Response to ‘Huffington Post’ Commenter’s Position on Campus Censorship and ‘Mixed Feelings’ about FIRE

By on May 25, 2011

Yesterday, The Huffington Post ran my article commending the nation’s seven best colleges and universities for freedom of speech. As we at FIRE hoped, the article generated a lot of important discussion in the comments section. In particular, one commenter, "snesich," noted that he/she has "mixed feelings about FIRE and the work they do." According to snesich,

I do feel that FIRE has often been used by the extreme right-wing as a tool to defend their "right" to hurl hateful and vicious words at people they don’t like, for ethnic, religious, racial, gender or ideologica­l reasons.

Colleges may often overstep their bounds when they issue regulation­s and guidelines that try to create a civil and non-hatefu­l environmen­t on their campus. However, you can’t dismiss these efforts as simple power-play­s on the part of the administra­tion. Usually, the intent is very good.

Also, remember, "free speech" works both ways. Free speech does not mean that David Duke can come to our campus, spew his hateful right-wing vitriol and just demand that people sit back and silently listen without any verbal reaction.

If you come to a campus and speak, people also have a right of free speech. And people on that campus are also free to react verbally, or in writing, or in any other way, excluding violence.

I don’t want any person’s voice silenced on any campus. But whatever your point of view, people have a right to speak back in support, or in opposition­.

Because snesich raises so many points that are critical to understanding our mission, how we execute that mission, and why it is so important, I am providing a long response here:

Thanks for writing, snesich. There are so many different ways to answer your comment. First of all, please do take a look at the cases I have written about over the years at The Huffington Post and tell me if you think they fit the model of the "extreme right wing… hurling vicious and hateful words." I have been routinely stunned by how even what most Americans would consider to be fairly mild speech can get you in trouble on a college campus. That being said, offensive and even hurtful speech is protected and, indeed, should be protected for some very deep philosophical and epistemological reasons that our society seems to have increasingly forgotten. I can think of perhaps no better explanation of the philosophy behind freedom of speech than that offered by Jonathan Rauch last summer at our student conference, which you can watch here.

A primary part of your argument relies on the intentions of the speaker and the intentions of the censors. If you think generally that "bad" speakers have bad intentions and "good" censors have good intentions, then it makes sense to be ambivalent about freedom of speech. I hope I can convince you that this is a flawed premise. Most people believe they are acting from good intentions, both speakers and censors. But, often, people have deeply mixed motivations. In my experience with the advocates of campus speech codes, some are well-intentioned, others are bullies, others are opportunists who wish to punish students they dislike, others are afraid of getting sued, and others are acting in anger at a generalized idea of societal injustice without seeing clearly the student who is directly in front of them. Many cases I have dealt with over the years are as straightforward as a dean or university president simply not liking being criticized by a student or faculty member. (Click here for a particularly egregious example of that.) Punishing those who criticize you is as ancient as the species itself.

As for speakers, they often work from mixed motivations too. Sometimes it is to "speak truth to power"; other times the motivation of campus speakers is precisely to offend, provoke, and agitate. Some intentionally take on this role as provocateur, while others stumble into it. Those who provoke an emotional response can often produce creative and thoughtful discussion even if that is not their intention; meanwhile all censors can achieve is coerced silence and a dreary uniformity of opinion. The good intentions of censors, therefore, do not really matter, and even if speakers have bad intentions, the discussion their opinions might provoke can sometimes bring us to greater wisdom.

The philosophy behind freedom of speech is rich, but includes a deep idea of humility within it. That is, people have a very hard time telling opinions they simply disagree with from libel, treason, or, as it gets used so often in these comments, "hate speech." In my experience, people who are very understanding of the rights of, say, Muslims or atheists, can be extremely condemning of the rights of evangelical Christians or Catholics, and vice versa. Free speech recognizes that opinions must be allowed to succeed or fail in the marketplace of ideas. As soon as you allow a person to pick and choose which speech he or she will ban, you will quickly notice that some opinions are favored over others and the marketplace of ideas suffers greatly.

And you are right, free speech absolutely defends your right to protest someone else’s speech. I am proud to have genuinely confused my hosts once when I was on the Hannity and Colmes show and defended both the right of Ward Churchill to say horrible things about the victims of 9/11, and the right of students to protest the fact that he was invited to speak at DePaul University. Hannity and Colmes seemed confused. Whose side was I on? Free speech, apparently, wasn’t an acceptable answer.

Now, universities and students do sometimes go too far. If you organize a disruption of a speech, or, like Washington State University, you actually organize a disruption of a play, you have gone too far. You have the right to counter speech, but you don’t have the right to disrupt, shout down, or otherwise try to bring to an end someone else’s expression.

Free speech means you will sometimes hear ideas or opinions you dislike; indeed, those who never have this experience are seldom afforded the opportunity to understand why they believe what they believe in the first place. Free speech is a fundamental way of being human, and if you think it empowers people that you consider ignorant and wrong, keep in mind that it is a small price to pay for your own freedom of speech and thought.