The Most Important Free Speech Question Is: Who Decides?


Like everyone, I’ve been watching as the free speech debate on college campuses has morphed from its usual steady background hum into a Big Issue Of The Day. First there was Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley. Then Charles Murray at Middlebury. Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna. Ann Coulter at Berkeley. The right is naturally outraged that these speakers were harassed or banned, and the left is—well, what is the left’s reaction to all this? At first, it was mostly a matter of not really sticking up for free speech rights on campus. That was bad enough, but then the conversation changed. Instead of a collective mumble, I began reading affirmative arguments that there was absolutely nothing wrong with “no-platforming” these folks. For example, a few days ago a New Republic article showed up in my Facebook feed and got high fives from several people I follow. Here is Aaron Hanlon:

When departments or groups arrange for a speaker, invitations are usually authorized by small committees or localized administrative offices without a campus-wide discussion or debate….Instead of community-wide discussion and debate over the merits of bringing a given speaker to campus, the debate happens after the invitation, giving the misleading impression that no-platforming is about shutting down speech.

….But no-platforming is better understood as the kind of value judgment that lies at heart of a liberal arts education….This has always meant deciding what people needed to know, but also what they don’t need to know—or at least which knowledge and skills deserved priority in one’s formal education.

….No-platforming may look like censorship from certain angles, but from others it’s a consequence of a challenging, never-ending process occurring at virtually all levels of the university: deciding what educational material to present to our students and what to leave out. In this sense, de-platforming isn’t censorship; it’s a product of free expression and the foundational aims of a classically liberal education.

The sophistry here is breathtaking. If it’s just some small group that invites someone, then it’s OK if the rest of the university blackballs their choice. After all, universities are supposed to decide what students don’t need to know. It may “look like censorship from certain angles,” but it’s actually the very zenith of free expression. Juliet Kleber followed up today:

As Aaron Hanlon argued in the New Republic earlier this week, choosing not to host Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos on campus is not a suppression of their free speech. Academia certainly has an important place in selecting and elevating certain voices to relevance in a broader culture, but let’s not forget that a college isn’t a town hall: it’s a particular community of people engaged in intersecting missions of education. Coulter is not a member of that community and she has no claims upon it. Campus life is curated, and none of us outside of it are guaranteed access to that platform.

Enough. I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to the latest outrages on college campuses because college campuses are teeming with smart, verbal, overconfident 19-year-olds. Of course they do stupid things. We all did stupid things at that age. I’m generally happy for all these micro-outrages to remain local controversies handled by local administrators.

But now everyone is weighing in, and here on the left we’re caving in way too often to this Hanlon-esque lunacy. Is some of the speech he’s concerned about ugly and dangerous and deliberately provocative? Of course it is. But that’s not a reason to shut it down. That’s the whole reason we defend free speech in the first place. If political speech was all a harmless game of patty-cake, nobody would even care.

Speech is often harmful. And vicious. And hurtful. And racist. And just plain disgusting. But whenever you start thinking these are good reasons to overturn—by violence or otherwise—someone’s invitation to speak, ask yourself this: Who decides? Because once you concede the right to keep people from speaking, you concede the right of somebody to make that decision. And that somebody may eventually decide to shut down communists. Or anti-war protesters. Or gays. Or sociobiologists. Or Jews who defend Israel. Or Muslims.

I don’t want anyone to have that power. No one else on the left should want it either.