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« The Discrimination Faced by 19th Century Irish Immigrants | Main | Discussing Public Policy and Understanding Issues Facing the Nation »

Protecting the Free Speech of Those We Disagree With

By Angelo Lopez
March 18, 2017

In the past few months, one of the things that has given me hope during the first few weeks of the Trump administration is the passion of people who are engaging in protests and political rallies. There is a renewed interest in civic activism and in protecting the rights of Muslim Americans, immigrants, LGBT people, Jewish Americans, and other vulnerable minority groups. Recently, though, I have read about incidents in Berkeley and in Middlebury College that has me a bit worried when protests go too far. In Berkeley, protesters committed acts of violence and vandalism to stop Alt Right leader Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at a university event sponsored by a conservative Republican student group. Milo Yiannopolous is a provocative Alt Right speaker who has promoted racism and religious intolerance. In Middlebury College, students shouted down conservative author Charles Murray from speaking at a college event organized by the school's conservative Republican student group. The reason for the protester's ire is Murray's book The Bell Curve, which suggests that some races are genetically superior and more intelligent than other races and that may account for the class stratification in the U.S.

Like the protesters, I too worry about normalizing racism and other types of bigotry. Racism, sexism, homophobia and other types of prejudice should be challenged and protested. I'd support protesting Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopolous through tactics like having audience members turning their backs on the speakers, or boycotting the event so that the speakers talk to an empty room. But if the conservative students group want to invite Murray or Yiannopoulos to speak, Murray or Yiannopoulos should be allowed to speak. There are other ways of protesting rather than shouting people down.

I think the Middlebury administration handled it in the right way. Instead of a monologue where there is no give and take and the audience is asked to just be passive in the face of Murray's views, the college set up a dialogue where Murray's viewpoint could be challenged by a liberal teacher and in a question-and-answer period by the audience.

Peter Beinert wrote an article for The Atlantic Magazine titled A Violent Attack on Free Speech at Middlebury which describes the situation in Middlebury College:

In its letter to the campus explaining its invitation to Murray, the AEI club declared that it "invites you to argue." It invited a left-leaning Middlebury professor, Allison Stanger, to engage Murray in a public conversation following his talk, thus ensuring that his views would be challenged. In his introduction to Murray’s speech, a representative from the AEI club implored his fellow students to debate Murray rather than shouting him down.

But they did shout him down...

...Liberals may be tempted to ignore these incidents, either because they are uncomfortable appearing to defend Charles Murray, or because, in the age of Donald Trump, they’re worried about bigger things. That would be a mistake. If what happened at Berkeley, and now at Middlebury, goes unchallenged, sooner or later, liberals will get shouted down too.

In a discussion with a friend about this topic, he observed that there is a big difference between an honest debate between liberals and conservatives over the role of government in healthcare and a racist promoting an idea that one race is genetically and inherently inferior. This is my big worry about the Alt Right movement. I worry about the Alt RIghts' efforts to normalize racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and other bigotries. I've done a few cartoons attacking that.

But I also worry about the attacks on the freedom of speech. Part of fighting for free speech is fighting for the right of free speech of people we deeply disagree with. I think there is a legitimate debate on the fine line between protecting free speech and opposing hate speech.

My question is how to oppose hate speech. Do we take away the free speech rights of racists and Alt Right leaders? Or do we protect their free speech rights while exercising our own free speech rights to speak out against their racism, xenophobia?

In the 1820s and 1830s, abolitionist speakers were often attacked by crowds because the speakers challenged the community's views on slavery. Union organizers were often beaten and jailed by police for challenging the factory owners and industrialists. In the South, people who spoke out against Jim Crow were often beaten or even lynched for challenging the community's racist views. LGBT activists were often beaten by police and jailed for speaking out against prejudice.

From my point of view, protecting the freedom of speech of a Murray or a Yiannopoulos also protects the freedom of speech of a labor organizer trying to unionize a workplace with unfriendly management, or a transgender activist speaking in a homophobic community, or a Muslim American speaking out in an Islamophobic audience, or any progressive voice speaking out in hostile environments.

A year ago I watched the movie Trumbo about the screenwriter who was blacklisted in the 1950s. It got me curious about others who were blacklisted, like Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Ring Lardner Jr, among others. They were blacklisted because many people found their political and racial views offensive to the more conservative and racist society of the 1950s. Many Americans' lives were ruined just because they exercised their right to hold a different political point of view.

In Trump's America, with Trump's callous disregard for a free press and free expression, I can see a time when liberals are once again shouted down and marginalized. I think liberals should fight for the free speech rights of conservatives, as I think conservatives should defend the free speech rights of liberals. If we only defend the right of people whom we agree with, that's not really free speech.

Frank Bruni wrote an article for The New York Times titled The Dangerous Safety of College which he writes:

Protests aren’t the problem, not in and of themselves. They’re vital, and so is work to end racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotry. But much of the policing of imperfect language, silencing of dissent and shaming of dissenters runs counter to that goal, alienating the very onlookers who need illumination.

It’s an approach less practical than passionate, less strategic than cathartic, and partly for that reason, both McWhorter and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt have likened it to a religion...

...The protesters didn’t use Murray’s presence as an occasion to hone the most eloquent, irrefutable retort to him. They swarmed and swore.

McWhorter recalled that back when 'The Bell Curve' was published, there was disagreement about whether journalists should give it currency by paying it heed. But he said that it was because they engaged the material in detail, rather than just branding it sacrilegious, that he learned enough to conclude on his own that its assertions were wrong — and why.

Harry C. Boyte wrote a good article for The Nation titled The Deeper Lessons fo the Incident at Middlebury in which he writes:

The American Enterprise Club, the student group that invited Murray, structured the event as a debate, asking Allison Stanger, a progressive professor, to respond. When she implored the crowd to let him speak and let her challenge his views, they shouted her down as well. When Murray and Stanger tried to leave the room, a group mobbed them. Someone injured Stanger when she sought to protect Murray...

...The students’ actions, like those at other campuses in recent months, show that intolerance for diverse views is growing in higher education. But the protests also illustrate the Manichean model of change-making that students have unfortunately learned from an earlier generation of activists—my generation: find an enemy to demonize, use a script that defines the issue in good-versus-evil terms, inflames emotion, and shuts down critical thought, and convey the idea that those championing the victims will come to the rescue...

 ...I had come to be concerned about an unintended consequence: its Manichean model of framing political conflicts polarizes public life, unravels the bonds of common citizenship, and doesn’t create a broad majority base for significant change. It suggests that politics are necessarily violent and warlike. ...

...There are alternatives. For instance, I founded Public Achievement, a youth civic-education initiative, in 1990 to counter the Manichean model through an empowering model of “citizen politics,” which emphasized teaching skills for working across differences. Public Achievement has since spread to many communities and schools and a number of foreign countries. Public Achievement draws on parallel grassroots efforts such as cross-partisan strands of community organizing that empower poor and middle-income people, public deliberations, and local examples of democratic, participatory governance.

All these efforts help constitute a citizen-centered politics in which citizens develop agency and capacities for collaborative, cross-partisan action.

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