The Assault on Free Speech Creeps Off Campus
Last week we catalogued the assault on free speech on campus in the form of speech codes and pervasive political correctness. The most common reason given for the speech codes by college administrators is to protect members of the university community from a hostile environment. The other reason more often offered by professors and students for preventing anyone with whom they disagree from speaking – from Condoleeza Rice to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Ambassador Michael Oren – is that they are advocates of policies or regimes which the commissars have determined in Marcusian fashion to be “objectively” unjust.
The justification offered by the administrators is more understandable. After all, few parents would want to send their children to live in dorms in which they were constantly subjected to racial or religious epithets, especially at a cost of $60,000 a year or more. But, it should be noted, that the notion that no one should ever be offended is a slippery slope and very much at odds with the values underlying the First Amendment. What happens when one student claims to be offended by another’s citation of Biblical verses condemning his lifestyle? How far are we from having the laining of VaYikra banned on campuses?
And what happens when the concept that people should be protected from being offended is carried from ivy-lined campuses to the larger world? Those trained in their intellectually formative years to view restrictions on speech as something quite normal and unobjectionable will be poor defenders of free speech. “Once the taste is developed for shutting people up,” writes Mark Steyn, “it’s hard to stop.”
And when societal elites, the natural defenders of anti-majoritarian values from popular attack, themselves fail to uphold the banner of freedom of thought and expression, it becomes highly vulnerable. Indeed those elites have too often become leaders of the vanguard against free speech.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH has always found its staunchest defense in Anglo-Saxon countries, where the concept of individual liberty found its earliest and most fertile soil. And while freedom of speech has never enjoyed the same status in England as in America, due to libel laws which place far heavier burdens on defendants, even where the plaintiffs are public figures, an event last week must still shock those raised on Anglo-Saxon concepts of individual liberty.
British police arrested and charged Paul Weston, a candidate for the European parliament, with a “racially aggravated crime” for reading publicly from Winston Churchill’s The River War, in which the young Churchill offers an unflattering description of Islamic political rule: “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia [rabies] in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the prophet rule or live.”
Will Churchill’s book be banned? Or he disinterred and tried? How far have we gone towards criminalizing any unfavorable characterization of Islam or its followers? True, the young Winston painted with broad brushstrokes. But were his characterizations of Muslim societies (not Muslims as individuals) self-evidently wrong? And even if they were is not the proper response to such empirical observations refutation not suppression? (In point of fact, a U.N. Report on the developmental delay of the Islamic world, prepared primarily by Muslim academics, was similarly critical of the Muslim world’s scientific, educational, and social deficits.)
Recently Tony Blair, Britain’s longest serving post-war prime minister, spoke recently about threat of radical Islam. He described the “steady stream of funding, proselytizing, organizing and promulgating coming out of the Middle East, pushing views of religion that are narrow-minded and dangerous” over the past forty or fifty years – a threat to which the West has remains “blind.” “The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world.”
What distinguishes Weston from Blair or Churchill for that matter? Only that he represents an as yet fringe political party, which the British establishment would like to see remain small.
ANY ATTEMPT TO EMPOWER SOME BODY, whether courts, or university administrators, or human rights councils, to “balance” the right to freedom of expression against “fairness” or “equality” or some other wishy-washy progressive slogan, inevitably results in radically different treatment of different groups. As the defense attorney for John Peter Zenger, a colonial era publisher, charged with libel for his criticisms of the Crown-appointed Governor-General of New York, put it, “The abuses of Freedom of Speech are the excrescences of Liberty. They ought to be suppressed; but to whom dare we commit the care of doing it?”
John Gower lists in New Inquisition 35 Acts of Parliament, 52 Statutory Instruments, thirteen Codes of Practice, and sixteen European Commission Directives imposing “neo-blasphemy” crimes forbidding the insult of religious or ethnic groups. Numerous European countries have prosecuted individuals, including leading politicians, for statements deemed anti-Islamic.
Yet somehow, with the exception of Holocaust denial statutes (about which more later), attacks on Israel in explicitly anti-Semitic terms do not offend the censors in the same way. Jose Saramago, the 2002 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature did not fear prosecution – nor should he have – for writing, “Jews are contaminated by their massive certitude that there exists a people chosen by G-d . . . The Jews endlessly scratch their wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable and they show it to the world as a banner.” Neither did Jostein Gaarder, one of Europe’s top-selling novelists, for opining, “To act as G-d’s Chosen People is not only stupid and arrogant, but a crime against humanity.” And, Steyn notes, you can count on the fact that “Sheikh Sharif Hussein’s lively sermon to an enthusiastic crowd at the Islamic Da’wah Centre of South Australia, calling on Allah to kill every last Buddhist and Hindu, will be safely within it [i.e., the line of protected speech].”
In the end, special solicitude is shown for Islam and Muslims. The 57 nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference have long sought international legislation for the prosecution of critics of Islam. Even in the face of the most flagrant such demands in their presence, neither then Secretary of State Clinton nor EU Foreign Secretary Catherine Ashton could muster any defense of freedom of speech. Indeed Clinton promised the father of Tyrone Wood, one of the four slain in the Benghazi compound, that the producer of a “reprehensible video” insulting Islam, would be punished, though the unseen video had zero to do with events at Benghazi. And she made good on that promise.
NOT ALL THOSE who show something less than great enthusiasm for political debate – the core of the values upon which the First Amendment is predicated – run afoul of the First Amendment. President Obama has developed a penchant of late for declaring the “debate over.” As long as those who disagree are not threatened with jail, the First Amendment is not infringed. But an impatience with debate can lead to such infringements, as when the IRS distinguishes between liberal and conservative advocacy organizations in determining tax deductible status.
Nor does free speech mean that one should never suffer any adverse repercussions as a consequence of one’s speech or thought. Ridicule, contumely, being shown to be a fool are all natural consequences of putting one’s thoughts in the public sphere. And just as one should have the right to say what he wants so do others have the right to refuse to buy his products or to deal with him because they disagree.
Yet there is something deeply troubling about Mozilla’s firing of Brendan Eide, the company’s co-founder and one of the greatest living tech geniuses, one-day after his appointment as CEO, because he once contributed to an organization supporting a Californian constitutional referendum to include the traditional definition of marriage in the state constitution. That referendum, incidentally, passed even in liberal California. Supporters of non-traditional marriage do not want to debate the nature of marriage, they seek – and are largely succeeding – in having the view of marriage endorsed by every human society in recorded history, until perhaps twenty years ago, the view of all the world’s monotheistic religions, and the view endorsed by Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton five years ago (when Eide made his contribution) and still endorsed by at least half of Americans to be beyond the pale of legitimate opinion.
When you add that Eide’s contribution only became known because the IRS leaked donor lists, thus allowing advocates of non-traditional marriage to seek to destroy personally and financially anyone who disagreed with them, then the First Amendment itself is implicated. That smacks of the very governmental suppression of speech and political association that the First Amendment forbids.
THE FOUNDING FATHERS located the source of the freedoms of speech, press, religion and association protected by the First Amendment in their conceptions of individual autonomy and liberty. Nearly a century later, John Stuart Mill and others would add a utilitarian justification to these notions of individual autonomy: the free-market place of ideas is best-suited to the production of truth. In actuality, the free market place of ideas is at best a useful fiction. For one thing, like all markets it suffers from numerous imperfections. Money and ownership of media properties confer disproportionate influence in the “marketplace” of ideas. Yet the danger of government trying to equalize power in the “marketplace” appears greater still.
And while there is no empirical evidence with which I’m familiar that the best ideas or solutions emerge victorious in the short-run, nevertheless it is clear that every argument is sharpened and improved by being forced to confront and respond to contra-arguments. That is why we learn Talmud with a study partner. And in some areas, particularly science, the constant testing of hypotheses against other data and experiments constitutes the essence of the process.
In addition, the marketplace into which all opinions can enter preserves the legitimacy of the political system by leveling the playing field. Procedural fairness enables both sides in a political system to accept the outcomes of the political process in the belief that if they have failed to prevail in the court of public opinion today they may still do so tomorrow. Where that belief is lacking disgruntled losers are much more likely to conclude that they have no recourse other than to start blowing things up.
In many areas, the suppression of information or opinions can be positively life-threatening. Threats that can’t be mentioned become threats that are not addressed. If the reigning political orthodoxy renders it impermissible to discuss Muslim irritability at the slightest of insults or the greater propensity of young Muslim males to become suicide bombers and terrorists then the government will also ignore the threat. An army report on the Fort Hood massacre of thirteen that fails to mention that the killer was shouting Alla-hu Akbar, and instead describes the massacre as an example of workplace violence, paves the way for future such incidents. Political correctness that leads to the scrubbing of all mention of Islam from government terrorist anti-terrorist manuals will eventually lead to a failure to process information about potential terrorists entering the country – e.g., the “underwear bomber” — the end of surveillance of Islam mosques, which are hotbeds of radicalization, and the refusal of governments to monitor citizens who go off to train and fight abroad with radical Islamic groups.
In scientific areas too the debate can never be declared over, especially when those on one side are advocating actions that would impose trillions of dollars in direct and indirect taxes on world economic activity – money that could be used to solve many of the world’s most pressing health problems. And yet that is precisely what some proponents of anthropogenic global warming are advocating. They would turn denial of anthropogenic warming into the new Holocaust denial, and criminalize those who argue against it or support scientific research by skeptics. (That, by the way, is the ultimate danger of Holocaust denial statutes: Once you ban one form of speech, it becomes far easier to ban others by analogy, no matter how far-fetched the analogy.)
Every five years or so, it seems the received wisdom about diet and health is upended. And that is in a well-researched and relatively finite area of science. By contrast, climate science is in its relative infancy and involves the interplay of many complex physical systems. The advocates of anthropogenic climate changes are flabbergasted by the current 14 year lull in rising temperatures. Their beloved climate models not only failed to predict the lull, they cannot even explain it retroactively. With both the facts and the explanations highly contested, there is no basis for declaring an emergency of such magnitude that the entire scientific process of hypothesis and testing must be suspended and an era of “post-science science” declared.
The human impulse to suppress opposing opinions and arguments, described by Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes at the outset, remains as strong as ever. And it must be fiercely resisted for precisely that reason.
This article first appeared in Yated Neeman.