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The misguided movement to “no platform” Steve Bannon

Late last month, it was announced that Steve Bannon had been invited to participate in a debate at the University of Chicago by Professor Luigi Zingales of the business school. The reaction was immediate and predictable: faculty, students, and alumni began to demand that the university rescind the speaking invitation and not provide Bannon with a platform to express his views.

These demands reflect the increasingly popular idea that the expression of viewpoints that some consider offensive — or even the mere presence on campus of someone who, in other settings, has expressed such viewpoints — poses an actionable threat to those offended. This idea, that suppressing the speech of some is necessary to protect the rights of others, has become one of the dominant arguments in favor of restricting speech on campus, particularly when it comes to the invitation of outside speakers.

Like many arguments for censorship, this one is almost always formulated as “we believe in free speech, but….” New York University professor and provost Ulrich Baer made this argument last year in The New York Times when he wrote that recent efforts to drive controversial speakers like Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos off campus “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship.”

Similarly, after Laura Kipnis spoke at Wellesley College, a group of faculty called on Wellesley to revise its outside speaker guidelines to ensure that someone like Kipnis — a liberal feminist professor who has dared to criticize what she considers a climate of “sexual paranoia” on campus — would not again be given a platform at the college. These faculty members started off by saying that “We … defend free speech and believe it is essential to a liberal arts education.” However, they said, “the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another,” and Kipnis’s expression had “impose[d] on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley” by requiring them to “invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments” in order to “affirm their humanity.”

The calls to disinvite Bannon are couched in this same “we support free speech, but...” framework. A letter to the university’s president and provost signed by over 1,000 alumni states that “Stephen Bannon seeks to silence dissenting voices of large portions of society. … Denying him a platform to speak at our university does not restrict our environment of fearless freedom of debate and deliberation; rather, it protects that environment.”

And the more than 90 faculty members who signed an open letter asking the university not to allow Bannon to speak claim they are “committed to critical and rigorous intellectual exchange.” Nevertheless, they argue that “[t]he defense of freedom of expression cannot be taken to mean that white supremacy, anti-semitism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Catholicism, and islamophobia must be afforded the rights and opportunity to be aired on a university campus.”

Those who call on the university to censor what they believe to be Bannon’s “hate speech” fail to grasp that when an individual’s or group’s subjective reaction to speech is allowed to determine what can or can’t be said, no one’s expressive rights are secure. Attorney Alan Dershowitz wrote a review of Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s new book, “Must We Defend Nazis?”, which appeared in The Washington Post yesterday. In it, Dershowitz explained how the authors’ arguments for censoring Nazi speech are the same arguments that, in the past, would have been made in favor of censoring left-wing speech:

When I was a student during the days of McCarthyism, a book arguing for the censorship of extremist hate speech would have been titled “Must We Defend Communists?” Many of the arguments made by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in “Must We Defend Nazis?” are similar to those that would have been made in my hypothetical book: Free speech is not absolute; it must be balanced against other societal values; much harm can come from communism; communists don’t support our free speech, so why should we support theirs; communism is evil, and there is no good reason to defend evil speech; communist propaganda lies at the periphery of the First Amendment, not at its core; communist speech incites violence; those who defend communist speech are complicit in the evils of communism.

Dershowitz’s comments echo the views of author and scholar Jonathan Rauch, who notes — as a gay man who grew up during a time of terrible anti-gay discrimination — that when he was young, “[a]ny hate-speech law which might have passed would have targeted gay people (in the name of defending children), not protected us.”

If Steve Bannon and Donald Trump advocated for a ban on “hate speech,” and defined hate speech to include exclusively anti-Western, anti-Christian, or unpatriotic speech, the people now calling for Bannon’s disinvitation would rightly be outraged. But by arguing that hate speech, defined according to their sensibilities, should not be protected, they hand people they disagree with the very weapon they would need to make the same argument about hate speech defined according to their sensibilities. It is only by insisting that speech be scrupulously protected without regard to the viewpoint expressed that we can guarantee our own right to speak, even in a future in which our views may be the ones deemed “hateful.”

The idea that we must protect adult college students from expression that angers them or hurts their feelings is also deeply condescending. As FIRE co-founder Alan Charles Kors has said, “What it says to these groups is we believe that you are too weak to live with freedom.  You’re too weak to live with freedom of speech. You’re too weak to live with bearing witness in your speech and in your protests against things that you find offensive.”

Moreover, such a view is also wholly counterproductive to the goal of producing informed citizens who can effectively counter views they find dangerous. Shielding students from controversial or offensive viewpoints deprives them of the opportunity to develop the argumentation and critical thinking skills necessary to lead the country in a different direction. Bad ideas cannot simply be wished away; they must be defeated in the marketplace of ideas. And to be defeated, they must first be fully understood.

Zingales, the Chicago business school professor who invited Bannon, believes this. He has made clear that he is no fan of Bannon’s. Rather, he invited Bannon because

I can hardly think of a more important issue for new citizens and business leaders of the world than the backlash against globalization and immigration that is taking place not just in America, but in all the Western World. At the University of Chicago, we have some of the best economic minds of the planet. It is our civic duty to engage them in finding the causes of this backlash and in trying to address them. Whether you agree with him or not (and I personally do not), Mr. Bannon has come to interpret and represent this backlash in America. For this reason, I invited Mr. Bannon to a debate on these issues with our faculty. I firmly believe that the current problems in America cannot be solved by demonizing who think differently, but by addressing the causes of their dissatisfaction. Hate cannot be defeated by hate, but only by reason.

This is similar to the argument that Zach Wood, who founded the “Uncomfortable Learning” series at Williams College, made when his group sought (unsuccessfully — Williams’ president rescinded the invitation) to bring controversial columnist John Derbyshire to campus as part of the speaker series. Reflecting on that experience, Wood wrote:

To be sure, I radically disagree with John Derbyshire on many of his views. Indeed, Derbyshire has said offensive, even hateful things about minorities, things to which I take exception. That is precisely why I was looking forward to exposing the flaws in his arguments. … The best way to deal with speech we dislike is not to restrict it or quarantine it. Rather, it is to combat it, to challenge it, to question it, and to expose precisely what it is about such speech that is erroneous. Taking this approach, I believe, positions each of us to contribute to the advancement of human understanding by interrogating and evaluating the quality of competing ideas.

Thankfully, for its part, the University of Chicago has been unwavering in its defense of free speech. The university issued a statement affirming its commitment to free expression, including the right of faculty and students to invite speakers of their choosing and the right of others to protest those speakers. This is a great illustration of why it is so smart for schools to have a firm commitment to free speech like the University of Chicago’s in place before these controversies inevitably arise. Then there can be no accusation of double standards, or of favoring one brand of speech over another: the principle is already in place, and can be referred back to whenever a dispute arises.

Since the University of Chicago adopted its strong statement in support of free speech in January 2015, more than 30 other colleges and universities have adopted or endorsed identical or substantially similar statements. Given the now-routine calls for censorship in the face of controversial speech, we hope many more institutions will choose to follow suit.

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