‘When the censor within reaches out, watch out’

By on July 31, 2006

Paul McMasters, FIRE Board of Editors member and First Amendment Ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, just published a truly excellent article on how internal restraint is one of the elements that makes a system of rights and freedom possible. As McMasters explains:
 
In a society as diverse and challenging as ours, there is much that we would prefer not to have to abide for ourselves or our children. The vast majority of us care deeply about civility, decency and responsibility. We want public discourse and entertainment to reflect and promote our better nature; we want public expression that elevates and inspires rather than degrades and sullies.
 
Indeed, we have the right—even the obligation—to fight for those principles and values in the public arena, to crowd out bad words and ideas with good ones. That is democracy in its best dress: using reason, passion and persistence to persuade others to our way of seeing things. Ideally, that process leads to a cultural shift that informs and shapes our speech as well as our laws.
 
It is when we abandon that process by allowing lawmakers and regulators to dictate matters of taste and belief that we betray those democratic ideals. It is worse when government officials, high or petty, take it upon themselves to pander to the most vocal or organized groups to impose their tastes or beliefs on all of us.
 
Taking inventory from time to time of the routine and sometimes disguised censorship among us reveals the difficulty of keeping the internal censor restrained and the government censor at bay. The internal censor defines individual values; the government censor defiles individual freedom.
This is an often misunderstood or overlooked concept. When I speak to university administrators about why they should not attempt to impose “hate speech” or “civility” codes, I am often asked “so we have no recourse if a student says hateful or offensive things?” This question is a symptom of system a higher education environment accustomed to regulating almost every aspect of student life. Of course students, administrators, and the public have recourse against speech they find ignorant, reprehensible, or unnecessarily hurtful—they can protest that speech, they can publicly point out its flaws, they can engage in open discussion and dialogue. What they should not do is use official power to silence it. At public universities, such action is not only unconstitutional (or at private colleges that promise free speech, a violation of moral and contractual obligations) but it also turns into a formula for arbitrary repression of dissenting views, outrageous examples of which abound in FIRE’s case archive.
 

Thanks to Paul for the important and eloquent article and for mentioning the outrageous and still ongoing case of Stephen Kershnar at SUNY Fredonia. Kershnar’s case is a perfect example of how even university presidents have lost sight of the inappropriateness of using official power to control what their faculty can or cannot say publicly. Fredonia President Dennis Hefner would do well to read Paul’s article, and maybe a little John Stuart Mill while he’s at it.