Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Going Wobbly on Tech


Jeff Emmanuel (also known as “Peach Pundit” has been a strong ally in the public battle for free speech at Georgia Tech. But in a troubling post late yesterday, he reversed course. Money grafs:

Free speech is vital, as is the ability to avoid administrative discrimination. However, the methods used by the students in question, and others, are often reminiscent of those implemented by the radical campus leftists of a generation ago. Rules are bent or broken, often purposely and in a way that could have been easily avoided while not sacrificing the action or the message, for the sole purpose of getting caught, so that they can point to administrative “discrimination against conservatives.

I don’t agree with this Machavielian method (that the end — namely, eliminating “selective discrimination against the right to discriminate” — justifies the means, which, all too often, means purposely breaking rules in order to get caught), in the same way that I disagree with most brands of “activism” that involve shocking people and media into paying attention.

The thing I find most ironic is that the parts of the student speech code which were removed at the order of Judge Forrester, were just those sections which would have protected one of the plaintiffs against the figurative assault she received from her fellow students as a result of filing the suit in the first place. The flyers posted in the halls decrying not only her, but her Asian heritage; the student marches against the suit at which racial epithets — along with props — were used; the Facebook group against the plaintiff — all quite possibly, if not definitely, breached the line of “injuring, harming” or “maligning” a person because of “race, religious belief, color, sexual/affectational orientation, national origin, disability, age or gender.

The US District Court has now ruled on the case, and the offensive restrictions on speech have been lifted. ADF attorney David French was technically correct when he called the court order a “win for free speech.” It may not be a win for decency, but decency in personal speech and opinion is probably not the best subject for governmental interference; likewise, regulation “promoting diversity and tolerance,” which these speech codes purported to be, is in no way appropriate at a taxpayer-funded institution or organization.

In this case of speech code revocation, the blade cuts both ways. Yes, the College Republicans and others can now freely protest against gay marriage, militant feminism, and countless other perceived perversions. However, this decision also means that those who will protest against positions or people will also be fair game for the resulting blowback, which may well come in the form of vicious, personal, and now absolutely legal retribution.

Jeff is not accurately describing the case. How have Ruth and Orit (the plaintiffs in this case) adopted the tactics of the “radical campus leftists of a generation ago”? They were censored after holding peaceful protests against affirmative action and the Vagina Monologues. Ruth was called in the President’s office and warned against future expression of that kind. They obeyed every single constitutionally appropriate law at Georgia Tech and in the state of Georgia. On the other hand, the “radical campus leftists of a generation ago” did things like take over administration buildings, burn down ROTC centers, and engage in academic “strikes.” The contemporary campus left still engages in some of these tactics, like vandalizing ROTC buildings and blocking access to military recruiters. Ruth and Orit have done nothing like this. They simply held a “diversity bake sale” and put together posters and a display protesting the Vagina Monologues. Moreover, they even complied with Georgia Tech’s unconstitutional orders by ceasing some of their expressive activities. Instead of committing an act of civil disobedience, they appealed to the law for a redress of their grievances. Is that out of bounds? Is Jeff saying that it is somehow adopting radical left tactics to exercise your constitutional rights in a peaceful manner? Or is peaceful public protest a tool that can and should only be in the leftist toolbox?

Second, Jeff tries to argue that the portions of the speech code that were repealed mean that Ruth and Orit are now “fair game” for the resulting blowback. Is he kidding? They were already fair game even with the speech code in place. Before the speech code was repealed the administration’s pattern was to censor Ruth and Orit for mainstream conservative political speech while standing aside and doing absolutely nothing when Ruth and Orit were threatened, targeted with racist messages, and otherwise subjected to a campaign of personal vilification. Does Jeff think the answer is to enforce the speech code against their attackers? The essential problem of a speech code is that vague and subjective definitions of words like “injuring” or “harming” or “denigrating” lend themselves to completely arbitrary enforcement. Those who are favored on campus find that their speech is free. Ruth and Orit find that their speech is not. Just as the members of Spinal Tap noted that there is “a fine line between clever and stupid,” there is also a fine line between insulting and challenging (It’s amazing how often conservative speech on campus is considered “insulting” or “denigrating” while even the most extreme leftist speech is merely “challenging” or “speaking truth to power”). And universities cannot be trusted to draw that line — no government entity can be. That’s why the First Amendment exists.

Ruth and Orit did not sue for the right to insult. They sued for the right to enjoy basic First Amendment rights, and they will exercise those rights the way they always have, peacefully, politely, and respectfully. The fact that others (such as their vicious critics) do not exercise those rights responsibly is not reason enough to deny them for everyone. Jeff, free speech always “cuts both ways.” But before the court’s order, free speech only cut one way at Tech, and it was conservatives who were bleeding.


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