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Censorship Is an ‘Unjustifiable Privilege’ by Chris Marchese

Free Speech Is about the Power to Challenge the Status Quo!

Free speech is the great equalizer in our society. It doesn’t matter about your race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, class — you get the point — the First Amendment protects your right to speak freely. Despite this, some student activists — perceiving unequal social conditions, including at institutions of higher education — are fighting for social change at the expense of free speech. The sad irony, however, is that free speech only becomes privileged when it’s restricted, which is why free speech must remain a right equally applicable to all.

To understand why, consider Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s commencement speech at Wellesley College in 2015. In it, she said, “You, because of your beautiful Wellesley degree, have become privileged, no matter your background.” But, she added, “Sometimes you will need to push [this privilege] aside in order to see clearly,” because “privilege blinds” you to those who are different.

Students calling for speech restrictions are particularly blinded by their privilege, which leaves them unable to see the unjust privilege that restricting speech would further confer upon them. This is dangerous and counterproductive to their cause.

Restricting Speech Is an Unjust Privilege

First, to support restrictions on certain kinds of speech, activists must have (or at least project) unwavering confidence in both themselves and the system in which they are operating — the university in this case — to discern what’s offensive. Even if they see gray areas in expression, they are forced to present issues in absolutist terms if they are to have the perceived moral authority to police and punish those who offend.

Turning again to Adichie’s speech, we can see why this is wrong. As she said, “I knew from … the class privilege I had of growing up in an educated family, that it sometimes blinded me, that I was not always as alert to the nuances of people who were different from me.”

Sometimes, people are genuinely racist (though what’s considered racist varies widely from place to place) and their speech is identifiable as such. But what about the student who isn’t aware of the offense he or she may cause by wearing a sombrero at a party, which some consider cultural appropriation? How about the student who is aware but disagrees that it’s offensive? Should he or she be censored and punished based upon some activists’ standards of right and wrong? Different people have different experiences and different views. Because of this, nuance matters.

Second, while it can be tempting to argue that free speech maintains inequality because it protects offensive speech, this argument fails to distinguish between people and their views. That is, when you censor people — even for offensive speech — you are denying them equal access to, and protection of, the First Amendment and you are doing so from a position of privilege.  The right to free speech gives everyone an equal right to voice his or her opinions — but it does not mean that such opinions will win or even register in any given forum.

Restrictions on free speech, on the other hand, make both people and ideas unequal by subjugating them to someone else’s understanding of what’s right and therefore allowable. Indeed, to assume one’s views are so infallible as to warrant imposition on others and to assume there is no legitimate debate left to be had on certain topics — and the language used in discussing those topics — is a privilege that oppresses not only the hated racist, but the honest dissenter and everyone in between.

Lastly, some students claim that free speech is about power — that it enables and sustains privilege for some but not all. Let’s be clear: free speech is about power. It’s about having the power to challenge the status quo, question society’s deeply held beliefs, and call others to task. But free speech only becomes privileged when it’s restricted.

Understanding the Would-Be Censors

Of course words can have consequences. (If they couldn’t, nobody would bother speaking.) It would be hypocritical to argue that offensive speech will never cause harm, at least to feelings or interests, while also maintaining that speech is so vital it requires robust protection. One could also argue that the marketplace of ideas — like all markets — has negative externalities. The most evident, as campus activists assert, is that offensive speech is protected and those it’s directed at — typically thought to be minorities — are disproportionately burdened by it.

Moreover, restricting or punishing speech provides instant gratification. It’s an immediate and swift response to views one finds abhorrent. It gives the impression that justice has been served. For those who believe society is stacked against them, it’s a small beacon of hope. Restricting speech, then, isn’t seen as infringing upon someone else’s liberty, but rather righting a wrong. The emotional appeal is understandably strong.

But this is not right.

A Just Alternative

The best way to counter hateful, offensive speech is with more speech. Think of it this way: restricting speech treats the symptoms of bigotry by making its manifestations less visible. Conversely, more speech acts as a cure by attacking the underlying disease. The former method may seem effective in the short term, but it’s dangerous in the long run.

As FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff has argued, when offensive speech is banned, it drives those with potentially dangerous views (however determined) underground, making them harder to identify, while also potentially making them more extreme. It also gives a false sense of social progress. And who ultimately pays the price? The people the bans were meant to help, when it turns out society wasn’t as friendly as they believed.

Countering hateful speech with more speech is not seamless. It’s hard work, and it’s not instant. It doesn’t guarantee the flushing of all bigoted and hateful opinions from society, and it often works slowly. Nevertheless, it is the only method that is both just and that makes progress last. Engaging with people who express views different from one’s own moves beyond the superficial to challenge core beliefs, assumptions, and biases — and can help a person identify and recognize his or her own. Consider the case of Megan and Grace Phelps, granddaughters of the pastor who founded the Westboro Baptist Church. After interacting with a Jewish man by email and on Twitter, the sisters decided their views were wrong and decided to leave the WBC, which also meant being excommunicated by their family.

The marketplace of ideas won’t always work this way, and not everyone is destined to see the light. But restricting speech is a privileged response that neither makes society more equal nor has any tangible benefit other than providing a false sense of justice, which, in the long term, only fuels underlying problems. We cannot afford to be blind to this reality.

None of this should be construed as a plea to accept the status quo or to disengage. Rather, it’s a call for college students who support restricting speech to recognize their own privilege. Education is a gift, and college students should use the privilege it confers to advocate for change. But this means realizing free speech is not the enemy of progress, and that restricting it will not make society more equal. To do otherwise — to restrict and punish speech — is to be so willfully blind to privilege as to become the oppressors.

This article first appeared at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Chris Marchese

Chris Marchese is a communications assistant at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Where Is Speech Most Restricted in America? by George C. Leef

A good argument can be made that free speech is least safe on private college campuses.

At public universities, the First Amendment applies, thus giving students, faculty members, and everyone else protection against official censorship or punishment for saying things that some people don’t want said.

A splendid example of that was brought to a conclusion earlier this year at Valdosta State University, where the school’s president went on a vendetta against a student who criticized his plans for a new parking structure — and was clobbered in court. (I discussed that case here.)

But the First Amendment does not apply to private colleges and universities because they don’t involve governmental action. Oddly, while all colleges that accept federal student aid money must abide by a vast host of regulations, the Supreme Court ruled in Rendell-Baker v. Kohn that acceptance of such money does not bring them under the umbrella of the First Amendment.

At private colleges, the protection for freedom of speech has to be found (at least, in most states) in the implicit contract the school enters into with each incoming student. Ordinarily, the school holds itself out as guaranteeing certain things about itself and life on campus in its handbook and other materials. If school officials act in ways that depart significantly from the reasonable expectations it created, then the college can be held liable.

As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) puts it, “There is a limit to ‘bait-and-switch’ techniques that promise academic freedom and legal equality but deliver authoritarianism and selective censorship.”

With that legal background in mind, consider a recent case at Colorado College. If Franz Kafka or George Orwell had toyed with a similar plot, they’d probably have rejected it as too far-fetched.

Back in November, a student, Thaddeus Pryor, wrote the following reply to a comment (#blackwomenmatter) on the social media site Yik Yak: “They matter, they’re just not hot.” Another student, offended that someone was not taking things seriously, complained to college officials. After ascertaining that the comment had been written by Pryor, the Dean of Students summoned him to a meeting.

Pryor said that he was just joking. What he did not realize is that there are now many things that must not be joked about on college campuses. Some well-known American comedians have stopped playing on our campuses for exactly that reason, as Clark Conner noted in this Pope Center article.

In a subsequent letter, Pryor was informed by the Senior Associate Dean of Students that his anonymous six word comment violated the school’s policy against Abusive Behavior and Disruption of College Activities.

Did that comment actually abuse anyone? Did it in any way disrupt a college activity?

A reasonable person would say “of course not,” but many college administrators these days are not reasonable. They are social justice apparatchiks, eager to use their power to punish perceived enemies of progress like Thaddeus Pryor.

For having joked in a way that offended the wrong people, Pryor was told that he was suspended from Colorado College until June, 2017. Moreover, he is banned from setting foot on campus during that time. And in the final “pound of flesh” retribution, the school intends to prohibit him from taking any college credits elsewhere.

With FIRE’s able assistance, Pryor is appealing his punishment. Perhaps the college’s attorney will advise the president to back off since its own “Freedom of Expression” policy hardly suggests to students that they will be subject to severe punishment for merely making offensive jokes on a social media site. If the case were to go to trial, there is a strong likelihood that a jury would find Colorado College in breach of contract.

Even if the school retreats from its astounding overreaction to Pryor’s comment, the administration should worry that alums who aren’t happy that their school has fallen under the spell of thought control will stop supporting it.

This incident is emblematic of a widespread problem in American higher education today: administrators think it’s their job to police what is said on campus, even comments on a social media app. Many colleges and universities have vague speech codes and “harassment” policies that invite abuse; those positions tend to attract mandarins who are not scholars and do not value free speech and unfettered debate. They are committed to “progressive” causes and will gladly use their power to silence or punish anyone who doesn’t go along.

American colleges have been suffering through a spate of ugly protests this fall. Among the demands the protesters usually make is that the school mandate “diversity training” for faculty and staff. Instead of that, what most schools really need is tolerance training, with a special emphasis on the importance of free speech. Those who don’t “get it” should be advised to find other employment.

George C. Leef
George C. Leef

George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.