What The Free Speech Debate Misses

by Jonah Goldberg

I basically agree with everything Wesley Smith says about that tortured op-ed in today’s New York Times.

But I still have misgivings with some of the pro-free speech arguments I often hear from my friends and colleagues on the right, including here at National Review.

That may be because I’ve long been a defender of censorship, rightly understood. I came to this view by way of Irving Kristol.

Irving wasn’t for political censorship, and neither am I (depending what you mean by the term). Irving argued that, “If you care for the quality of life in our American democracy, then you have to be for censorship.” But he more famously said, “The liberal paradigm of regulation and license has led to a society where an 18-year-old girl has the right to public fornication in a pornographic movie — but only if she is paid the minimum wage.”

These two quotes are perfectly consistent. What Kristol was getting at was the fact that societies survive by upholding minimum standards of decency. Such views seem awfully quaint in the era of online porn and whatever-the-Hell-this-is. But I think he was basically right. Progressives spent decades arguing for maximalist free speech in areas not traditionally considered speech at all. I am highly dubious that the authors of the First Amendment ever had strip clubs in mind.

But I’m no Comstock and, besides, these horses left the barn long ago. What vexes me is that at the same time progressives have maximized the right to “free expression” to even cover federal subsidies for craptacular “art,” they have worked assiduously to constrain the only speech the founders really cared about: Political speech.

As I’ve written many times, this approach puts the whole argument of free speech rights on its head. Normally, we defend “extreme” forms of free speech on the grounds that if we maintain these freedoms on the frontiers of our civilization, our core freedoms will not be threatened. This is the form arguments for everything from abortion rights to gun rights usually work. We must protect this questionable thing less we risk this other, unquestionable, core right.

The argument about free speech on campuses is so maddening because these petty magistrates want to crush the free exchange of serious ideas in a setting that is supposed to encourage such exchanges.

But the more important point, at least for me, is not the censoriousness of the campus commissars, but the ideology. Most of the speakers they want to ban aren’t spewing “hate speech” – whatever that is —  they’re offering “heresy speech.” Defenders of murderous Communist regimes aren’t banned from speaking on campuses – heck they often get tenure. Christina Hoff Sommers, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Charles Murray are kept off campuses because they are dangerous to leftwing orthodoxy and they expose the inability of college students to deal with arguments that undermine the secular religion of campus leftism.

That said, in a morally and intellectually healthy society, I’d have no problem with campuses refusing to lend resources to certain speakers. The idea that, say, the administrators of Yeshiva University, should be required to offer a venue to David Duke strikes me as silly as silly as saying he has a right to run an article in National Review.

In other words, the problem isn’t a lack of commitment to free speech (though that is a problem). The free speech argument is downstream of the real dilemma: The people running what should be citadels of civilizational confidence have turned against our civilization. Maybe some atheist speaker has been banned because he would hurt the feelings of religious students, but I’ve not heard about it. In other words, these administrators aren’t principally concerned with the sensitivities of “students” or even “students of color” or female students,  but of particular students who adhere to a specific ideology. The administrators use them as props and excuses to justify their ideological, quasi-religious, agenda.

The irony comes when the defenders of these totalitarian enclaves must defend their stance to the larger society. Normal people and other elite critics shout “What about free speech?” And so the secular priests contort themselves into pretzels trying to make the case that their censorship is somehow consistent with some nonsensical notion of a “higher principle” of what free speech is. They can’t be honest and say, “We have a heckler’s veto for anything that smacks of heresy and we’re not afraid to use it.”

So much of the arguments about free speech would be better served if they skirted the issue of  “rights” and stuck to old-fashioned notions of decency, good manners and sound judgment. But such antiquarian considerations don’t do the work the left wants them to do. Those standards won’t keep Charles Murray & Co out (though they might leave Richard Spencer in the anonymity he deserves). Worse, such values stem from a mainstream tradition of what college is supposed to be and how democracy is supposed to work, and in the new time religion, those wellsprings have been rendered off-limits. 

 

 

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