The Corner


The Fight for Free Speech on Campus Is No Mere ‘Charade’

The New Republic just published a bizarre piece attacking Charles Koch and Michael Bloomberg’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed supporting free speech on campus as a “charade.” Colby College English professor Aaron Hanlon purports to explain what Koch and Bloomberg “really mean” when they oppose campus censorship, and rarely have I read a column that displays more ignorance or bad faith in describing the free speech crisis on campus and the motives of free speech advocates. 

First, Hanlon takes issue with the fact that Koch isn’t just interested in free speech, he also has — gasp — a substantive political point of view:

It’s just that not all free-speech advocates are intellectually honest about the speech boundaries they’re setting in the act itself of advocating for free speech. To be more specific, Koch and Bloomberg undoubtedly care about free expression in the abstract; but when they take issue with “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” they do so with their own heavy investments in what people research, learn, and discuss in college. Koch’s own model of higher education philanthropy is fundamentally about creating “safe spaces” for very particular forms of free-market ideology.

This is a bizarre argument. Free speech advocates can simultaneously advocate for free expression for all while also advocating for their own point of view. Engaging in your own speech is not setting a boundary, it’s expressing an idea. Charles Koch expresses support for free markets. He also express support for free speech. I may be a Christian conservative, but I’ve supported the free speech rights of far-left atheists. Most people can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Hanlon continues:

The curious consequence of this type of free-speech advocacy is that it actually betrays the fundamental virtues of a free marketplace of ideas. As Bloomberg, Koch, and countless other free-speech advocates would have it, the “marketplace of ideas” is actually more like a communist scenario in which all speech units—racist remarks and peer-reviewed studies—have equal value, such that minimizing certain kinds of speech as bigoted or inferior is tantamount to censorship. Ironically, for Bloomberg and Koch, consumer marketplaces are free to ascribe value to inferior and superior products, but once colleges start assigning different values to speech, it’s suddenly a threat to “open minds and rational discourse.”

He just torched a straw man. No one credible argues that all speech has equal value. I can and do think much academic speech speech is destructive, ignorant, malicious, and bigoted — but that doesn’t mean that I want it censored. I want to see it rebutted. And if I can’t rebut speech I dislike, then I need to have the humility to reconsider my own views.

I’m not sure what Hanlon means when he talks about “minimizing certain kinds of speech.” If he’s talking about rebutting it or criticizing it, then — again — no one credible calls that censorship. If he’s talking about disinviting speakers or otherwise punishing speech, then it is censorship. Colleges can certainly “assign values to speech” and do so all the time — that’s a critical component of institutional academic freedom. But they should not and must not silence speech that they believe has less value. This is not a hard concept.

Then there’s this:

For the past few years, “free speech” has become a shortcut for shifting the frame of argument away from the content of bigoted speech itself and toward broader discussions of the value of free expression—a value we all share. The strategic advantage is obvious: It’s much easier to defend the right to bigotry with grandiose statements about freedom of expression than it is to defend the substance of what speakers have to say.

Sorry, but the very idea that campus free speech controversies boil down to matters of bigotry is noxiously reductive. Look at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s list of disinvitation attempts. Look at FIRE’s list of free speech cases. Not only are there multiple cases where the censors are the bigots, there are many cases where the definition of bigotry is absurdly broad, and there are many other cases where bigotry isn’t an issue at all. 

Hanlon claims to value free expression but then writes that controversial speakers bear the burden of proving their worth to their presumed moral betters:

Thus, when a campus is embroiled in protests (speech) over bigotry or disinvited speakers, the real censorship happens by ripping the debate away from the substance of marginalized students’ concerns and focusing instead on “free speech”—that is, on the sensitivities of those who would rather not have to think about their capacity to hurt or offend. But an intellectually honest free-speech advocate wouldn’t cry censorship; they’d instead address the substance of the speech being censored or marginalized, and argue for why that speech deserves to be heard on a college campus in the first place.

Free speech advocates aren’t bothered by protest. Indeed, we protect the right of protest. But when protesters demand censorship, we oppose those demands. Again, this is not a hard concept.

Moreover, Hanlon’s demand that “intellectually honest” free speech advocates argue why speech “deserves to be heard” turns free speech jurisprudence on its head. It is up to would-be censors to satisfy the extraordinarily heavy burden to justify censorship (i.e. that speech isn’t constitutionally protected). It is not up to speakers to justify the exercise of their free speech rights to highly-ideological, hyper-sensitive social justice warriors. If academic progressives don’t like opposing speech, they can ignore it, protest it, or try to rebut it. They must not censor it.

I’ve spoken at numerous Koch events, and I’ve never once heard Charles Koch or any representative of his foundation or any affiliated organization call for the censorship of dissenting views. Quite the contrary, I’ve seen them honor and celebrate those who defend the free speech of even their toughest ideological opponents. Too bad so many progressives don’t have similar respect for the fundamental rights of their political opponents.


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