The Eternally Radical Idea

Why did Audible censor my book about free speech? And other revelations from my lovely tea with Iona

February 9, 2021

Years ago I noticed something odd about the audiobook Audible had recorded for my book, “Unlearning Liberty.” The whole subsection covering student free speech cases involving profanity wasn’t there. It was just entirely missing. Every other subsection of the book was there, but just not those examples. I had never gotten around to asking anybody else who had listened to the Audible version of the book if the section on swearing was there until recently, when I was on the “Two for Tea with Iona Italia and Helen Pluckros‪e‬” podcast.

In the course of this delightful podcast with Iona, I asked her to consult her copy of the audiobook about whether or not that section appeared. Shortly thereafter, she confirmed it wasn’t.

For those of you who listened to the book you missed the section titled “Swear at Your Own Risk (a.k.a. Skip This Section If You Can’t Abide Cussing)” — the text even warns, “[i]f you suspect you believe that swearing can never have a meaningful function in debate, dissent, or society, I recommend you skip the following section.” You missed three colorful stories of censorship:

  • In 2010, Isaac Rosenbloom, a student at Hinds Community College (HCC) in Mississippi, was overheard by his professor telling another student that his grade would “fuck up [his] entire GPA.” The professor threatened Rosenbloom with “detention,” to which Rosenbloom responded by mocking the professor, pointing out he wasn’t in grade school. HCC brought Isaac up on charges for violating a policy that banned “flagrant disrespect of any person,” for which he was found guilty. Rosenbloom lost his Pell Grant, was kicked out of the class, and received 12 demerits — only 3 short of expulsion. His appeals were denied twice, before pressure from FIRE finally got HCC to reverse its decision.
  • Also in 2010, Jacob Lovell sent an email to the feedback line for campus parking at the University of Georgia pleading for more parking near a campus building “before [he] fucking graduate[s] or the sun runs out of hydrogen.” The associate dean of students subsequently informed him that he was being charged with “[d]isruption or obstruction of teaching, research, administration or other University activities,” and “[e]ngaging in conduct that causes or provokes a disturbance that disrupts the academic pursuits, or infringes upon the rights, privacy, or privileges of another person,” for his email that the dean characterized as “threatening.” Fortunately, the college backed off after a letter from FIRE.
  • In 2011, Jacob Ramirez, a student at Western Washington University (WWU) wrote “fuck tha police” in the memo line on a check to pay the fine for a parking ticket. For the politically-charged musical reference, he was investigated for violating the school’s “Harassment and/or Threats of Violence” policy, for “intimidating contact.” After a letter from FIRE, WWU dropped the investigation and apologized to the student. (Sidenote: You may be surprised to learn that such apologies from administrations to wronged students were — and remain vanishingly rare in FIRE’s work. Instead, there is often a sense from schools that they’re doing students a favor by dropping unconstitutional investigations and punishments.)

The irony of the censorship here is twofold:

1. It looks like they may have censored a book that is precisely an argument against censorship. In particular, they censored a section of the book thats aim was to point out that incidents where students got in trouble for swearing were less about profanity itself, and more about punishing students for insulting or inconveniencing staff members or the university. Swearing was just the excuse, because, frankly, if you were going to try to punish every swearing student you’d quickly run out of students.

2. As anyone who follows me knows, I am Audible’s biggest fan and I promote them endlessly.

But that was the only negative revelation to come out of my delightful talk with Iona. I enjoyed my interview on this podcast immensely, and I highly recommend it.

Here is some of the stuff that we covered:

  • The pure informational theory of free speech, exemplified by my “laboratory in the looking glass” metaphor for free speech: “The ‘marketplace of ideas’ metaphor doesn’t really capture free speech’s most fundamental function: Freedom of speech gives you a fighting chance to know the world as it really is.
  • The project of human knowledge: “The project: to know everything about you and everything related to you. Where you come from, as recently as this morning and as far back as the Big Bang and maybe before; what makes you tick; what your societies look like; what attracts or repels you; what makes you angry or sad or ambivalent […] It is basically the project that humanism began many centuries ago: to know as much about us and our world as we can.”
  • Whether free speech is a liberal or conservative idea (spoiler, it is neither liberal or conservative, but, as I’ve titled my blog… it’s the “Eternally Radical Idea!”)
  • And so much more!

Definitely check it out. It’s my deepest dive into the philosophy of free speech in a long time, and I really enjoyed it. In the meantime check out my lovely and thoughtful friend Iona’s great work and her publication, Areo Magazine.