In September, Bernie Sanders made a campaign appearance at Liberty University, the Jerry Falwell-founded college and incubator for the religious right. Sanders’ speech emphasized themes of social justice in the Bible and other religious traditions, although without downplaying the obvious differences in how he thinks they should be applied. By all accounts, the response from Liberty’s students and staff was tepid, but polite:
“Calling on us to help the neediest, that resonates with me as a Christian,” said Quincy Thompson, the student body president, who had a chance to briefly meet Mr. Sanders after the event. “But as a Christian, I think the responsibility to help them falls to the church, not the government.”
Charles C.W. Cooke, a writer for the National Review, took the opportunity to gloat, imagining that a conservative political candidate would never get such hospitality at a traditionally liberal college:
Look at how Sanders was treated at Liberty. Now imagine Santorum at Oberlin. You’d see safe spaces, interruptions, people chained to things.
— Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) September 14, 2015
The inconvenient reality is that Liberty, like other closed-minded fundamentalist sects, is far more hostile to free speech and free expression than any liberal university. All its students are required to affirm a strictly specific doctrinal statement and are forbidden to possess books, music and other media perceived to contain “anti-Christian” content. Most infamously, the school shut down a chapter of the College Democrats, claiming that “the Democratic Party platform is contrary to the mission of Liberty University and to Christian doctrine”.
There was never any possibility that Liberty students would protest or disrupt the Sanders event. In fact, they had no choice about attending, since the college invited him to speak during Convocation, a regular event for which attendance is mandatory. And Liberty’s rules ban protests, demonstrations and unapproved political activity of all kinds, both on campus and off.
Liberty University is closed to “dissenting views” in ways that have no parallel whatsoever on the nation’s liberal campuses. There’s just no comparison.
Liberty’s administration may have invited Sanders in a bid to prove their open-mindedness. But it falls flat, considering Liberty students who tried to advocate the same views would be – and have been – dealt with harshly, with no pretense of fairness or due process. Their apparent openness to dissenting viewpoints is just a sham designed to make them seem more tolerant than they really are.
This doesn’t mean that hostility to free speech is the sole domain of religious conservatives. Recently, Maryam Namazie was invited to speak at Warwick University by a campus secular group, the Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists Society. But that invitation was rescinded by decree of the Warwick Student Union, which explained their decision only by asserting that she was “highly inflammatory, and could incite hatred on campus”. The president of Warwick SU, Isaac Leigh, said that banning Namazie was necessary in order to protect “the right of Muslim students not to feel intimidated or discriminated against”.
In this particular case, there was a happy ending: After protests, Warwick reversed that decision and allowed Namazie’s speech to go ahead after all. But this is just one example of a trend of blacklisting and denial that’s become common enough to get its own term, “no-platforming“.
To reiterate the obvious: in the strict sense, “free speech” only applies to cases where speech is suppressed by the government. No private college has an obligation to invite or allow absolutely anyone to use its campus as a platform. However, banning speakers based on the content of their views is undeniably repugnant to the spirit of what a university is meant to be. The mission of a university is to serve as a forum for the exchange of ideas and the diffusion of knowledge. That can’t take place if some authority declares by fiat that certain ideas are off-limits for public discussion. And if a student group extends an invitation to an outside speaker, it’s undeniably chilling for a higher power on campus to overrule them and block that invitation.
It’s true that fierce, freewheeling, open debate can be stressful or upsetting. It can inflict or reopen very real wounds, especially for survivors of trauma and injustice for whom these issues are more than merely academic. It’s also the only way that society can progress. It’s the only way to sift good ideas from bad ones, to bring previously overlooked truths to light, to make people want to be better than they are. And it’s a necessary ingredient in the painful process of self-questioning that’s at the root of all learning and growth.
The idea that free speech should be suppressed for the greater good is all too easily exploited by those currently in power to stifle ideas that challenge them. That’s the whole purpose of blasphemy laws. Laws against “obscenity” have been used to suppress speech that attacked religion, taught accurate information about sex, or depicted love and family in ways that ran counter to popular prejudice.
Once you grant yourself the right to block or ban speech based on its content or on the identity of the speaker, you’ve uncorked a very dangerous genie indeed. The question, as always, is who gets to decide which speech should be allowed and which should be shut out. What happens when that power falls into the wrong hands? What if it’s your worst enemy who ends up holding the reins?
I wouldn’t trust anyone, however good their intentions, to make that decision on my behalf. Because, make no mistake, that’s what’s at issue here. Everyone, including students, already has the right not to participate in a conversation that angers or upsets them. What’s being contemplated is a policy that those conversations shouldn’t happen at all, that no one should hear these ideas – even if it’s only to get a clearer idea of why they’re wrong. Again, if this policy only applies within the bounds of a particular university, then strictly speaking no one’s free speech has been taken away. But it’s a bad omen for society when we teach people that this is the appropriate way to respond to an idea you disagree with.
When I’m told that an idea is too dangerous, too outrageous, too subversive to be aired, that only makes me want to hear it even more. And that’s the worst harm of no-platforming policies. Good ideas can stand on their own without help, whereas bad ideas should be aired so that they can be disproved. Paradoxically, censorship undermines both these goals. It implants in people’s minds the suspicion that the good ideas need protection because they can’t withstand criticism, while at the same time helps the bad ones to flourish by allowing their advocates to cloak themselves in the mantle of martyrdom. If we want to weed out bad ideas, the best way to do it is by exposing their fallacy, and a robust policy of free speech is the best – the only – way to do that.