I was kid when in the early 1960s the Free Speech Movement (FSM) erupted in demonstrations on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. FSM leaders such as Mario Savio and Bettina Aptheker became my heroes. Their goal was to secure the rights of students to engage in unhampered political speech on campus. The result of their efforts insured that right to students of both the right and the left.
Another of my heroes – or heroic group, if you prefer – is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). I spell the name out in full because I want to emphasize that the group stands for “civil liberties” period, not civil liberties for the left or the right.
I’ve sympathized with many of the ACLU’s crusades that fall on the spectrum of causes involving leftist goals. Easy to do. But what I’ve really admired is that the commitment of the ACLU has been to principle, not political identity. It’s what led the organization to stand up for the rights of a group of neo-Nazis to parade down the streets of Skokie Illinois in 1978, a city where numerous Holocaust survivors lived. Not easy to stomach, but the right thing to do if you value the freedom to speak freely.
I tell you this because I want you to know where I come from when I write about the recent free speech controversy at Truman State University and, by extension, similar occurrences at Universities around the country. US News summarized the Truman State situation:
Some students at Truman State University in northeast Missouri are circulating a petition seeking to halt a speech by an author who runs the website “Jihad Watch.” Concerns arose at the public university in Kirksville when a Republican student group arranged to bring Robert Spencer to campus Thursday night, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://bit.ly/2osMqZG ) reported. The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies Spencer as an anti-Muslim “propagandist,” and the school’s Muslim Student Association has responded by recruiting another speaker to appear beforehand in the same lecture hall. Truman State described allowing the event to proceed as a free speech issue, although leaders stressed the university isn’t sponsoring Spencer’s speech. “Cordial discourse on even the most contentious of topics is a fundamental tenet of a liberal arts education and a hallmark of a free society,” the university said in emails to student, faculty and staff this week. “This often includes viewpoints many people strongly oppose.”
We should be clear about the fact that Robert Spencer espouses reprehensible beliefs. But the petition drive that seeks to silence him is, to my mind, almost equally reprehensible, no matter how much its sponsors may believe in their righteous cause. They can protest his presence and I hope they do – protest is speech, after all – but making one’s own views heard through protest should not involve silencing the other guy.
Nor is repression useful to the cause of diversity. Denying Spencer the opportunity to put his views out, as repulsive as they may be, deprives us of the opportunity to expose his errors – errors that thrive and take on added power when they are not fully and openly examined. It is especially important to bring this type of ugliness into the open and show how devoid of substance such hate-mongers are now that we have a President who gives comfort to similar bigoted, white nationalist factions.
Many students who support the petition claim to make a distinction between “free” speech and “hate” speech directed at any specific individual or group. However the distinction is false. Free speech is an activity and is inclusive of even hate speech, which is a category of speech – they are not analogous entities, one of which we can endorse while prohibiting the other. (Clearly libelous speech is another matter altogether – one with which the legal system has been designed to handle.)
The only way to deal with “hate speech” is to expose its falsity with – cliche or not – more speech. Efforts to prohibit hate speech imply that those who find it disturbing are not capable of counter agument. When we further argue that we aim to spare targeted individuals or groups pain by silencing hateful speech, we need to realize aren’t helping them, but rather condescending to them by underestimating their strength and ability to defend themselves in the – forgive me for another cliche – court of ideas.
Fortunately, the Muslim Student Association at Truman seems to understand the issues and has responded by securing the inclusion of a counter-speaker to appear at the same venue prior to Spencer’s address – to the horror, needless to say of the folks who recruited Spencer. Conservative Club members who sponsored the event seem to believe that adding a dissenting voice will sully the “intellectual diversity” they believe Spencer brings to their campus. Of course, the addition of the Muslim Students’ speaker actually ensures that the event celebrates not only intellectual diversity, but introduces the element of critical argument that insures perspective in evaluating that diversity.
Tomorrow I hope to read that the event at Truman this evening (Thursday, April 13) came off without anything more untoward than a relatively noisy protest – I won’t be disturbed if I learn that Spencer got an earful of the contempt he deserves – but I will be very saddened if he leaves Missouri armed with more ammunition that he can use to tar all progressives as self-righteous, authoritarian enemies of all speech but their own.