How The University of Chicago Could Have Done A Better Job Defending Free Speech

The University of Chicago made the news last week with a strongly worded letter defending academic freedom. The heart of it was this:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own

Reactions were predictable. Critics of campus culture (usually, but not always, on the right) loved it; supporters of trigger warnings and safe spaces (usually, but not always, on the left) didn't.

I think it could have been better written. Here's how I would have framed the same paragraph.

Our commitment to academic freedom will govern our response to community concerns about course content and campus expression in general. The community should not expect us to require professors to give "trigger warnings," or to discipline them if they decline to do so. The community should not expect us to prohibit or "disinvite" speakers who offer controversial or offensive ideas. Members of the community should exercise their freedom of association to form groups with similar interests, goals, and values, but should not expect to transform classes or public spaces into "safe spaces" where expression they oppose is prohibited.

I like my version better for several reasons.

First, it's clearer that the University isn't telling professors how to teach their classes. It's unserious to say that you stand for academic freedom but then dictate to professors exactly how they can talk about their class content. I don't read the letter to say they are prohibiting professors from choosing to offer trigger warnings, but I think they could have been clearer. I personally find trigger warnings infantilizing in most academic circumstances, but I'm not the one teaching the class.

Second, I think my version offers a more honest and philosophically coherent approach to "safe spaces." As I have argued before, "safe spaces" are completely consistent with freedom of association when they represent a group of people coming together voluntarily to determine how they want to interact. They're a problem when people decide they have the right to intellectual manifest destiny — when they have a right to use safe spaces as a sword rather than a shield by telling others what they can say in public spaces like classes, quads, and dorms. "This club is a space for [group x]" does not threaten academic freedom or freedom of expression. "This campus/dorm/class/quad is a safe space and so this speaker/topic/speech should not be allowed" definitely is.

This is going to get me called (among other things) a pedant. Guilty, with an explanation. Pedantry on basic civic virtues is a good thing. Free speech legalism is a good thing. Rhetoric that blurs the nature of rights and encourages misunderstandings is bad — particularly when it comes from a university. If the University of Chicago believes — as many of us do — that the values of academic freedom and free speech are under assault, then it shouldn't encourage misunderstandings of those concepts just for the pleasure of rhetorically spiking the ball. If your proposition is that college kids should act like grown-ups, you can talk to them with a bit more complexity and accuracy.

Conservatives railing against "safe spaces" without nuance should remember that freedom of association — which conservatives are supposed to be fighting for — is about something very like safe spaces. You think college kids shouldn't be able to form their own "safe spaces" where they hear what they want? Fine. But remind me — why should campus Christian groups be able to control who can be officers based on sharing the groups' values? On the other hand, liberals insisting that this is all a talk-radio fabrication should take another look. The rhetoric of safe spaces is being used, widely and explicitly, as a justification for excluding contrary expression. These people — whether a small minority or not — believe that universities have an obligation to exclude views that they, subjectively, deem harmful. If you support that, you're not in favor of academic freedom or free speech.

In short, University of Chicago's letter was a little triumphalist, a little misleading, and a little too vague.

A Response To A Critical Email From A University of Wisconsin-Superior Student

In response to my post yesterday, a UW-Superior student wrote to me. I responded. Meanwhile, after receiving the FIRE's letter, UW-Superior closed the investigation without action. I confirmed that the person writing me was a student, but have elected not to name him here.

Dear Mr.White,

Last Friday (04/23/2016), you published an article called "How Inanely Censorious Can College Administrators Get? University of Wisconsin – Superior Will Show You", which raise many concerns. First of all, you're using the name of Ilana Yokel and Debbie Cheslock without their consent and you attacked them on a personal level, which is a terrible thing to do. Secondly, the nature of the investigation and the complaint filed by Debbie Cheslock were that of "student misconduct". Therefore, the procedure occurred as an attempt of trying to resolve a misconduct between student, which shouldn't involve the defense of the First Amendment nor Free Speech. This means that your article wrongly attacked both Debbie Cheslock and the Institution. Thirdly and most importantly, your comment section is filled with hatred and harassment for this poor women, whom life is now threatened because of what you published (including her place of work and her location). Upon learning that you can moderate your comment section, I sincerely ask you to censor those comment (or at least the information regarding Debbie Cheslock) as an attempt to protect her from harassment, cyber bullying and potential assault.

I believe that hurtful action came from misunderstanding, rather than bad intention. Which is why I wrote you this letter to inform you about the situation as well as the possible consequence.
Best regard,

John Doe.

Dear Mr. Doe,

Thank you for writing to me with your response to my post.

You may find my reply disrespectful, rude, or even cruel. In fact, I believe that respect requires me to treat you as an adult capable of a forthright response. I believe you can hear what I have to say, evaluate it, and reject or accept parts of it as you see fit.

First: Mr. Doe, I do not need anyone's consent to speak or write their name. There is no legal requirement that I obtain someone's consent before expressing myself about them, and any such requirement would violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Moreover, you have implied that I need people's consent to write about them even after they have given quotes to newspapers about an issue of public interest, which takes your complaint from silly to utterly ridiculous.

Second, I reject your assertion that I attacked Ms. Cheslock or Ms. Yokel "on a personal level." I attacked their conduct and their demands. Ms. Cheslock demanded that a state school bound by the First Amendment punish students for engaging in satire that is unquestionably protected by the First Amendment, and to be subjected to "cultural competency training" — that is, mandatory education on the right way to think and speak. This is wholly despicable and un-American, and nothing I have said about her comes close to expressing the contempt it deserves. Ms. Yokel asserted that a student newspaper has a nebulous "duty" to exercise free speech in a "responsible way." I stand by calling that incoherent and unprincipled.

Third, your argument about "student misconduct" is nonsensical. University of Wisconsin-Superior is a state school bound by the First Amendment. It cannot violate student rights by labeling things "student misconduct" or labeling an investigation as "trying to resolve a misconduct between a student." If a public school investigates a student and threatens to impose official discipline on that student based on protected speech, it is violating that student's constitutional rights. Your assertion that this "shouldn't involve the defense of the First Amendment nor Free Speech" is also nonsensical. The law, not your feelings, governs whether constitutional rights protect speech. The paper's attempt at satire was obviously protected speech. It's just not a close call at all. The fact that you don't feel it ought to be a First Amendment issue is irrelevant. As the FIRE's letter linked in my post accurately shows, it is a First Amendment issue, and the administration was squarely in the wrong — until it recently announced it had abandoned the "investigation."

Fourth, I think your assertion that the comments are "filed with hatred and harassment" is overwrought. I have deleted some comments that contained gratuitous insults and racism, because Popehat is my private blog and I use it to express myself and exercise my right to free expression. But so far, I don't see anything published that exceeds the level of contempt I think these totalitarian attempts at censorship richly deserve. I will not be "censoring" any of the comments I've approved.

Mr. Doe, let me be more forthright. I do not believe you have equipped yourself to be an adult citizen in a free society. It is not too late to do so.

I am not suggesting that becoming a responsible adult citizen in a free society requires you to become a conservative or eschew "liberal" or "progressive" values. To the contrary. But becoming a responsible adult citizen — and an effective advocate for liberal or progressive values — requires a quite different approach.

We're in the middle of a modest conservative backlash and a resurgence of bigotry, both actual and arrested-adolescent-poseur. I believe a large part of this backlash results from the low quality of advocacy for progressive ideas. Much of that advocacy has become characterized by petulant whining and empty dogmatism. The message conveyed by too many of your generation is not that people should adopt progressive ideas because they are right or just, but that they should adopt them because that is what they are supposed to adopt because that is what right-thinking people adopt. That is irritating and ineffectual. Faced with an idea, I don't expect your generation to confront it. I don't expect you to explain how it's wrong, and win hearts and minds that your ideas are better. Rather, I expect you to assert that you should be protected from being exposed to the idea in the first place. That's disappointing and doesn't bode well for the success of progressive ideas (many of which I admire) in society. In short: if this is how you're going to fight for what you think is right, you're going to lose. Do better.

Meanwhile, I sincerely wish you fulfillment and joy in college, which is a marvelous experience. Don't stop meeting new people and trying new things. Don't overspecialize; you'll never again have such an opportunity to expose yourself to new and different subjects. Take advantage of it.

Very truly yours,

Ken White

How Inanely Censorious Can College Administrators Get? University of Wisconsin – Superior Will Show You

Over at The Torch at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Adam Steinbaugh reports on a university administration sinking to depths of censorious idiocy that managed to surprise me.

The University of Wisconsin – Superior's student newspaper, The Promethean, ran an April Fool edition for the second year in the row. The entire concept of April Fool's Day is inherently problematic, as it generally involves making fun of someone, even if they are in what they view as their safe space. April Fool's editions by college papers are particularly triggering because of the huge delta between how funny college students believe they are and how funny they actually are. But this edition — linked in Adam's piece above — was awfully mild, with the "edgiest" piece being satire by a Jewish student about being Jewish in Wisconsin.

Tumult ensued.

Tumult is banal. College students gonna college student. Just as satire is free speech, so is hand-wringing, self-to-the-cross-nailing, and caterwauling of every type. This is the time to do that sort of thing, so knock yourself out! Believe me, you're going to have trouble being satisfactorily outraged when you're paying down a mortgage and trying to keep your kids from discovering meth.

No, the problem is not young adults acting like young adults, whether with satire or outrage. The problem arises when nominal adults react in an unprincipled and irresponsible manner. That's what happened here, when university administrators announced they were launching an "investigation" based on a "grievance" filed against the satirical edition by a grad student:

Debbie Cheslock, graduate student and student program manager for UW-Superior's Gender Equity Resource Center, filed the complaint. She is alleging the editors violated university policy on non-academic student conduct and improperly noticed its April Fools' Day edition as satire. She contends articles included derogatory terms that were anti-semitic, racist and misogynistic.

Cheslock's grasp of the First Amendment is idiosyncratic, to put it mildly. She believes that it is censorship for a speaker to refuse to meet with their would-be inquisitor:

So, just to clarify, you are also unwilling to meet with me to discuss this matter? It is unfortunate, indeed, since that would be the very censorship you claim is deadly. The right to free speech also includes a continued dialogue and I am extremely displeased in the lack of regard for others’ opinions.

An "investigation" is in the works:

Meanwhile, UW-Superior is investigating the complaint with assistance from UW System’s legal counsel, according to UW-Superior spokesman Dan Fanning.

"We certainly respect the students who are involved with the newspaper and their right to have free speech," said Fanning. "At the same time, we’ve heard from so many students, alumni and community members and they see what we see. Even though that might have been meant to be satire … it clearly wasn’t funny to everyone, that it offended some people and that it crossed some lines that should not have been crossed. The university condemns that."

I'm sorry, but unless the UW system's legal counsel's response is "get the fuck out of my office, you civically illiterate imbecile," this is offensive and ridiculous. I don't have a problem with the administration participating in the marketplace of ideas by saying, in effect, "you're an jerk, but you're a jerk with free speech." But any "investigation" — meaning, any inquiry carrying the explicit or implicit threat of punishment for obviously protected speech — is unequivocally wrong. So is promoting ignorance about rights, as the administration attempted to do in statements supporting its investigation:

As we’ve said consistently, this was unethical and unprofessional journalism and contradicts the very values of our school. Satire is fine, having a difference of opinion is fine, but disrespectful and offensive language is not fine.

FIRE's letter to UW-Superior leaders is stern, as it ought to be. Hopefully the administration will decide that it ought to be spending money on education instead of on lawyers.

Responsibility is not a zero-sum game. Debbie Cheslock and her ilk are morally and intellectually responsible for being thuggish and censorious. But that does not diminish, in the least, the responsibility of grown-ups in the UW-Superior to resist censorship and thuggery when it is urged upon them by students. The things that these students want are incoherent, unprincipled, and totalitarian:

Cheslock said she wants those involved in the Promethean to be sent a message that the paper’s content was not acceptable and isn’t what UWS stands for. She also wants to ensure that the Promethean staff and faculty advisor go through a cultural competency training about diversity.

Yokel said that with free-speech rights comes a duty to exercise those rights in a responsible way.

“The First Amendment is a right, yes, but you not only have a right to say what you want, you have a responsibility to the people you’re representing,” Yokel said. “This paper is a student paper and I’m a student and this paper does not represent me.”

The administration needs to refuse to violate rights based on such demands. If it won't resist, it should be compelled to do so by force of law.

Some College Thick-Skin Advocates Need A Thicker Skin

If you want to fight the culture of victimhood, you can't wallow in it. If you're going to be an effective advocate for thick skins, you can't have a thin skin. If you're going to fight against the pernicious notion that people have a right not to be offended, you shouldn't be easily offended.

Why do I even have to say these things?

Dateline: Ohio University. College Republicans write "Trigger warning: there are no safe spaces in real life! You can't wall off the 1st Amendment" on the school's "graffiti wall." They're fighting against the culture of victimology, the culture of safe spaces, the culture of trigger warnings, the culture that treats speech as violence and justifies censorship.

Or are they?

In fact, OU College Republicans' rhetoric, and the rhetoric of their supporters in the media, sounds eerily like the rhetoric of triggers and safe spaces.

“It’s our First Amendment right,” Parkhill, a sophomore studying business management, said. “We feel like we’re being silenced and we feel like people are putting our point of view down, which is what we don’t want, so we’re going to fight back and we’re going to say this is our point of view.”

Well, no. You're not being "silenced" if your views are condemned or ridiculed. And "putting your point of view down" is part of the marketplace of ideas. The fact that you feel it doesn't make it true. Isn't that your point?

Members of the OU College Republicans, Parkhill said, feel their opinions are not welcome on campus.

Isn't "we feel unwelcome on campus" exactly what censors say to try to suppress speech they say triggers them?

The OU College Republicans naturally got pushback against their expression. Over at The College Fix, they were treated as oppressed victims in need of succor. The rhetoric is largely indistinguishable from that used by safe-spacers and the perpetually triggered to call for censorship: "they are under siege" "barrage of cyber harassment." And here's Parkhill again:

“Granted, I knew what I was getting into, but I didn’t think it would be that much hate,” he said. “We are basically a minority on this campus. Our opinion is so put down and so crushed, it’s almost like we don’t have a say.”

No it's not, you nauseating tremulous zygote.

The College Republicans point out, quite reasonably, that it's dishonest and ridiculous to say their reference to "trigger warnings" was a "threat," as some imbeciles have said. It's ridiculous to treat their message as some sort of dangerous assault on the delicate feels of their peers. It's preposterous to call for an investigation based on their message. But the OU College Republicans are relentlessly undermining that truth by adopting the very language of thin skins and weak minds that they're criticizing:

“We can’t have a viewpoint on our campus,” he said. “Conservative or even moderate views on campus is considered racist, is considered bigoted. … We are a lot of good people, we just believe in conservative, Republican values. … [But] it’s just unbelievable the amount of scorn we get.”

You have a right to call people weaklings if they demand safe spaces; they don't have a right not to be called that. They have a right to call you a racist; you don't have the right not to be called that. The marketplace of ideas may decide you're full of shit.

Now, can we make a plausible argument that students are too quick to cry "racist," too swift to use scorn instead of reason against conservative ideas? Can we say victim culture is out of control on college campuses? Absolutely. But can we make that point without adopting the rhetoric of the culture we're criticizing? Can we say "people would like to silence me but they won't succeed" instead of "I feel silenced," and "we have a right to express unpopular opinions" instead of "we feel our opinions aren't welcome"? Can we cut out the feels, please?

By indulging in the very rhetoric they are criticizing, the OU College Republicans and their ilk are not helping the fight for more open dialogue on campus. They're hurting it. They're buying into the underlying premises: you're silenced if you feel silenced. You have a right to be welcomed, not just to speak. You have a right not to be "put down" and ridiculed and condemned. By adopting the rhetoric of those premises they are promoting them. The result is that they've built up the culture of victimhood they're criticizing.

Look, guys: you need to cowboy up.

Challenged About the First Amendment, Eric Posner Lies About It

Last week I wrote about Professor Eric Posner's latest proposal for new First Amendment exceptions, placing it in the context of his history of advocacy for expanded free speech restrictions. Many others criticized Posner, usually more articulately than I did.

In a more recent post addressing (sort of) his critics, Posner offers this rebuttal:

The third generic argument is that once one makes an exception to broad protections for freedom of speech, the camel’s nose is under the tent, we have stepped onto a slippery slope, etc. These clichés are as dry as dust and not even true. Courts have constructed countless exceptions to the First Amendment’s apparent unconditional protection for speech, including exceptions for defamation, child pornography, copying, fraud, and more—and yet none of these exceptions have expanded to swallow up the rule.

I recognize that "countless" is a figure of speech, and difficult to prove or disprove. But offered to the end of censorship by a law professor, I am comfortable calling it a lie. At a minimum it is dishonest and misleading, part of pro-censorship movement's attempt to make Americans more ignorant about their civil rights.

Posner's argument — that there are "countless" exceptions to the First Amendment and it's perfectly natural to make more — is exactly the government's we-should-have-power-to-censor argument that the Supreme Court flatly rejected in United States v. Stevens in 2010. In Stevens — which I've written about before — the Supreme Court rejected the federal government's attempt to create the first of many new "balancing" based ad-hoc exceptions to the First Amendment. Faced with loathsome speech — so-called "crush videos" depicting animals being killed for pleasure — the court unequivocally reaffirmed that the set of First Amendment exceptions is historically based and finite and cannot be expanded based on the of-the-moment application of "balancing tests":

“From 1791 to the present,” however, the First Amendment has “permitted restrictions upon the content of speech in a few limited areas,” and has never “include[d] a freedom to disregard these traditional limitations.” Id., at 382–383. These “historic and traditional categories long familiar to the bar,” Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of N. Y. State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U. S. 105, 127 (1991) (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment)—including obscenity, Roth v. United States, 354 U. S. 476, 483 (1957), defamation, Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U. S. 250, 254–255 (1952), fraud, Virginia Bd. of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U. S. 748, 771 (1976), incitement, Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U. S. 444, 447–449 (1969) (per curiam), and speech integral to criminal conduct, Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co., 336 U. S. 490, 498 (1949)—are “well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem.” Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568, 571–572 (1942).
. . .
The Government contends that “historical evidence” about the reach of the First Amendment is not “a necessary prerequisite for regulation today,” Reply Brief 12, n. 8, and that categories of speech may be exempted from the First Amendment’s protection without any long-settled tradition of subjecting that speech to regulation. Instead, the Government points to Congress’s “ ‘legislative judgment that … depictions of animals being intentionally tortured and killed [are] of such minimal redeeming value as to render [them] unworthy of First Amendment protection,’ ” Brief for United States 23 (quoting 533 F. 3d, at 243 (Cowen, J., dissenting)), and asks the Court to uphold the ban on the same basis. The Government thus proposes that a claim of categorical exclusion should be considered under a simple balancing test: “Whether a given category of speech enjoys First Amendment protection depends upon a categorical balancing of the value of the speech against its societal costs.” Brief for United States 8; see also id., at 12.

As a free-floating test for First Amendment coverage, that sentence is startling and dangerous. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits. The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it. The Constitution is not a document “prescribing limits, and declaring that those limits may be passed at pleasure.” Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 178 (1803).

Saying that courts have created "countless" exceptions to the First Amendment is not true. The opposite is true: courts have made those exceptions expressly limited and enumerated. They have done so in the course of rejecting Posner's exact argument.

There are foes of the First Amendment. And they lie. Watch them. Call them out. Fight them.

Edited to add: Just remembered that in my post about anti-free-speech media tropes, I said this:

Trope Eight: "[Professor] explained . . . ."

Example: "The exhibit of cartoons in Texas might have crossed the line, [Professor] Szmer said."

The media loves to quote a professor to support a viewpoint. This is intellectually neutral: it can be good or bad, depending on the honesty and qualifications of the professor selected.

Quoting professors about law is particularly risky, if your aim is an accurate and informative discussion of free speech law. If you call a physics professor and ask them what will happen if you drop your pencil, and why, he or she will say "it will fall, because of gravity." There is a relatively low chance that the professor will tell you "well, maybe nothing will happen" because he or she harbors the belief that the current gravitic regime is unfair and otherwise problematical. But when you call a professor of law, or political science, or journalism, and ask them a question about whether some controversial speech is protected by the First Amendment, there is an unacceptably high probability that you will get a quote expressing what the professor thinks the law ought to be. Sometimes the professor will flag a statement as an argumentative one, sometimes not. Moreover, some professors . . . . how can one put this delicately? Some law professors' views on how a court is likely to rule on an issue are untainted by exposure to actual courts.

Many professors will give you a sober, accurate and well-informed assessment of how a court would likely approach a given free speech situation. The trick is separating those professors from ones who are out of their field or mere advocates.


Eric Posner: The First Amendment's Nemesis

Every hero needs a villain.

Not only that, ever hero needs a suitable villain, a villain that somehow complements the hero's attributes. If your hero is a very large collection of Dalmatians, you need a villain who craves a Dalmatian-skin suit. If your hero is Aquaman, you need either a seafood-themed villain or perhaps a desert-themed villain, depending on your mood. If your hero is The Flash, you need a gigantic gorilla, because — well, okay. There are exceptions.

The First Amendment is not an exception. The First Amendment is a hero, of a sort: a tireless defender of expression from angry mobs and fickle tastes, a sentinel against the sort of annoy-me-and-I-kill-you rule that has prevailed for most of humanity's history. So of course it has a villain, a foe, cackling and scheming and plotting to tie it up and lower it into a bubbling vat of stinking, unprincipled lit-crit twaddle.

That villain is Eric Posner, professor at the University of Chicago. I would not go as far as to call him super-, but he is certainly the First Amendment's archvillain.

Professor Posner is in the news again with his latest call to restrict free speech. But you can't just leap in and read that cold. No! That would be like jumping into late-season Daredevil and not understanding why that nice gentleman from Law & Order seems so morose. You have to know the backstory: before you watch this week's battle, you have to see at least some of the battles that have gone before.

In that spirit, I offer you a sort of episode guide. Careful — there are spoilers!

Episode One: Wrath of the Blasphemed. In this episode, Posner plots to overturn the First Amendment in favor of international anti-blasphemy norms, and allow government punishment of speech he believes has "no value whatsoever." Little do his victims know the real nature of the international anti-blasphemy norms he touts: they are tools for religious majorities to oppress minorities, cruel whips that the powerful use to lash the powerless. Is that end this fiend's aim, or is he merely indifferent to it in his quest for the power to control speech? Tune in to find out.

Episode Two: Eric's Army of Darkness. In this episode, temporarily thwarted in America by the First Amendment, Posner seeks to overthrow free speech in Europe through clever reliance on violent terrorists. Faced with the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Posner sees fear and violence as the path to power over what people can say: he proposes that speech should be limited based upon what his motley league terms "low value," and based on the threat that if he is not given free reign to censor, fanatics will shed blood:

Me: if hate-speech laws had been enforced against Charlie Hebdo, then this attack would not have happened. So at a minimum, there is some evidence that they reduce violence. Rauch is right that hate-speech laws cannot be applied “neutrally.” But they can be enforced sensibly, to censor low-value speech that offends groups to the extent that violence may result.

Will the Europeans realize that this theory cedes control over speech to the subjective reactions of (1) foes of speech like Posner, and (2) the sort of fanatics who kill over cartoons? Find out next week! (Spoiler: no.)

Episode Three: Attack of the Zombie Children.> In this episode, Posner realizes that college students have underdeveloped brains ripe for control, control that can be exercised through more muscular speech codes and expression limitations. In what will become an ongoing theme this season, Posner harkens wistfully harkens back to an era will less freedom:

Yet college students have not always enjoyed so much autonomy. The modern freedoms of college students date back only to the 1960s, when a wave of anti-authoritarianism, inspired by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, swept away strict campus codes in an era of single-sex dorms.

Episode Four: The Listener. The First Amendment is on vacation so a disconsolate Eric Posner skulks around throwing rocks at the Fourth Amendment's windows.

Episode Five: In Which Posner Seeks To Sell Our Birthright Of Liberty for a mess of pottage that is security theater. You're caught up to the current episode! This time, Eric Posner proposes a law that "makes it a crime to access websites that glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS; to distribute links to those websites or videos, images, or text taken from those websites; or to encourage people to access such websites by supplying them with links or instructions." This will help prevent ISIS from recruiting American teenagers, just as laws against copyright infringement have effectively held them back from music and video piracy. Posner wants to invent a sinister time machine to take us back to the early 20th century, before modern speech protections:

However, these rules go back only to the 1960s. Before then, in the United States, people could be punished for engaging in dangerous speech. The U.S. government prosecuted Nazi sympathizers during World War II, draft protesters during World War I, and Southern sympathizers in the Union during the Civil War. It’s common sense that when a country is embroiled in a war, it should counter propaganda that could populate a fifth column with recruits.* The pattern in American history—and, in the other democracies as well, even today—is that during times of national emergency, certain limits on speech will be tolerated.

In other words, Posner is enthusiastically encouraging a return to the time when you could be jailed for questioning whether a war was just or expressing opposition to the draft.

Eric Posner is well-cast as the First Amendment's nemesis: he represents everything it stands against. He represents obeisance to passing tastes about what is couth, clenched fists of power disguised as helping hands, suppression dressed up as order. He is the Foe.

A villain has to be a little scary — there has to be at least some possibility that he'll prevail and overthrow the hero.

But the First Amendment has a lot of friends. I like its chances in this fight.

Safe Spaces As Shield, Safe Spaces As Sword: Part II


When I wrote yesterday about the notion of "safe spaces" being used to annex public spaces and dictate what may be spoken within them, I didn't imagine that modern academia would provide me with another example so swiftly. The place is the University of Missouri, where students accused the administration of indifference to overt racism. Activists demanded, and got, some high-level resignations over the matter. (They didn't get everything they wanted: as far as I can tell their distinctly Maoist demand for a handwritten confession and acknowledgement of ideological tenets was not met.) Agree with them or not, the Mizzou activists engaged in classic protected speech, at least to this point.

The safe-space-as-sword came during the victory celebration. The proposition was wantonly naked: the university's public spaces that activists had chosen to occupy were a no-dissent zone, where activists were entitled to be free from differing interpretations of events:


The "parameters" in question were the public university's quad, one of the most quintessentially public spaces in American law and tradition. This sentiment — that students could take over a public space, use it to express their views on a public issue, and shut other views out of it in the name of emotional safety — was vigorously enforced by a crowd threatening a photographer and a communications professor shouting for "muscle" to help her expel media.

All of this — engendered by accusations of racism against African-Americans — comes within living memory of people asserting their right to make public venues culturally "safe spaces" free of African-Americans. Of course, those safety-minded citizens were somewhat less sophisticated in their jargon. They had signs too.

Some people look on this sentiment and despair. I don't. It's a good thing for America to see how mainstream the spirit of censorship is. Some people say the censorship discredits the substantive values the students are fighting for. I don't. The protest about racism rises or falls on its own merits; the anti-dissent sentiment is so banal and common in academia now, and students aren't taught any different. It would be like saying that t-shirts and bad hair discredit the ideas the protesters are fighting for. Some people suggest that these students (and professors) deserve to face the censorship they encourage. I don't. Deserve's got nothing to do with it. We routinely protect the freedoms of people who scorn freedom: Nazis marching at Skokie, Westboro Baptist Church members protesting at funerals, and other assorted nitwits who dream of an America where their whims are law. That's the deal. We're not going to change because some academics and students are thuggish louts. We're not them. The sentiment "only people we agree with deserve rights" is theirs, not ours.

White People Are Good With Cows, Brown University People Are Bad With Free Speech

Last month I picked on students at Wesleyan. Today, it's the turn of students at Brown.

A few weeks ago the Brown Daily Herald published a rather odd and meandering column by M. Dzali Maier '17 entitled "The White Privilege of Cows" that pondered whether some cultures thrived more than others because of circumstance or because of biological differences. For example:

Thus, whenever I see a white college student, reeking of privilege, I recall the coincidence (or causal relationship) between white physical features and animal agriculture. It is still a question whether or not evolution endowed Eurasians with skills utilized to capitalize on the good luck of livestock animals, or whether Eurasian features just happen to be a poor man’s clue to agricultural history.

Um. Okay. "White People: Naturally Good With Livestock?" I see a series of awkward meetings with a thesis adviser in Maier's future.

I'm generally uninterested in investing much time or effort into exploring whether human ethnic groups have innate biological differences that contribute to "success." I start out very skeptical, since it's a field that is historically so driven by junk science and bigotry. Now? Well, to paraphrase the Simpsons, even though the subject may not be inherently racist, it's #1 with racists. Ultimately I don't see it changing how I treat people, or how the law should treat them, whatever the outcome of the inquiry.

But it's a concept that the marketplace of ideas can deal with very handily. College juniors asserting in student newspapers that white folks may be naturally good with cows does not strike me as an event requiring official intervention.

I'm not sure that's the prevailing sentiment of modern students, or of faculty.

To the extent that anything at Brown is notable, the angry reaction to Maier's column was. The paper added a cringing apology at the start of the column.

We initially made the decision to publish the column, as we generally edit opinions columns for style and clarity alone, giving our columnists great leeway in making their argument as part of our commitment to freedom of expression. We regret that decision and believe it’s clear that this column crossed the line from an opinion we merely disagree with to one that has no place in our paper. The Herald is committed to an accurate and thoughtful opinions section, and we are taking steps to prevent similar issues in the future.

Students and recent graduates called openly for censorship of speech like Maier's. Students demanded that the paper apologize and commit to ill-defined ideological boundaries. An English professor opined that speech can cause physical and emotional harm. Notably, students attacked not only the column, but the sentiment that the paper ought to be free to publish it. Take Alex Seoh '14:

When you defend harmful speech, you are not just a bystander. You are a barrier to social change. Whether you ultimately delay the realization of civil rights and gender equity by weeks, months or years, you are delaying our progress, and you will be on the wrong side of history. Freedom of speech should be valued but not when it infringes upon the freedom of others. It is clear how “The white privilege of cows” infringed upon the rights of people of color here at Brown.

Students Liam Dean-Johnson '16, Aidan Dunbar '16, Anastasiya Gorodilova '16, Nico Sedivy '17, and Madison Shiver '17 resorted to the familiar argument that free speech for some inhibits the rights of others whose feelings are hurt. Though they tried to frame their argument as being about the paper's editorial standards, ultimately their point is that the concept of free speech should serve a particular ideological point of view:

Censorship has a particular meaning that has been lost in these debates. Censorship is the exercise of power to suppress challenges to the status quo. People of color calling attention to racism does not constitute an overbearing power structure that will limit free speech. The oppressed by definition cannot censor their oppressor.

It probably doesn't occur to those students to question what constitutes the status quo, and what constitutes power, on a particular college campus. Fish don't know they're swimming.

Some faculty in the Brown community pushed back and supported Maier's right to write the column and the paper's right to run it. So did some students. But like the Wesleyan incident, Brown's tumult reflects that an appetite for censorship is common and mainstream, not an outlier.

Should student newspapers exercise some editorial control in deciding which opinion columns to run? Sure. Most papers aren't going to run an editorial arguing that the moon landing was faked or that the sun revolves around the Earth. Could a student paper have declined to run Maier's column on the grounds that, scientifically, it's gibberish? Maybe. But would that paper be subjecting every opinion column to intellectual rigor, or just the opinion columns that fell outside a range of popular viewpoints? Public clamor for censorship — and demands that papers apologize for publishing offensive viewpoints — do not create an environment where student journalists can make such decisions.

Let's Applaud Wesleyan's Student Censors For Honesty

Earlier this week I covered a tumult at Wesleyan, where students claimed to be silenced by a student newspaper op-ed they didn't like.

The student op-ed criticized the Black Lives Matter movement in a manner that strikes me as more bootlicking than racist. This yielded a cringing and cringeworthy apology from the Wesleyan Argus' staff (bad) and a vocal commitment to free speech by Wesleyan's President (good).

Some Wesleyan students have responded with a petition and list of demands, which 171 students and alumni have signed as I write this. Here's a hard copy in case it gets disappeared. Edited to add: looks like critics are editing it to satirize it, so look at the hard copy instead for an accurate view of what it looked like.

I like the petition. I like it because the students aren't pretending to be anything but censorious: it's honest.

The students signing the petition agree to "boycott" the Argus, "recognizing that the paper has historically failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body." So far, this is a call for responsive expression, which is fine. From there it gets scary. "Most specifically, it neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color and we are doubtful that it will in the future." In context, it appears that "safe space for the voices of students of color" means "a newspaper that won't print anything that this particular group of students of color finds objectionable," an aim worthy only of our open scorn.

"This boycott includes recycling the Argus," the petition continues. What does "recycling" mean? It means taking and throwing away copies of a free student newspaper so that others can't read content you don't like, and it's a nationwide problem, as the Student Press Law Center documents. People who respond to student paper content they don't like by trashing the paper to suppress it are thug trash, and it's nice of them to sign a self-identifying petition.

The petition goes on to demand that Wesleyan defund the Argus until their demands are met. Those demands include "Monthly Report on allocation of funds and leadership structure" (that is, more intensive control of a newspaper by student government), "Required-once a semester- Social Justice/Diversity training for all publications (Via Elisa Cardona/SALD office)" (meaning mandatory ideological conformity training on publications via school administration), and "Open spaces dedicated for marginalized groups/voices if no submissions: BLANK that states: 'for your voice” on the front page" (meaning, quotas for expression by particular predefined groups, somewhat like the thankfully-abandoned and Orwellian-named Fairness Doctrine).

Bear this in mind: Black Lives Matter is an explicitly political movement with explicitly political goals. Many of those goals — like questioning and monitoring disproportionate police violence against young black men — are worthy. But the notion that there is only one correct way to think about a political movement is monstrous and un-American. Wesleyan is a private school; they can abandon basic notions of free expression and turn their school into a training ground for ideological conformity if they want to. But isn't it thoughtful of these students and alumni to say exactly what they want, without equivocation? They've thoughtfully provided a list of people never to hire.

The War For Free Speech Laws, Hearts, And Minds Is Endless

I do not anticipate an end to the war for, or against, free speech in academia. Last week was a bloody one in that struggle.

In California, the Regents of the University of California had an opportunity to wave glorious banners of censorship, blow trumpets, and retreat from the field. Some committee or working group proposed a Statement of Principles Against Intolerance, a dog's breakfast of poorly-defined wrongthink that would be patently unconstitutional if made mandatory. The Statement had what amounted to a censorship-abjuring loophole: it said that it could not "be used as the basis to discipline students, faculty,
or staff," making it more a proclamation of feels than a rule.

But it does not appear that bargain will hold. At a contentious Regents' meeting, several Regents demanded that the policy be be reworked to inflict punishment for violations of the vaguely-worded and generally unprincipled intolerance code. Regent Richard C. Blum threatened that his wife, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, would interfere and make trouble if the Regents didn't commit to punish people for prohibited speech. Meanwhile, students and faculty battled over whether the intolerance statement should adopt the State Department's definition of anti-Semitism and therefore cave to some factions that believe that Jews have a special right to be protected from certain arguments about Israel.

I predict that the University of California will take the wrong path and wind up buying a beach house for some lawyer.

Free speech still has principled support in academia, articulated by leaders who insist that students act like adults. In Nebraska, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman rebuked calls to censor preachers in Nebraska Union Plaza with a forthright call for free expression:

The university does not condone these comments. One would hope that the campus could enjoy intellectual disagreements without this type of rhetoric. Nonetheless, as far as we can determine the speakers were within their First Amendment rights of free speech. We have designated the plaza outside the Nebraska Union as a place where provocative speech can be conducted without disruption of the ongoing activities of the university.

. . . .

We all have the option to avoid the plaza if we neither want to hear nor be subjected to this type of language. In the end, we are fortunate to live in a free society where speech is protected, regardless of how offensive or provocative it might be.

At Wesleyan, when the student paper printed a controversial op-ed questioning the Black Lives Matter movement, University President Michael Roth defended the paper's right to print it and rejected demands that it be punished:

Some students not only have expressed their disagreement with the op-ed but have demanded apologies, a retraction and have even harassed the author and the newspaper’s editors. Some are claiming that the op-ed was less speech than action: it caused harm and made people of color feel unsafe.

Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

The existence of a few principled allies in the war for free speech is heartening. The existence of foes like Regent Blum (and his wife, a U.S. Senator) is not. But most disheartening of all is the recognition that in fighting for free speech we struggle against an army of child soldiers. At Wesleyan, students responded to their Presidents' example with arguments that free speech should be suppressed because it "silences" other speech and that permitting expression of viewpoints they don't like is a "coward's approach." At the student paper, editors wrote a cringing apology for having offered an offensive viewpoint. Will that paper allow a substantially non-conforming viewpoint in an op-ed again? I fear it will not.

The child soldiers — young people devoted to using official power to punish ideas they don't like — are terrifying because they seem so divorced from core American values like liberty, freedom of conscience and expression, and individual responsibility. Let's not forget that's our own damned fault.