‘We Support Free Speech, But . . .’

by Jason Richwine

In his post on Google’s diversity dust-up, Robert highlighted this quote from the company’s VP for Diversity:

Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws [bold added in this quote and all the rest].

Notice the but. There is almost always a but or however or some other qualifier in these kinds of statements. The censors start by praising free and open discussion, then clarify that they do not support free and open discussion. The formulation has become so popular that a different Google VP used it in his own statement:

Questioning our assumptions and sharing different perspectives is an important part of our culture, and we want to continue fostering an environment where it’s safe to engage in challenging conversations in a thoughtful way. But . . . 

It rarely matters what comes after the but, since it will just be some form of special pleading — “but this speech is harmful,” “but this speech is intimidating,” “but this speech is wrong,” etc. In fact, once you see the qualifier, you can usually complete the rest of the sentence on your own. Remember when Charles Murray faced violent protesters at Middlebury College earlier this year? A letter signed by 450 alumni explained why he never should have been allowed to visit:

We think it is necessary to allow a diverse range of perspectives to be voiced at Middlebury. In college, we learned through thoughtful, compassionate and often difficult discussions inside the classroom and out — conversations in which our beliefs were questioned and our assumptions challenged. We fully support the core liberal arts principle that contact with other intellectual viewpoints and life experiences than one’s own is integral to a beneficial education. However . . . 

This is how the faculty of the Africana Studies department at Virginia Tech denounced Murray’s presence on their campus:

Academic freedom is a crucial value within any university. Indeed, given the critical nature of Africana Studies as a field, we are especially invested in upholding it as a core tenet. However . . . 

During the 2016 election season, the mayor of West Hollywood declared that Donald Trump is not welcome to campaign in his city. When asked for specifics, the mayor responded:

As a city we have historically welcomed campaigns on both sides of the aisle to come to West Hollywood. Again, we’re not trying to shut down anyone’s speech. But . . . 

Using chalk to write political messages is common on college campuses, but when people started chalking “Trump 2016” around Emory University, the school’s president became concerned:

As an academic community, we must value and encourage the expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent, and protest. At the same time . . . 

Last year a science conference disinvited Richard Dawkins because he retweeted something critical of feminism. The organizers helpfully explained:

We believe strongly in freedom of speech and freedom to express unpopular, and even offensive, views. However . . . 

At the heart of all of these statements is the Orwellian notion that censors can be free-speech advocates. That’s why Mozilla gave this cryptic justification for firing Brendan Eich over his opposition to same-sex marriage:

Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.

It’s also the stated reason that NYU’s medical school disinvited James Watson from giving a lecture:

At NYU, we have a strong commitment to equality as well as freedom of speech, and the right balance between these is not always easy to determine. While we may have differences of opinion, we also have tolerance.

It would be more accurate and honest for these organizations to simply declare, “We do not believe in free speech, period.” So why don’t they? Well, they strongly support accuracy and honesty, but . . . 

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