Introducing Arun Smith, heroic censor.
Last week at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, this student tore down a “free speech wall” display that a libertarian student group had set up on campus. Such displays usually take the form of a large, blank sheet of paper on which students are invited to write anything they like. Student groups sponsor the displays as a way of demonstrating that universities need not fear open expression. In a self-congratulatory letter,also posted publicly on Facebook, Smith explained that his vigilante censorship was a “moral imperative” because the wall created the potential for “hate speech,” and asserted that it was somehow an insult that it was erected during the college’s gay pride week.
In fact, there were reportedly no anti-gay slurs on the free speech wall. The closest anyone came was writing “traditional marriage is awesome.” But that didn’t matter to Smith, whose vandalism wasn’t in response to a specific statement. His problem was with the idea of unfettered free speech, which he (and too many others) see as a problem in and of itself. By creating a space for speech that lacked restrictions, Smith contended, the libertarian student group had created a space that was not “safe” for students who might be offended by the products of free expression.
Smith’s attitude about free speech is frequently reflected on American college campuses, despite the fact that American traditions of and protections for free speech are far stronger than Canada’s. Indeed, American students erect free-speech walls across our country on a fairly regular basis, only to see them torn down by other students who, like Smith, consider their actions quite noble. This happened at Pepperdine University in 2010 and at a college in Texas in 2011, except in Texas, it was a professor who took a box cutter to a free speech wall to remove a crude insult to President Obama. The vandals seem not to care that a free speech wall provides an opportunity to respond to speech one doesn’t like directly on the wall itself.
As I relate in my book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, student-led attempts to shut down controversial speech are all too common. Just last week, a pro-life display at Chicago’s DePaul University was destroyed, presumably by angry students. It is just one of a litany of examples of destruction to pro-life student displays. One of the most outrageous such incidents took place in 2006, when professor Sally Jacobsen urged her students at Northern Kentucky University to “express their freedom of speech rights to destroy” a pro-life display, and joined them in doing so.
This romanticization of censorship is toxic to a free and pluralistic society, and is especially wrongheaded for those who claim to be concerned about minority rights. Today’s campus censors often claim that freedom of speech is a tool for maintaining an unjust and discriminatory social order. They ignore or dismiss the fact that you don’t need a Constitutional provision, as we have in the U.S., to protect popular beliefs in a democracy. The vote does that. We protect freedom of speech for the benefit of oddballs, dissenters, and minorities of every stripe.
But in confronting the Arun Smiths of the world, one cannot rely too much on rational arguments. The romanticization of the censor is, at its heart, anti-rational. To Smith, it does not matter that the group sponsoring the free speech wall supported gay rights, including gay marriage, or that universities have traditionally been at the vanguard of supporting the rights of LGBT students, or that the student government itself was sponsoring a gay pride week. Smith was taking advantage of an implicit rule of politically correct morality that has become commonplace on and, increasingly, off campus: when someone grandstands, it is considered bad form to question the content or coherence of the grandstander’s message and, instead, you are expected to applaud his or her emotional vigor.
It is intriguing that Smith has spent his seven years in college studying human rights and yet somehow missed the essential role that freedom of speech has played in progress and liberation, not to mention peace and innovation, throughout human history. He has instead fixated on only those words and opinions that he and some academics dislike.
The key to pushing back against censors like Smith who attempt to seize the moral high ground is to stop apologizing for the fact that freedom of speech allows people to say things that we consider unsavory or hurtful, and assert the simple truth that not only has free speech proven to be essential to progress, it is one of our most basic and fundamental human rights.