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The Nature of Power: Why Free Speech Is Non-Partisan

A few widely-publicized incidents during my first year at the University of Chicago—a stereotyped Halloween costume here, an ill-advised joke there—led many students on campus to perceive a culture of hostility and indifference to the grievances of marginalized campus populations. Invariably a few of these students, who tended to identify as liberals, responded by advocating that speech deemed racist, sexist, or offensive be officially penalized. And, invariably, an acrimonious debate followed between self-styled social justice advocates and self-styled free speech defenders, many of whom, including myself, consider ourselves liberals just like the social justice advocates.

Given the liberal basis behind this advocacy for speech restrictions, it should perhaps be unsurprising that we free speech defenders were accused of being covert partisans: Those who say they are in favor of free speech, argued the advocates, are conservatives who use free speech protections as a means of protecting conservative ideas. This is a mistake. Free speech can and should be a politically neutral endeavor; the reasons for supporting it apply to all political groups regardless of their ideology.

Sometimes this argument against free speech defenders is merely a presumption of bad faith—an accusation that those who take up the free speech mantle do so only when it serves to hurt liberal causes. Although it is true that a number of recent cases on campus have concerned attempts to suppress conservative speech, this claim is wrong on its face. There is, after all, no shortage of cases defending liberal viewpoints that organizations such as FIRE have taken up, from the state of South Carolina’s attempt to restrict funding for state universities that assigned LGBT-themed books, to a professor at the University of Arizona who was terminated after she conducted research into the therapeutic benefits of marijuana, to a student at Citrus College who was prohibited from petitioning to protest NSA surveillance.

More interesting to me is another argument supporters of penalizing “hate speech” tend to make: that free speech is incompatible with a certain type of community. Some on the American left are uncomfortable with free speech because they see it as incompatible with protecting marginalized groups; some on the American right dislike free speech because they worry it undermines desirable social values. Neither of these arguments should be persuasive. The list is long of historical moments when free speech restrictions overstepped their narrowly defined bounds and ended up oppressing legitimate political and social movements—the Sedition Acts and the Red Scare of the 1910s, the attacks on unionists of the ’20s and the 30’s, the enforced nationalism of the ’40s, the McCarthyism of the ’50s, the obscenity arrests of the ’60s, and the suppression of anti-war movements in the ’70s. It takes a remarkable and ahistorical naivete to presume that the boundaries we set on free speech will follow the contours of what we presently presume to be worth banning for very long.

After all, even if you think it is better that the racists or the sexists be silenced, do you really want to delegate the power to make that decision to a large and bureaucratic institution such as a university? Advocates for restrictions on free speech fail to consider the worrying possibilities of delegating away their rights. But it is a mistake, both philosophically and pragmatically, to adopt a set of tactics that you would be horrified to see your opponents use. Both the logic of respect invoked by liberals when justifying restrictions against supposed hate speech and the logic of community invoked by conservatives could easily be co-opted by administrators when it comes to student criticism of abusive campus police, ineffective and overpaid administrators, or adjunct-dependent departments. It would be a dangerous folly for political movements to see temporary alliances with student administrations as permanent ones and hand administrators an effective veto on controversial speech. If students can be expelled or forced to recant their speech, they will lose the only important weapon they have: the ability to influence public opinion.

And there is another danger to regulations or policies limiting speech on campus. We know that the culture of the university can easily become the culture of society as a whole: There is a long roster of ideas and political movements that have exploded in the popular consciousness only after being tested in the classroom and the university dorm. So undermining free speech in universities, where students may think they have the consistent backing of the institutions entrusted with enforcement, runs a very serious risk of undermining free speech in the public space. Many liberals oppose the surveillance state, the police, and large corporations; many conservatives oppose government bureaucracies and entitlement programs. These institutions are all vested with tremendous political power, whether in the form of legal teams, lobbyists, or politically influential supporters. Without broad free speech protections, power will be levied in its full against whichever group is not in power. The health of the body politic depends on a student body willing to fight for the ideals of free speech and free expression. The stakes are nothing less than the future of our political and social discourse.

Max Bloom is a FIRE summer intern.

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