Why I am a Free-Speech Fundamentalist

I am a free-speech fundamentalist. That is, I hold that public forums, including public universities, should be open to the free expression of opinion. Period. Even when the opinion is offensive and obnoxious. Especially when the opinion is offensive and obnoxious. There can be no free speech if it is required that the speech not offend anyone. There can be no free speech if only certain viewpoints or ideologies are permitted. There can be no free speech if certain topics are sacrosanct and not allowed to be touched. Does that mean that white supremacist Richard Spencer should be allowed a platform? Yes. Does it mean that professional provocateurs such as Ann Coulter and Milos Yiannopoulos should be allowed to do their odious act? Yes. But what about those whose feelings would be deeply hurt by the mindless effusions of such trolls? Tough. You have no right not to be offended. You also have no right to shout down such speakers or prevent their audience from hearing them. If you do so, you should be forcibly ejected from the premises.

As a graduate student in Canada in the early ‘80s I observed mob censorship at work. A group on campus had invited American General Norman Schwarzkopf to speak. The local lefty activists turned out in droves to scream, boo, and shriek their opposition, pretty much drowning out the general. It was not a protest. It was an attempt, unfortunately successful, to keep someone from being heard who was saying something that the mob members did not like. Several of the organizers and participants in this shameful event were fellow philosophy grad students. When I confronted them and asked them whether they believed in free speech, they candidly said that they did not. They said that they were all for the speech of the oppressed but that the oppressors had no right to speak.

My query was: And who gets to decide who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor? Suppose that a campus feminist group invited a speaker to defend abortion rights. Suppose then that hundreds of raucous anti-abortion demonstrators showed up to shout her down, insisting that abortion oppresses babies, and that they are speaking for the silenced and the oppressed, the aborted babies. Would that be OK? Of course it was not OK, but no matter how hard I pressed, their justification boiled down to this: “I get to speak because I am right and you do not because you are wrong.” Can’t anybody say that? Hasn’t every little fanatic and tin pot tyrant through history justified the denial of free speech on the grounds that only the right side deserved to be heard?

The strongest argument against free speech is this: The purpose of free speech is the exchange of ideas, to participate in a cooperative search for clarity and truth by the vigorous clash of reasoned and informed viewpoints. Yet not all speakers have an interest in seeking clarity and truth; on the contrary, like Internet trolls, their aim is to harass and insult, to hurt and provoke. By not providing a platform for, for instance, racist rants or homophobic diatribes we do not inhibit the free exchange of ideas. On the contrary, such speakers have no ideas and their effusions have no more intellectual content than shouting “Kiss my ass!” or “[Bleep] you!” It is not a matter of proscribing controversial content, but of insisting that there be content.

As always, though, when we have censorship, we have to ask who the censors are and whether we are willing to give them such power. Who would get to decide, for instance, who is a “responsible” conservative who is to be granted a platform, and who is merely a “right-wing nut” to be screamed down? Are we willing to give unruly mobs such power? How do we prevent abuses? Here is what recently happened recently here in Houston: When the School of Law at Texas Southern University, a historically black university, invited a conservative state representative, a mob shouted him down and tried to prevent his speech. Then the president of the university stepped in and shut down the event. The invited speaker, Briscoe Cain, is a tea-party style, religious fundamentalist conservative, but he is not a cross-burner or a neo-Nazi by any means. Mobs are not known for their ability to make clear, reasoned distinctions. The result of censorship will inevitably be, “I get to speak because I am right, and you do not because you are wrong.”

But don’t campuses have a responsibility to protect the well-being of their students, which will include shielding them from hateful rhetoric? However, we seem to have a curious double standard with respect to who gets to offend whom. What if a campus Christian group invites a speaker who will argue that “religious liberty” should permit businesses not to serve openly gay or lesbian customers? Now suppose that the campus LGBTQ group strongly objects to the appearance of this speaker, and invites a speaker of its own who argues that conservative Christians are homophobic bigots. Should both speakers be allowed, neither, or only one? (And I know which one many university administrators would want to allow.) Is it acceptable to offend conservative Christians but not LGBTQ students? Why? Either we protect everybody from being offended, in which case nobody ever gets to say anything controversial, or we say “Suck it up. You have no right not to be offended. That is the price of free speech.”

Besides, as I know from my own students, they are not “snowflakes” who melt down in the face of controversy. When I raise a hot topic in class (and I never give a “trigger warning”) they do not clutch their pearls and get the vapors. Nobody swoons and calls for smelling salts. I have, on a very few occasions, had students make prejudicial or homophobic comments in class. When they do, I don’t have to say anything because other students in the class come down on them like the proverbial ton of bricks. That is the way to handle a bigot, not to scream, wail, and have a conniption fit.

The right way to deal with offensive speakers was shown by my undergraduate school, little Berry College, a small liberal arts school in northwest Georgia. We invited to campus a notorious local figure, J.B. Stoner. Stoner was a paleo-racist, a cross-burner and race-baiter from way back, who frequently ran for statewide office on a states’ rights, white supremacist ticket. Everyone listened quietly to Stoner, with occasional chuckles at his grammatical solecisms. Afterwards, a large, but polite group of students approached Stoner for questioning. I asked him why he considered African-Americans inferior. He replied that they score ten to fifteen points lower on intelligence tests. I responded that Jews score on average five points above average on I.Q. tests, and asked if that means that Jews are superior. He stumbled over an answer and did not look terribly comfortable. Really, though, nothing that we asked made him look as bad as he made himself look. There is an algorithm for making an idiot look like an idiot: Let him rant. Let him show everybody what a fool he is. Screaming and denying him a platform only creates the entirely misleading impression that he has something significant to say.