Identity politics and the progressive assault on campus free speech.
Of the many intellectual perversions currently taking root on college campuses, perhaps none is more contradictory to what should be one of higher education’s core values than the suppression of free speech. With alarming regularity, speakers are shouted down, booed, jeered, and barraged with vitriol, all at the hands of progressive groups who give lip service to the notion of academic free speech, and who demand it when their own speech is at issue, but have no interest in listening to, or letting others listen to, ideas that contradict their own world view.
This is the tragic and inevitable result of a decades of grievance-based victimism by self-designated groups who frame their rights and demands on identity politics. Those who see themselves as perennial victims also feel very comfortable, when they express their feelings of being oppressed, in projecting that same victimization outward on their oppressors, as witnessed recently, for example, at Berkeley University where some 1500 violent rioters, including members of the radical, far-Left Antifa group, feminists, gay activists, pro-immigration groups, and other faculty and students, lit fires, smashed windows, tossed smoke bombs, destroyed property, and pepper sprayed and beat pro-Trump bystanders and conservatives, all because of the purported extreme ideology of Milo Yiannopoulos, a speaker invited to campus by the Berkeley College Republicans that evening as part of his “The Dangerous Faggot Tour.”
Lost in the reporting about the Berkeley rioting, of course, is the topic that was to be the theme of Yiannopoulos’ February 1st speech. It was specifically to address Berkeley’s recent decision, along with approximately 30 other campuses across the country, to become “sanctuary campuses,” giving them the dubious distinction of flaunting the intent and spirit of federal law that could lead to the arrest of students who are attending schools in this country but are actually not legally permitted to do so. Yiannopoulos was also going to raise the related, and clearly relevant, question of whether, once they had, in contravention of current law, declared themselves either sanctuary cities of sanctuary campuses, these entities should lose Federal funding.
Interestingly, in sending a letter to the university community prior to the Yiannopoulos’ planned speech, Berkeley’s Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, confirmed, on one hand, a “right to free expression, enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and reflected in some of the most important moments of Berkeley’s history,” but then portrayed Yiannopoulos in that letter as “a troll and provocateur who uses odious behavior in part to ‘entertain,’ but also to deflect any serious engagement with ideas,” clearly signaling to readers that, as far as the Berkeley administration was concerned, this speech would be in violation of the prevailing norms and beliefs of the University at large and would, consequently, have no intrinsic intellectual value.
So while Dirks was purportedly supporting the idea of academic free speech, together with its oft-lauded vigorous open debate, he actually was violating the content neutrality that is required of free speech on campuses by leaving no one reading his letter with any doubt as to where he and the University stood on this issue, especially since the decision had already been made to ignore existing statutes that would call for the arrest and possible deportation of individuals who attend schools in this country but are not legally permitted to do so.
The debate over whether immigration to this country should continue without proper vetting and oversight, of course, was one of the central issues of the recent presidential election, so there is considerable emotion and debate over this topic, especially among college students and faculty (not to mention Democrat governors and mayors across the country), who have taken it upon themselves to decide that they have greater moral authority to settle this issue than the government does in enforcing existing laws of this nation.
Sixty million people, nearly half of the total population who voted in the presidential election, decided that this issue was certainly worthy of debate, and the notion that Berkeley, its leadership, and some of its faculty and students had unilaterally decided that sanctuary campuses were not only a good idea but something that they could implement—in violation of law—is certainly a topic that was worthy of being challenged by a speaker like Yiannopoulos.
The Berkeley event exposes one of the dangers of suppressing certain types of speech on campus, where progressive social justice warriors feel morally empowered to decide who can say what about whom, and have taken it upon themselves to exclude and suppress certain types of speech and certain topics which they have collectively decided cannot and should not be discussed.
No one is interested in suppressing the corrosive and unhelpful speech of these ideological brats, who preen self-righteously about their unabridged right to champion progressive aims and anti-Trump, pro-Left ideology. Similar to the anti-Israel activists who have hijacked academic debate about the Middle East, Leftist students and faculty—at Berkeley and elsewhere-- have been very free and successful in exploiting the protection of academic free speech to advance their toxic views on campuses, yet simultaneously decry that same freedom when used by those with opposing—very often stronger and more truthful—views.
These sanctimonious activists may well feel that they have access to all the truth and facts, but even if this were true—which it demonstrably and regularly is not—it does not empower them with the right to have the only voice to trumpet their ideology and to disrupt, shout down, or totally eliminate competing opinions in political or academic debates. No one individual or group has the moral authority or intellectual might to decide what may and may not be discussed, and especially young, sanctimonious students—whose expertise and knowledge about immigration, national security, and terrorism is frequently characterized by distortions, lies, lack of context, corrosive bias against democracies, and errors in history, law, and fact.
College administrators regularly give lip service to the enshrined value of academic free speech and robust debate about controversial issues, and that is an admirable goal and an intellectual environment in which scholarship and learning can thrive. But university communities also thrive when they operate with civility and decorum, meaning that when it comes to academic free speech, students and faculty have the right to express their ideas, no matter how controversial, but, importantly, they must also insure that this speech takes place in what the courts in First Amendment cases have referred to as an appropriate “time, place, and manner.”
This means that it was never the intended purpose of academic free speech to enable or permit students, for example, to scream out in protest in classrooms if they disagree with the instructor or merely wish to raise their displeasure with some issue, engage in speech and behavior that would normally be considered to be incitement or harassment or criminal, and, most relevant to this current issue, individuals cannot, under the protection of free speech, deprive another of his or her free speech rights—through disruptions, heckling, physical obstructions, or other tactics which have as their purpose to suppress and/or eliminate the speech of those with opposing views.
Most universities, of course, have codes of conduct which proscribe inappropriate speech and behavior, as does Berkeley, whose own Code of Student Conduct would punish the protestors who disrupted Yiannopoulos’ speech because “Some forms of speech are not constitutionally protected and may be grounds for discipline,” including “threats of violence, incitement to imminent lawless action, raising false alarms regarding imminent personal danger, and certain severe and pervasive harassment.” It was never the purpose of academic free speech, from either a legal or moral standpoint, to allow whiny intellectual thugs to determine which ideas could be aired and which could not—a fascistic tactic that has no place in the academy where at least the pretense of scholarly inquiry and debate still remains.
And the other, oft-expressed accusation that counter-speech to this activism is merely a disingenuous effort on the part of conservatives to suppress and “chill” the free speech of these arrogant, sententious anti-Trump progressives is yet another attempt to neutralize and eliminate an opposing view, deeming it malicious in its intent and therefore undeserving of attention. Because they most likely know that their arguments and ideology are defective and cannot stand up to the scrutiny that an actual vigorous debate will bring, these self-professed champions of free speech in reality wish for that privilege and right to be enjoyed only by them.
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is,” observed John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, “that . . . [i]f the opinion is right, [individuals] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
True intellectual diversity — the ideal that is often bandied about but rarely achieved — must be dedicated to the protection of unfettered speech, representing opposing viewpoints, where the best ideas become clear through the utterance of weaker ones. Universities, if they truly believe that academic free speech helps achieve “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth,” must insure that rights to expression are not trampled on by those whose ideology is so virulent that they are unable, and unwilling, to, as Mill put it, “exchange error for truth.”