Eugene Volokh on UCLA Video: Moronic, but Protected

By on March 16, 2011

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law professor and noted First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh has weighed in on the controversy surrounding the "Asians in the Library" YouTube video recently posted by UCLA student Alexandra Wallace. Citing both FIRE’s letter to UCLA and Robert’s blog post on the subject, Volokh concludes that Wallace’s speech is "clearly constitutionally protected," as well as "moronic." Although he deems the views expressed to be "nonsense," Volokh argues that punishing this speech would open the door to punishing much other speech. He writes:

The premise of the American university (and, I think, American self-government more broadly) is that people need to be free to express their views, whether the administrators and others see those views as morally right or morally wrong, so that social and political decisions can be reached based on actual discussion, and not mere force – and so that we can be confident that the things we believe are wrong are indeed wrong, rather than just that they have become unquestioned orthodoxy because challenging them can get you expelled. And to implement that premise, boneheaded statements have to be as protected as more well-reasoned statements.

I couldn’t agree more.

Volokh’s eloquent observation reminds me of John Stuart Mill, who wrote in his classic On Liberty of "four distinct grounds" that proved "the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion." Mill wrote:

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

Wise words to contemplate, now and always.

Schools: University of California, Los Angeles Cases: University of California at Los Angeles: Disciplinary Investigation of Student’s Video