Posts Tagged ‘Freedom of Speech’

Academic freedom then and now

October 12, 2017

From a young age, I’ve believed in American ideals of freedom and democracy, as I understood them.   But my political thinking crystallized when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1952-1956 and took part in controversies about academic freedom then.

Academic freedom, as I conceives it then and still do, is the freedom of college faculty to engage in scholarship free from outside pressure, and the freedom of students to discuss and debate issues without restriction.

I regard the defense of freedom of expression as a defining principle of liberalism.  Back then most American leftists were liberals.   Sadly this is no longer true.

A plaque on Bascom Hall, on a high hill in the center of the liberal arts part of the campus, contained an excerpt from the Board of Regents declaration of 1894, when they resisted pressure from the state legislature to fire a professor for his outspoken pro-labor opinions.

The regents’ reply was that scholarship required free inquiry and was incompatible with censorship of opinion.

The academic freedom issues on the UW campus in the early 1950s were: (1) Should a known Communist, or a member of a group on the Attorney-General’s list of subversive organizations, be automatically barred from employment on the UW faculty, and (2) Should Communists or groups on the Attorney-General’s list be eligible to participate in students activities?

In the year 1952, when I enrolled as a freshman, Joseph Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union, the Korean Conflict was still waging and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was at the height of his influence.   McCarthy’s power was based on his charges, which later proved baseless, of Communist infiltration of government and other American institutions.   Interestingly, he represented Wisconsin, but never had anything to say about the University of Wisconsin.

Fear of Communists had a real basis.  It was not just the “intolerance of the intolerant” argument—that enemies of democracy were not entitled to democratic freedoms.

Communist parties in those days were subservient to Stalin.   In the 1930s, Communist parties all supported the idea of a Popular Front of radicals, liberals and conservatives against Hitler.   Then, after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1940, they all opposed the British “imperialist” war.

After the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941, they became anti-fascist again.   British and American Communists provided the Soviet Union with critical information about the U.S. atomic bomb.

Things are different now, but that’s how they were then.

Nevertheless, I and my friends took the extreme liberal position—the extreme libertarian position—that people should be judged on their individual actions, and not on group identity.

That wasn’t just a matter of justice.   If Communists were outlawed, or denied employment, for being Communists, then they wouldn’t identify themselves as Communists.    The only way to root them out would be to create an inquisition to determine people’s secret beliefs.   The obvious target for this inquisition would be those of us who are pro-labor, anti-racist and pro-civil liberties.

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Reasons why freedom of speech is important

October 11, 2017

A good friend of mine mailed me clippings about free speech controversies on college campuses, and asked me whether I think freedom of speech is an absolute right.

Nothing is absolute.   Even fundamental freedoms are subject to reasonable and limited restrictions that are consistent with their purpose.   These includes laws about (1) libel and slander, (2) incitement to riot, (3) threats and intimidation, (4) harassment, (5) public obscenity, (6) public nuisances and probably other things I didn’t think of.

But I can’t think of a situation in which I would forbid somebody to peaceably express their opinion based on the nature of that opinion.

And if you could make me admit to an exception, I would define that exception as narrowly as possible and not use it as a precedent.

What is the point of freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech is an important individual right.   Being able to speak your mind without fear is necessary for human flourishing.   Nobody can be happy if they have to conceal their opinions out of fear.

Freedom of speech is a our social contract.   It provides a way in which people of radically different opinions can live together without violence.    I may think you not only wrong but wicked, and you may think the same of me.   But it is better for both of us, and for those around us, if we agree to settle our differences with facts and ideas, not guns and clubs.

Freedom of speech is necessary for self-government.   Citizens of a free country have a right to hear all sides of public questions.   Your choice is not completely free if someone has the power to limit what facts and opinions you are allowed to hear.

Freedom of speech is most valuable to the least powerful.   The rich and powerful in any framework will be able to make their views known.   Reformers, dissidents and the poor and marginalized are the ones most in need of the right of free speech, and that is true even if they have less of it than the powerful.

And, under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, free speech is more than just a good idea – it’s the law.

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Hate speech laws are the new McCarthyism

October 19, 2015

Hate speech laws are like McCarthyism in the 1950s.

They purport to be against real evils—racism and Stalinism.

But in practice they are directed mostly at persecuting harmless and powerless people for trivial reasons.

hatespeech28389168They violate historical and well-established rights to free speech and due process of law, which apply to everyone, including real Communists and real racists.

They are used to prevent full and free debate of sensitive and important issues.

They divert attention from real abuses of power.  Anti-Communism in the old days provided cover for abuses of power by corporations and American foreign policy.  Hate speech rules today provide cover big for university administrators who jack up tuition, push down wages of adjunct and other teachers and give themselves and their consultants six-figure and seven-figure incomes.

I’m old enough to have a living memory of McCarthyism.   Back in the day, I was anti-McCarthy, anti-Communist, anti-racist and pro-free speech.   I still am.

LINKS

The Anti-Free Speech Movement at UCLA by Conor Friedersdorf for The Atlantic.  (Hat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack)

Why I am ‘politically correct’ (up to a point)

February 6, 2015

quote-let-me-never-fall-into-the-vulgar-mistake-of-dreaming-that-i-am-persecuted-whenever-i-am-ralph-waldo-emerson-227115

Whenever I hear someone say in a belligerent tone that he or she is “politically incorrect,” I take it to mean that the person is about to say something offensive or vulgar, and that anybody who criticizes is a timid conformist.

There are words I don’t use—”nigger,” “kike” and “faggot”—that are the language of murder.  They are the vocabulary of lynch mobs hanging black people, Cossacks conducting pogroms against Jewish villages, homophobes beating people sometimes to death.

bus_stop_colorFor that matter, I refrain from using words such “redneck.”  It originally was a derogatory term used by the Southern elite for men who worked all day in the hot sun, which is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

If I want to be treated with courtesy, I extend courtesy in return.  I make a reasonable effort to avoid giving offense.   I expect in return that other people not take offense when no offense is intended.

Being polite doesn’t mean that I self-censor what I say.  It means that I try to think of ways of saying what I have to say so that other people will listen, and that I listen to what they have to say in return.

∞∞∞

I’ve been called “racist” a few times during my life.   This didn’t shut me up..

I said I don’t deserve to be called by the same word that is used for Klansman and or Nazis.  I was told that this was not what was meant.  “We are all racists,” the other person would say.

I don’t agree, but I stopped taking offense.  If the meaning of “racist” is “average insensitive, ignorant white guy,” it probably applies.  But then another word is needed for the likes of David Duke.

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Women on the Internet are subject to terrible abuse, including threats of rape and dismemberment, especially when they express a pro-feminist point of view.

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Liberals, the left and academic freedom

February 6, 2015

quote-i-disapprove-of-what-you-say-but-will-defend-to-the-death-your-right-to-say-it-voltaire-334856I was a college student in the 1950s, the heyday of Joe McCarthy, and strongly believed in academic freedom, which was under attack.

The idea was that Communists, and people thought to be in sympathy with Communists, did not have the right to freedom of speech because they—by definition—did not believe in it themselves.

We liberals insisted that free speech was for everyone.  We frequently quoted John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and others who insisted that freedom meant that people on all sides of a question had a right to be heard.

The big issue was whether a student organization called the Labor Youth League, which was on the attorney-general’s list of subversive organizations, should be permitted on campus.  We liberals said it should.  The correct response to Communist arguments was to refute them, not to suppress them.

Our principles were that any student organization that followed impartial university rules should be permitted, and any college professor who was met impartial academic standards should be permitted to teach.  True education meant exposure to a diverse ideas, including ideas we might not like.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been been a part of the academic world.  But I get the idea that my concept of academic freedom is no longer taken for granted on campus.   There is a whole campus sub-culture based on a vocabulary that is new to me—”cis-gender,” “tone police,” “micro-aggression”, and, by some accounts, little tolerance for deviation from the new norms.

A graduate student named Fredrick deBoer wrote:

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 19 year old white woman — smart, well-meaning, passionate — literally run crying from a classroom because she was so ruthlessly brow-beaten for using the word “disabled.”  Not repeatedly.  Not with malice.  Not because of privilege.  She used the word once and was excoriated for it.  She never came back.  I watched that happen.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 20 year old black man, a track athlete who tried to fit organizing meetings around classes and his ridiculous practice schedule (for which he received a scholarship worth a quarter of tuition), be told not to return to those meetings because he said he thought there were such a thing as innate gender differences.  He wasn’t a homophobe, or transphobic, or a misogynist.  It turns out that 20 year olds from rural South Carolina aren’t born with an innate understanding of the intersectionality playbook.  But those were the terms deployed against him, those and worse. So that was it; he was gone.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 33 year old Hispanic man, an Iraq war veteran who had served three tours and had become an outspoken critic of our presence there, be lectured about patriarchy by an affluent 22 year old white liberal arts college student, because he had said that other vets have to “man up” and speak out about the war.  Because apparently we have to pretend that we don’t know how metaphorical language works or else we’re bad people.  I watched his eyes glaze over as this woman with $300 shoes berated him.  I saw that.  Myself.

via Fredrik deBoer.

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France is jailing people for the crime of irony

January 21, 2015

charlie-hebdo-cest-de-la-merdeA 16-year-old French high school student was taken into custody last Thursday for posting a cartoon on his Facebook page “representing a person holding the magazine Charlie Hebdo, being hit by bullets and accompanied by an ‘ironic’ comment.”

French newspapers haven’t reprinted the cartoon, but the description fits the cartoon above, which was taken from the Facebook page of the French comedian Dieudonne.  He has been arrested meanwhile for a different comment he made on his Facebook page.

The caption reads “Charlie Hebdo is crap.  It doesn’t stop bullets.”

The irony in the cartoon is that the Charlie Hebdo magazine is the July, 2013, issue, whose cover mocks Egyptian protesters who were killed in Cairo.  The Hebdo cover caption reads “The Koran is crap.  It doesn’t stop bullets.”

charlie-hebdo-le-coran-cest-de-la-merde

I think mocking the victims of murder is in bad taste in both cases, but bad taste shouldn’t be a crime.  I don’t think of any principle that forbids the one cartoon and tolerates the other.

In France, there are fences around free speech.  It is illegal to deny that the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews occurred or that the Turkish massacre of the Armenians occurred.  It is illegal to incite racial hatred or to glorify terrorism.

Anti-semitism is considered a form of racial hatred, I suppose because Jews are an ethnic group as well as a religion.

A Charlie Hebdo staff member, Maurice Sinet, was fired in 2009 for mocking Jean Sarkozy, the son of France’s president, who was rumored (falsely) to be converting to Judaism after marrying a wealthy Jewish heiress.  Sinet also was charged with “inciting racial hatred.”  He was acquitted of that charge and also won damages for wrongful dismissal.

But blasphemy is permitted, so attacks on Christians and Muslims are all right, as are attacks on French politicians and bankers.

I don’t think that the peaceful expression of any opinion should be suppressed by the government.  Forbidding people to deny that the Holocaust occurred, for example, will only make people wonder what facts the government is afraid to let them learn.  The best cure for falsehood is truth, and that can best be accomplished be free and open debate.

LINKS

France begins jailing people for making ironic comments by Ali Abudimah for the Electronic Intifada.  This is where I found the cartoons.

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Free speech and offensive speech

January 12, 2015

joesaccoonsatire1200I think freedom of speech is meaningless unless it includes the right to say, write and draw things that offend people.

I think it is a bad thing when people do not speak their minds for fear of retaliation—legal, economic or physical.

I think it is a bad thing—although a lesser bad thing—when people go out of their way to be insulting and offensive just to show they have a right to be insulting and offensive.

I think this is particularly true when the target of the insults and offense is an unpopular minority.   This is what usually falls under the heading of “politically incorrect”.

I think ridicule should be directed upward against the rich and powerful, not downward against the poor and weak.

This is all a way of making it clear that when I say  I really, really dislike the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, I am not trying to justify censorship or excuse murder.

The cartoons don’t seem to have any point except shock value, and I think.  They remind me of Hustler magazine.  And while the cartoonists have lampooned every institution in France, all the ones I’ve seen on-line target the Muslim religion.

Admittedly, I have not read the content, and I as an American may not appreciate how the French see them.  This is my personal reaction, not an authoritative judgment.

I believe in the principle of “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  I defend the right of museum curators to exhibit obscene and anti-Christian art works.  I defend the right of Holocaust deniers to publish their false opinions.  I defend the right of people to do all kinds of things I wish they wouldn’t do.

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There is such a thing as a right to be wrong

April 7, 2014

 purifytheworld

The proposition that “error has no rights” was once a teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.   St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that you cannot love God unless you have a correct understanding of God, and that having wrong ideas about God jeopardizes your immortal soul.  He wrote that just as counterfeiters of money should be put to death, so should people who promote counterfeit ideas about God.

Aside from the fact that I don’t believe in a merciless Deity who would condemn people to eternal torment for making a mistake, I don’t believe that there are any individuals or institutions who are infallibly right.   I am neither so arrogant that I think my opinions should be accepted without question, nor so fearful that I am afraid to submit my opinions to the test of argument and contradiction.   This applies across the board and not just to religion.

It is perfectly true that “error” has no rights.  Neither does “truth.”   Only human beings have rights.   Among those rights, under U.S. law and international human rights documents, is the right to nonviolently and lawfully advocate for their political opinions.  People in a free country ought to be able to do that safely, no matter how unpopular their opinions with the government or with the majority.

I suppose that with sufficient ingenuity, someone could think up a situation in which that principle didn’t apply.  If so, I would admit the exception only for that particular situation.  Freedom of speech, like everything else, has boundaries.  I think that people who call themselves liberals should defend and perhaps extend these boundaries, rather than look for reasons to contract them.

If you think there are opinions so hateful that anybody who holds them should be silenced or punished, who would you give the power to decide what those opinions are?   Are you absolutely sure that power would never be used against you?

Political correctness and repressive tolerance

April 4, 2014

cakvin&hobbes

I’ve long thought that “political correctness” was a minor problem, mainly affecting English departments in liberal arts colleges rather than the general public.  Evidently not.

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/if-brendan-eich-isnt-safe/

The inventor of JavaScript has resigned as CEO of his Silicon Valley company because of protests about him donating money to an anti-gay marriage group.

The interesting thing for me about the above article by the self-identified conservative Rod Dreher is that I can remember when his view would have represented the extreme civil libertarian position.

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/04/mozillas-gay-marriage-litmus-test-violates-liberal-values/360156/

All this is a reminder that “liberal” and “left,” while they may overlap, don’t mean the same thing.

http://fredrikdeboer.com/2014/03/24/is-the-social-justice-left-really-abandoning-free-speech/

The liberal position is, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

http://www.thenation.com/blog/179160/cancelcolbert-and-return-anti-liberal-left#

Okay, there are worse things. 

http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2014/04/in-us-democracy-is-now-sham.html

But, as my mother frequently said to me when I was a child, two wrongs don’t make a right.

On being afraid to speak like a free American

February 21, 2014

0803_freespeech_630x420

When I was reporting on business for my local newspaper in the 1980s and 1990s, I encountered a lot of people who were afraid to speak their minds and be quoted by name.

They weren’t afraid of the FBI, the CIA or any governmental or police agency.  They were afraid of employers — not just their own employer, but any potential future employer.  As one said, “I don’t want to be known as a bad employee.”

If you had to choose between evils, an oppressive government is worse than an oppressive employer.  In the worst case, the former has the power to take away your life and freedom, while the latter has only the power to take away your livelihood.  But a (comparatively) lesser evil can still be a great evil.

http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-08-03/where-free-speech-goes-to-die-the-workplace

Almost all the people I ran into in those days who were unafraid to speak like free Americans fell into one of the following categories.

  • Tenured college professors.
  • Civil servants
  • Union members with strong unions and good contracts
  • Independent professionals such as physicians, lawyers and accountants, not employed by a larger firm.
  • Independent craft workers such as plumbers, electricians or handymen, not employed by a larger firm.
  • Independent business owners not dependent on a single customer.

It might not be a coincidence that the proportion of people in all these categories is declining.

Free speech and fast food chicken

July 27, 2012

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought of those we hate.
    ==Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago said he will try to prevent the Chick-fil-A fast-food restaurant chain from expanding in their cities because they disapprove of the opinions of Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, a Southern Baptist who is strongly opposed to gay marriage.

A Chicago alderman, Joe Moreno, said he will try to prevent a Chick-fil-A restaurant from opening in his ward, and Mayor Emanuel said Moreno has his support.  Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said Chick-fil-A is not welcome in Boston.

Nobody has accused Chick-fil-A of breaking any laws.  Nobody has accused Chick-fil-A of discriminatory hiring practices.  Nobody has accused Chick-fil-A of refusing service to customers.  But Mayor Emanuel thinks he has the right to use the power of government to punish a business because its CEO expressed an opinion he doesn’t agree with.

People who favor gay marriage are not going to change anybody’s minds by trying to repress people with whom they disagree.  Mayor Emanuel’s action serve only to harden battle lines and lock people into their previous positions.  Opponents of gay marriage, including Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, have rallied to Dan Cathy’s support.  Very likely Chick-fil-A, whose business is concentrated in the South, will have a net gain in business as a result of the uproar.

Now I don’t agree with Dan Cathy myself.   I don’t think his opinions should go un-contradicted.  And anybody who is offended by his views is free to patronize some other restaurant.   That’s different from government persecution.

If you really believe in free speech, you believe in it for everyone.  If you make exceptions based on your emotions, why should anybody take you seriously?  If some mayor somewhere tries to close a business because its owner is for gay marriage, Rahm Emanuel gives him an excuse to accuse his opponents of being hypocrites.

Somebody pointed out that, until a few months ago, Barack Obama took the same position as Dan Cathy—that the marriage relationship only pertained to a man and a woman.  Would President Obama have been unwelcome in Chicago and Boston?

Click on Rahm Emanuel’s dangerous free speech attack for a good post by Glenn Greenwald, a civil liberties lawyer who is gay himself.

Click on In Defense of Chick-Fil-A for a good post by Adam Serwer of Mother Jones.  He quoted John Knight, director of the LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgendered) rights project at the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, as saying, “We think there’s a constitutional problem with discriminating against someone based on the content of their speech.”

Click on Don’t Fil-A the First Amendment for the view of Scott Limieux of The American Prospect.

Click on My evolving position on gay marriage if you’re interested in my personal opinion on this subject.

Nickel and diming freedom of speech

April 2, 2012

The video above tells the story of a University of Wisconsin professor who stood up to administrators who demanded he take down a Firefly poster on the grounds that it contained violent language.

I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1956.   One of the things I was proud of was the university’s dedication to academic freedom, which is just another word for freedom of speech as practiced on the university level.   A plaque at the entrance to Bascom Hall, one of the main academic buildings,  quoted as follows from a Board of Regents declaration in 1894 defending the rights of a professor who was under attack by members of the state legislature for allegedly advocating socialism.

WHATEVER MAY BE THE LIMITATIONS WHICH TRAMMEL INQUIRY ELSEWHERE, WE BELIEVE THAT THE GREAT STATE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN SHOULD EVER ENCOURAGE THAT FEARLESS AND ENDLESS SIFTING AND WINNOWING BY WHICH ALONE THE TRUTH CAN BE FOUND.

When I attended the University of Wisconsin, the administration and faculty lived up to that declaration.   This was in the era of Joe McCarthy, and the university administration was under pressure to ban the Labor Youth League, a student organization which was on the Attorney-General’s list of subversive organizations.  The administration said that so long as the LYL observed the university’s rules, they had as much right to hold meetings and invite outside speakers as any other–which was what they should have done, but not everybody would have agreed with in those days.

More recently the University stood up for Prof. William Cronon, the distinguished geographer-historian, when he came under attack by members of the state legislature after revealing that legislation proposed by the Scott Walker administration was drafted by an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council,  which is backed by the right-wing Koch brothers.[1]

But while defending itself against external threats to free speech, the University of Wisconsin’s internal policies subordinate free speech to other goals, such as “sensitivity.”  The University of Wisconsin was one of the universities which had speech codes in the 1990s prohibiting “demeaning verbal and other expressive behavior.”  While this code has been repealed, the attitude it reflects lives on, as depicted in the video above.   The video tells the story of Prof. James Miller, who was ordered to take down a Firefly poster on the grounds that it contained violent language, and then an anti-fascist poster on the same grounds.  He might have lost his job and suffered greatly in his career if the libertarian Foundation for Individual Freedom on Campus had not taken up his case.

You might argue such a restriction doesn’t matter.  You can have a full and free discussion of almost any issue without using violent language.  Or using language that is demeaning to women, gays, racial minorities or people with handicaps.   Or denying that the Holocaust occurred.  Or disrespecting the American flag.  Or exhibiting dirty or anti-Christian works of art in Museums.  Or mocking Mohammad.   Or making overly harsh criticisms of the state of Israel.   Or advocating revolution.  Or praising terrorism.   Or publishing representations of the Nazi swastika.  Or flying the Confederate battle flag.  But all these things add up.  And each restriction is a justification for imposing another and bigger one.

I believe in the “broken windows” approach to freedom of speech.  Sociologists have found that a vacant building may stand intact for weeks or months, but as soon as one window is broken, pretty soon all the windows will be broken.  So it is with freedom of speech and other basic Constitutional rights.

Click on Cracking the Speech Code for a good article on the rise and fall of the University of Wisconsin’s speech code in Reason magazine.

Click on PC Never Died for a good article on campus free speech also from Reason magazine.   As the writer points out, freedom of speech is not a left vs. right issue.  Principled conservatives opposed Joe McCarthy back in the 1950s.  Principled liberals opposed the campus speech codes in the 1990s and today.

I personally am not the kind of person who boasts of being “politically incorrect.”  I make a conscious effort to avoid saying or doing things that are needlessly insulting, demeaning or cruel, and to avoid joining in when others do so.  To my mind, this is, among other things, good manners.   I don’t think much is gained by trying to enforce good manners by handing down rules and regulations.  The best way to promote civility is to try to set an example.

Click on FIRE for the home page of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

[1]  Prof. Cronon did not claim there is anything wrong in itself for a state legislature to use model legislation drafted by a private group.  He only said that the public has a right to know who is drafting their laws.

Hat tip for the video to Virginia Prostel.