action.

  8. C. S. P. Schofield says


    My personal belief is that protesters have an absolute right to say whatever they please, and the public – specifically including the objects of their ire – have an absolute right to ignore them. If the protesters act in a way that makes it impossible to ignore them – including but not limited to blocking someone's progress, throwing anything at them, or making specific threats (I'll hit you is specific. God will punish you is not.) – then the protesters have stepped over a line.

    I suspect that a lot of laws that limit speech are in fact designed not so much to censor as to keep the guardians of the peace (from Police on up) from actually having to do anything hard, like think.

  9. says

    "But it's important to note that it's not a "Jewish position." In fact, many Jewish Americans have condemned censorship efforts at UC. "

    I'm Jewish. I've had a cross burned on the lawn of my synagogue. I've met Holocaust survivors. I'm so Jewish I share a last name with the attorney general. And the only way I think the AG should be getting involved in this is to defend the protesters.

    Even if they are anti-semitic, they deserve a right to free speech. Anti-semitism is insidious. If you bury it, it simply festers and grows. Drag it out into the light; let everyone see it in all it awfulness.

  10. Demosthenes says

    Well, you have to give the UC people this much, I suppose: given their spotty past record on free speech, they're being somewhat consistent. And they're actually being intellectually thuggish in the service of someone other than Palestine when it comes to Middle Eastern issues, which is a novelty for the typical American university. Not much of a compliment, under the circumstances, but the best I can muster.

    What? Oh, don't look at me like that. I think anti-Semitism is one of the worst forms of prejudice there is, and I'm human enough to indulge in a little non-righteous irony from time to time when my buttons are pushed. But Ken is right. People should be free to express their anti-Semitic feelings — especially on the grounds of a state-sanctioned institution supposedly dedicated to the free exercise and expression of the mind. They must be reasoned with and shown how very wrong they are, not simply told to shut up. Else, we'll sabotage our own efforts to combat prejudice by admitting into the realm of acceptable tactics the short-circuiting of reason through authoritarian fiat…which is one of the sharpest of double-edged swords.

  11. No Name Given says

    Equating criticism of Israel or its policy with anti-semitism is a grave mistake.
    You don't consider criticizing the US government an attack against the US people, right?

  12. joe schmoe says

    But it's important to note that it's not a "Jewish position."

    It's important to note that you found it important to have to say that. Kind of ironic, isn't it?

  13. says

    "In fact, many Jewish Americans have condemned censorship efforts at UC. Perhaps they recognize that exceptions to free speech are inevitably used against the least powerful and popular." – I am one such Jew. Also, bonus points because I am neither popular nor powerful. Thanks Ken, both for having a consistently great series of arguments in favor of freedom, and for sending out a rare reminder to the internet that being a Jew can mean being part of a religion, it can mean being part of an ethnic group, or both; but Judaism is *not* a political party.

  14. says

    @CSP:"If the protesters act in a way that makes it impossible to ignore them – including but not limited to blocking someone's progress, throwing anything at them, or making specific threats (I'll hit you is specific. God will punish you is not.) – then the protesters have stepped over a line."

    I completely agree. "Buffer zones" that are small enough that the protesters can be seen and heard — but ignored, if so desired — are fine with me. "You can protest 10 miles away" are not. Throwing things, physical blocking, etc, are not. (Human chains, locking oneself to a building, etc, are forms of civil disobedience with long traditions, and I think the best balance between protest and a civil society in such cases is for the cops to *calmly* and *politely* drag the hippies off to the local jail, where they will be released in the morning and they all get to write heartfelt, tear-stained, agonized blog entries about the Police State. It's a compromise between two sides of my personality — the idealist who supports liberty, and the cranky curmudgeon who thinks the bus driver should just run over the stupid hippies lying in the street, because it's 6:00 and I've worked a ten hour day and I'm tired and I want to go home. (Fortunately, I now telecommute, which means the only civil disobedience I deal with is my cat occupying my keyboard to demand more food and pettins for cats.))

  15. C. S. P. Schofield says


    I'll go a tad farther; I think that the point of civil disobedience USED to be that the disobedient were willing to accept the full penalty of the Law to make a point. I think that protesters who step over the "peaceably assemble" line should be treated just exactly as if they had no political point to make whatsoever. If that means an overnight in jail, fine. But if any random slob off the street would have done 30 days for disorderly conduct, then they should do 30 days for disorderly conduct.

    Cynic that I am, I am firmly of the conviction that more than half the 'protesters' we see these days – on pretty much ANY cause – are hobbyists with no serious convictions. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the prospect of actually being inconvenienced won't chase a lot of them back to their "Oppression of Minorities in Art History"* classes. But I'd like to test it.

    *(For Tea Party enthusiasts, make that fantasy football leagues)

  16. AlphaCentauri says

    For a lot of the protests that have been held in Philadelphia, the whole point was to be put in jail. It increases the media coverage, especially when the 90-year-old Quaker lady from the anti-war protest goes to jail because she refuses on principle to pay the $1 fine for chaining her wheelchair to the door of the federal building.

  17. C. S. P. Schofield says


    And I'm totally fine with that. If the protesters are prepared to accept the usual punishments for whatever they do, then society owes it to them to follow through.

    Also, if the jails and prisons are full of protesters, maybe we can get the prison fans to admit that some of the pot-heads aren't that much of a threat.

    I know. Wishful thinking.

  18. LW says

    "student activists posing as Israeli guards forcing people through mock checkpoints"

    Were the people being forced through checkpoints themselves student activists posing as victims? If not, this does not appear to be free speech and may involve committing crimes. Assault and false imprisonment come to mind.

  19. C. S. P. Schofield says


    Protesters, particularly college protesters, do tend to get caught up in their little bits of street theatre. It's one of their less charming traits. And, somehow, they get forgiven for it far too often. At least where the authorities approve of their cause.

    They need to be reminded, often, that symbolic actions sometimes have real consequences. I'm sure that the idiots at Kent State who set fire to the ROTC building and then interfered with firefighters on the scene were thinking of their actions in purely symbolic terms, and not in terms of "Gee, we set fire to a building. That's a big fire. What if it jumps to another building, or sets fire to a gas main, and toasts the entire town?".