The Left’s Free Speech Problem

December 2, 2014

By Christian Schneider at Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

When the brilliant comedian Chris Rock was recently asked why he has stopped playing college campuses, he had a curious response. “The reason is because they’re way too conservative,” he told New York Magazine’s Frank Rich.

This response immediately elicited guffaws from both conservatives and people who still guffaw. College campuses, after all, are carefully sealed bubbles of progressivism, where standard fare conservatism rarely gets a hearing. But Rock clarified:

“Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.”

So Rock was essentially using “conservative” as a stand-in for “something I don’t like.” But, in fact, there’s nothing particularly “conservative” — either socially or politically — about fostering a climate of perpetual offense, as college campuses do. In fact, it is the exact opposite.

And, thus, Rock stumbled upon an inconvenient truth for today’s left, which dominates our university systems. Modern speech suppression is much more likely to come from progressives than right-wingers. The ideology that claims to value “tolerance” is, in fact, the most intolerant of differing views.

In fact, Rock was talking about a recent incident in which a student panel disinvited comedian Bill Maher from speaking at the University of California-Berkeley because of a series of statements he has made about Muslims. On his television show, Maher said that the Muslim world has too much in common with the terrorist Islamic State group, including the practice of female genital mutilation, and said that liberals should stand up for liberal ideals, such as gender equity.

The student action to disinvite Maher was overridden by a faculty panel, but it follows a recent trend of university groups canceling speakers under pressure from student and faculty groups. Conservative Washington Post columnist George Will recently was disinvited from speaking at Scripps College in Delaware because he questioned the veracity of sexual assault statistics on college campuses. Rutgers pulled an invitation from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when student groups protested.

In fact, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has compiled a list showing over 263 campus disinvitations over the past 14 years. According to the study, university speaker disinvitations reached a 15-year high in 2013. There was a time when liberals went to the mat to preserve federal funding for an art project consisting of a crucifix encased in a jar of urine; now, the thought of listening to the thoughts of a female, African-American former secretary of state is evidently too much to endure.

The effect of the “heckler’s veto” isn’t to promote understanding or to facilitate discourse. It is to bully people into conformity. Now the only opinions that matter are those that belong to the hive mind. From speech codes to “trigger warnings,” liberal-dominated campuses are at the forefront of viewpoint suppression.

And it isn’t just campuses where left-wing mobs are out for scalps. Recently, an unknown congressional staffer named Elizabeth Lauten counseled President Barack Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, to “show a little class” during the annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey ceremony. On Twitter, Lauten told the girls to “”Rise to the occasion,” “Act like being in the White House matters to you,” and “Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar.”

The liberal bullies immediately descended on Lauten, and the story became national news. Soon, Lauten resigned.

Two weeks before the Lauten affair, scientist Matt Taylor appeared on a webcast celebrating a probe he worked on landing on a comet 310 million miles from Earth. Taylor wore a tacky bowling-style shirt that featured scantily clad women, for which he was forced by angry feminists to make a teary-eyed apology days later. And, thus, the story became about Taylor’s shirt, not the fact that the guy helped land a probeon a comet 310 million miles away.

Modern progressivism can’t handle speech it doesn’t like. In fact, congressional Democrats like soon-to-be-ex-Senate Majority Harry Reid are pushing an effort to amend the First Amendment to limit political speech they’d rather not see.

Maybe using Rock’s words to make a point about speech suppression is doing exactly what he’s counseling us not to do — take comedians too seriously. But as Shakespeare counseled in King Lear, “Jesters do oft make prophets.” And the liberal crackdown on free speech is no laughing matter.