No, Mob-Rule Censorship Is Not Free Speech

By on February 4, 2013

The Young Americans for Freedom pro-life display at DePaul University

At the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) website, the organization posts a nice response from DePaul University President Dennis Holtschneider in response to the recent vandalism of the campus YAF chapter’s pro-life display. Holtschneider assures YAF president Kristopher Del Campo that a thorough investigation of the vandalism is being conducted. He also acknowledges that the vandalism is "deeply upsetting in that your and your fellow students’ opportunity to give voice to your beliefs was unacceptably stifled by other students." That’s right.

I had planned on ending this blog entry right there. Then I read to the bottom of the page, to the comments, where "Maria" had posted a reply arguing that removing the flags was also an act of free speech.  

I would just like to point out that taking down the flags was just as much of an act of freedom of speech as putting them up were. I think for a man (Kris) to push his views on a college campus, where many women do not believe a man has any right to say one way or another what to do with their bodies, he got what he deserved. The students showed their right to activism in the opposite but same way as the DePaul YAF chapter did. They made a bold statement by putting those flags up, and a bold statement was made in return by taking them down. It [may] have upset YAF, but that was in no way shape or form vandalism. Vandalism at DePaul is detrimental damage to any building or piece of property. The flags were on school property but not a part of the school’s property, and they were not shredded to pieces, they were simply thrown in the trash by students making a statement just like YAF was. To have students punished for making the same but opposite statement as YAF would be destructive to the college atmosphere, and how we are encouraged to question, think, and grow here has young adults. Nobody made a big fuss when they were put up, there should certainly not be a fuss made because someone made their own statement by taking them down.

While we don’t know who Maria is (she sounds like a DePaul student, but certainty is impossible), the arguments she makes are precisely the sort of arguments that Greg decries in his book, Unlearning Liberty. As Greg recently made clear at Forbes.com, the notion that there is any inherent nobility in silencing the views of others is one that needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history once and for all.  

Let’s break Maria’s comment down: 

I would just like to point out that taking down the flags was just as much of an act of freedom of speech as putting them up were. 

This is simply wrong. Suppressing another person’s right to free expression is not an act of free expression. It’s censorship, and in this case, also vandalism.

But let’s pretend that Maria is right. She logically would then have no ground for objection if someone were to delete her comment and the comments of anyone who agreed with her—the online equivalent of what the other DePaul students did to YAF’s pro-life expression. That’s a tough pill to swallow.  

I think for a man (Kris) to push his views on a college campus, where many women do not believe a man has any right to say one way or another what to do with their bodies, he got what he deserved. 

The thrust of this statement is that YAF should have known better than to bring its pro-life views onto a campus full of pro-choice students. The group’s speech was unpopular with some people; therefore, censorship and vandalism should be expected. Mob rule, in other words! A great way to function in society—so long as you’re part of the majority. 

The students showed their right to activism in the opposite but same way as the DePaul YAF chapter did. They made a bold statement by putting those flags up, and a bold statement was made in return by taking them down. 

This commenter just doesn’t get it. YAF planted flags on campus (within the rules of campus, by the way) as part of its pro-life message. YAF’s opponents uprooted those flags and deposited them in trash cans around the campus. Those actions are not remotely the same. If the other students had constructed their own display to run counter to YAF’s, or distributed literature supporting abortion rights, or engaged in discussion with the YAF members, Maria’s point about expressing the opposite message using similar means would be valid. The students would be fighting what is in their view "bad" speech with more, "better" speech. But they didn’t. They responded to speech with less speech—specifically, less speech for those with viewpoints they dislike. That’s not "bold." That’s intolerant and cowardly.  

It [may] have upset YAF, but that was in no way shape or form vandalism. Vandalism at DePaul is detrimental damage to any building or piece of property. The flags were on school property but not a part of the school’s property, and they were not shredded to pieces, they were simply thrown in the trash by students making a statement just like YAF was. 

I wonder: If Maria set out a display or a pile of promotional materials for her cause of choice, and someone who didn’t care for the cause took them all and threw them in a dumpster for her to find later, what then? Would she shrug it off as equal and opposite speech? Or would she demand that the university investigate the incident and punish the offenders for violating her rights with their censorship?

To have students punished for making the same but opposite statement as YAF would be destructive to the college atmosphere, and how we are encouraged to question, think, and grow here has young adults. 

Frankly, I think that reminding students that they can face consequences for silencing the speech of other students is good for campus culture. Perhaps it will help teach students to engage in honest dialogue, and, if they can’t find common ground, then then can at least learn to live with their disagreements. That is how students are "encouraged to question, think, and grow." Not that Maria is alone in thinking censorship is useful, however. In fact, the attitude is so prevalent that Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s president, wrote a book about it.  

Nobody made a big fuss when they were put up, there should certainly not be a fuss made because someone made their own statement by taking them down.

Except that students did make a fuss about the flags. The students were apparently so irked and so unwilling to abide their presence on the campus, that they vandalized the display and disposed of the flags. That seems to me like a "fuss," and I think it’s worth making a fuss over the destruction as well.

There’s really nothing all that unusual about Maria. Like many people, she seems perfectly happy for people whose views she dislikes to have less free speech. What is unusual is her efforts to justify this form of ideological discrimination. Because this is a free society, Maria is free to endorse the intolerant actions of the vigilante censors at DePaul and to believe that censorship is just as free a form of expression as the erection of YAF’s flag display. If she truly believes this, though, she has to accept that she’s asking to live in a society where her right to free speech is dictated by the passions of an angry mob. 

Schools: DePaul University