When students protest on American campuses against unjust speakers, they're decrying destructive speech, not free speech.
There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about how college campuses are overrun with lefty “snowflakes”—students and professors (and even administrators)—who try to shut down free speech because they can’t handle opinions that contradict their existing beliefs.
I believe the naysayers are usually mistaken (yet, not always, unfortunately). But, in my experience, student activists are generally principled, not weak.
Some opinions, I think it’s fair to say, are so untrue and noxious to society that they almost cry out for censorship. Like that trans and gay kids are “groomed” to be that way.
The trick is deciding what speech should be censored or restricted, if any. But protecting fragile sensitivities should not be the goal of any speech limitations; protecting truth should be. Students should always be intellectually challenged, even if its disturbing, but not in the service of mendacity or hate.
Yet, we should remind ourselves that “censorship” is not necessarily a dirty word.
We do it all the time in American society, without much thought or controversy, from NC-17 movie ratings, which prohibit viewing by children under 18, to profane language restricted on non-cable television broadcasts under Federal Communication Commission (FCC) obscenity rules.
So, what would be so bad that it begs to be banned from public discourse and display?
Well, for example, a good number of European countries (including Germany), plus Canada and Israel, have enacted laws against Holocaust denial, a refusal to accept the demonstrable reality of the systematic genocidal murder of approximately six million Jews and other marginalized people in Europe by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
Keep in mind that fervent neo-Nazi groups still abound in the world, so fascist Naziism is not a risk that has faded away in human affairs.
Yes, outlawing denial of this epic evil necessarily limits free speech, but these countries have made the democratic decision that it’s so toxic and dangerous an idea that curtailing free expression in this respect is justifiable.
Free speech, of course, is a noble ideal to strive for, but so are truth and national security. When truth and public safety are grievously corrupted by purposeful mendacity—the stock in trade of Adolf Hitler and his modern-day apologists—free speech is reasonably restricted as an appropriate defensive measure.
As is free and unfettered speech in the United States restricted to protect American children from explicit sexual material on the silver screen.
On college campuses in the past few years, moves to control speech have generally centered around the issues of racism, misogyny, and gender fluidity—”culture-war” flash points—and the often-aggressive discourse attending them is often characterized as “hate speech.”
Should any of this be controlled?
The answer arguably is, yes, if necessary to uphold truth, common decency, and the primacy of certain norms fundamentally essential our society, such as equality, personal agency, and safety. People who promote these hateful ideologies often assault, even murder, people in the targeted marginalized communities.
When naysayers publicly promote the ideas that Americans are not all inherently equal, that each individual is not the captain of his or her own fate (or gender preference), and that men are superior to women, that whites are superior to non-whites, why should they be accommodated? For the good of all citizens and for the nation as a whole, they should be, as they say these days, deplatformed (or prosecuted).
Like whether or not the Holocaust happened, certain ideas in certain societies are not debatable. Like whether truth is preferable to lies is not debatable. Or whether avoidable conflict is preferable to peace.
Relevant to this discussion is yet another recent campus dust-up around free speech.
University of Pennsylvania Dean of Students Theodore W. Ruger has filed a complaint and requested a faculty hearing to consider imposing a “major sanction” against Amy Wax, a tenured UPenn law professor, the New York Times reported last week.
Wax reportedly has a longstanding reputation as an academic gadfly who thumbs her nose at intellectual and personal niceties.
Among Wax’s alleged sins, The Times reported: she has been quoted as saying “on average, Blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites,” that the country is “better off with fewer Asians” as long as they tend to vote for Democrats, and that non-Western people feel a “tremendous amount of resentment and shame.” And her university’s administration revealed that she once told a Black law student who had attended UPenn and Yale that she “had only become a double-Ivy [UPenn and Yale are elite Ivy League schools] because of affirmative action.”
Wax’s detractors view her barbed, disrespectful pronouncements as unadulterated, abusive racism. Wrote Vimel Patel in his Times piece:
Professor Wax has denied saying anything belittling or racist to students, and her supporters see her as a truth teller about affirmative action, immigration and race. They agree with her argument that she is the target of censorship and “wokeism” because of her conservative views.
Free-speech proponents emphasized one of the critical tenets of tenure: the right of professors to “speak freely, without fear of punishment, whether in public or in the classroom.”
In his official 12-page complaint, Dean Ruger wrote that Wax for years has exhibited “callous and flagrant disregard” for students, faculty and staff, subjecting them to “intentional and incessant racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic actions and statements.”
Assuming these are accurate allegations, the question might be, what would be the practical benefit to the school, its students or society of protecting this kind of speech and behavior?
How does protecting ideas and behaviors that our society in consensus fundamentally abhors—racism, inequality, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, et al.—achieve anything but harm?
Free-speech purists insist Americans are smart and perceptive enough to recognize political and intellectual charlatans when they hear them (so we don’t need to censor them). As if. If such Yankee perceptivity were true, lifelong flim-flam man and scofflaw Donald Trump would never had been elected president (or received more than 70 million votes in losing re-election in 2020).
In a recent podcast, Wax complained that Universities sought to “banish and punish” anyone “who dares to dissent, who dares to expose students to different ideas. …That is a really dangerous and pernicious trend.”
But what if those “dissenters” attempt to corrupt society’s core values with debunkable opinion rather than supportable fact?
In his Times’ piece, Patel notes that students have asked whether Wax’s litany of arguably un-American statements are “relevant to her performance in the classroom? Don’t they show the potential for bias? And does this professor, and this speech, deserve the protection of tenure?”
Even free-speech groups admit that some of her statements, if made in personal interactions with students “could be deemed abusive, and are not covered by tenure.”
To get a flavor of Wax’s mindset, here’s a snippet from a recent podcast:
I often chuckle at the ads on TV which show a Black man married to a white woman in an upper-class picket-fence house. They never show Blacks the way they really are: a bunch of single moms with a bunch of guys who float in and out. Kids by different men.
Are these the kind of utterances and concepts that free speech and tenure are designed to protect? They serve not to enlighten and inform but to divide—and perhaps to inadvertently encourage the continuing wave of race-based discord and violence in this country.
Is this the sunlit glen of free speech the Founding Fathers envisioned for their rational, secular republic based on Enlightenment values?
ON THE OTHER HAND | Curated contrary opinions
Phil Zuckerman: The atheist case for free speech
Wax is a died-in-the-wool reactionary, who promotes a literal return to 1950s America, a mindset she fleshed out in a 2018 op-ed she co-wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, “Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture.” She wrote:
Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.
The piece says nothing about what has improved since those supposed halcyon days.
Her prescription for Americans, unsurprisingly, is right out of “Father Knows Best”:
Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.
In one of the more controversial passages of her op-ed, Wax opined that not all cultures are “suited” to preparing people for productive, modern lives. She explained:
The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.
This is bigotry, not a data-based understanding of why certain subsets of society fail more than others in attaining the trappings of “American Dream” success. For one thing, Plains Indians haven’t been nomadic hunters for 150 years, and part of the reason they often struggle in contemporary America is not that they are inherently “unsuited” for modernity but that they are victims of systematic racism inflicted on them for centuries by US white, Christian society.
The woeful underclass’ lack of success in the US is certainly not something that time travel back to the ’50s will resolve.
If Wax had data showing that Native Americans’ presumed failures was demonstrably a result of their nomadic heritage, that would be one thing—the kind of thing free speech was designed to expand upon.
But to imply that they are not up to the task, that they’re members of a race naturally “unsuited” to, success in the modern world, is a fact-free insult.
When students and others at colleges and universities protest and stage rallies to block, for instance, speeches by known bigots on campus, it’s not necessarily because they’re overly sensitive souls (although some certainly are), but because they believe some values are more sacred that absolute freedom.
Like the need to be honest and respectful and honorable.
As overt holocaust denial is illegal in much of Europe and elsewhere, promotion of hateful, destructive, racist ideologies—like white supremacy—should be illegal rather than debatable here in America.
The Europeans have the right idea about free speech. There should be clear, rational limits.
When college students protest against injustice on American campuses, they’re simply trying to define what those limits should be.