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Shouting down speakers doesn’t work

Our nation’s commitment to the principles and ideals of free speech is most often tested in the face of expression that many people reject as repugnant and harmful. So it was when the federal government attempted to stifle communist expression during the Red Scare and the Cold War. So it was in the 1970s, when the National Socialist Party of America wanted to march through Skokie. So it was in the 1990s and 2000s, when cross burnings drew the attention of state and local governments. And so it is now, when white nationalist and alt-right figure Richard Spencer has embarked on a speaking tour at college campuses, renting out lecture halls to the chagrin of those both on campus and off.

Some campuses, such as Ohio State University and Penn State, have refused to rent space to Spencer, leading to First Amendment lawsuits. The University of Florida, on the other hand, allowed Spencer to speak on campus last week, reportedly footing a bill of more than $500,000 to ensure adequate security. Where Spencer is successful in renting venues, he is often met with audiences full of people in attendance who attend with the intention to shout him down and prevent him from being heard.

And unfortunately, that mob censorship tactic may be receiving support from some surprising sources. Northwestern University’s Medill News Service reports:

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, said that the AAC&U supports an individual’s right to speak at the university, unless there is an imminent threat of danger.

“We advocate for liberal education, which is based on the notion that we need to consider the possibility that some of one’s most fundamental beliefs are wrong,” she said.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, Pasquerella did not stop there:

Pasquerella also said that protestors have a right to engage in civil discourse and “shout down,” a speaker, particularly when a speaker shares values inconsistent with that of the institution.

“The values are the values of the institution, related to diversity, equity and a non-hostile learning environment,” she said. “Freedom of expression as a value must be weight [sic] in relation to these, and one might say that a speaker’s perspective is inconsistent with an institution’s mission and values[.]”

Charitably interpreted, perhaps Pasquerella meant that students are right to attend events and make their objections to the speaker’s ideas known by challenging and refuting them, perhaps even boisterously. If done in a manner that does not prevent those who want to hear the speaker out from doing so, FIRE would agree. After all, the best remedy for speech that we disagree with is counter-speech.

But to the extent that Pasquerella believes that students have a right to substantially disrupt an event and literally shout a speaker down so as to prevent those who want to hear from the speaker from doing so, we could not disagree more.

As my colleague Zach Greenberg explained in June, there is no First Amendment right to shout down a speaker that others wish to hear. UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman made the same point just last week, noting the destructive consequences of allowing private individuals to censor speakers they disagree with.  

And as unpopular as this may be in the current zeitgeist, the university’s obligation to protect freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas must be paramount. In the AAC&U’s own words:

Liberal education requires that we understand the foundations of knowledge and inquiry about nature, culture and society; that we master core skills of perception, analysis, and expression; that we cultivate a respect for truth; that we recognize the importance of historical and cultural context; and that we explore connections among formal learning, citizenship, and service to our communities.


Because liberal learning aims to free us from the constraints of ignorance, sectarianism, and myopia, it prizes curiosity and seeks to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. By its nature, therefore, liberal learning is global and pluralistic. It embraces the diversity of ideas and experiences that characterize the social, natural, and intellectual world. To acknowledge such diversity in all its forms is both an intellectual commitment and a social responsibility, for nothing less will equip us to understand our world and to pursue fruitful lives.

The ability to think, to learn, and to express oneself both rigorously and creatively, the capacity to understand ideas and issues in context, the commitment to live in society, and the yearning for truth are fundamental features of our humanity. In centering education upon these qualities, liberal learning is society's best investment in our shared future.

This is not to say that diversity and inclusion are unimportant. To the contrary, many would argue that diversity and inclusion are core components of the overarching goals of an institution of higher learning. But diversity and inclusion cannot, as Pasquerella seemingly implies, be wielded in a way that subordinates the diversity of ideas that even the AAC&U acknowledges is essential to a liberal education. After all, if liberal education is premised on the ability to consider that our closely held beliefs may be wrong, how are students supposed to do so when simply shouting down speakers they disagree with is endorsed? Those two ideas are inherently discordant.

And what of those like Zach Wood, an African-American student who tried to invite “race realist” John Derbyshire to speak at Williams College for the very purpose of refuting his notorious writings on race and educating his peers on those misguided beliefs? Should other students have the ability to hinder Wood’s desire to engage in critical thinking and debate? To answer in the affirmative is a foolhardy exercise in hubris. And of course, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If Student A is permitted to shout down a speaker because they consider that speaker’s values antithetical to the university’s, what is to stop Student B from doing the same to a speaker Student A invited?

Indeed, the “turnabout is fair play” mentality has already reared its head. Just this month, Trump-supporting hecklers shouted down California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at Whittier College, forcing the event to end halfway through its allotted time. If you try to come up with a truly principled reason why shouting down Richard Spencer is permitted, but what happened at Whittier is not, you will come up empty.

Shouting down a speaker whose values you oppose does nothing to convince others that his ideas are wrong, and deprives those who might be susceptible to those beliefs from the opportunity, as John Stuart Mill put it, of “exchanging error for truth” or even simply questioning their own beliefs. The Washington Post reported that in the heated exchanges outside Spencer’s speech at the University of Florida, a black man hugged a white supremacist and asked him, “Why do you hate me?” To which the man replied, “I don’t know.” Anyone who doubts the potentially transformative nature of encouraging white supremacists to question their own beliefs would do well to learn the story of Daryl Davis.

Even worse, shouting down a speaker you disagree with actively harms the development of “core skills” such as analysis, critical thinking, and rigorous debate. And while it may feel good at the time, it is ultimately not only selfish, but also self-harming.

Of course, if one truly does not want to hear certain expression, the option of not attending is always available.

But as my colleague Will Creeley pointed out in The New York Times last week, shouting down Richard Spencer provides him with an easy distraction from the flaws in his ideas. Making Spencer into a free speech martyr not only potentially causes others to sympathize with him, but also provides him with the ability to avoid scrutiny of the merits of his arguments by allowing him to make the conversation about free speech. Instead, challenge his ideas. Use ridicule to poke holes in them. Participate in the educational experience of researching your opponent’s arguments and convincingly refuting them.

On a college campus, no idea, good or bad, should be expected to escape unchallenged. Creating a free speech issue by shouting down your opponents does just that.

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