Opinion | Left should care about free speech

By Eddie Ryan, Columnist

Upon attending a University town hall on free and hate speech in February, I was heartened by the insights of those who spoke. Instead of the waffling, which I admittedly expected, I was treated to some considerable convictions.

First, that no speech — not even hate speech, which isn’t disallowed by the First Amendment — can fall under a University ban. Direct incitements to violence count as harassment and are rightfully unprotected. Second, that the University cannot cancel a speaking engagement arranged by students, even if other student organizations protest that speaker’s views.

I fear that the reader may suspect these sentiments of being conservative in temperament, or at least of cloaking some unsavory right-wing baggage. Such a reaction would validate the fact that the left risks granting the right a monopoly on free expression, the pillar Enlightenment value of free society. Those of us who sit well left of center should regard this possibility as wholly unacceptable. 

One can trace this threat at least as far back as the Rushdie Affair, when the left’s response to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s pronouncement of a murder bounty on Salman Rushdie’s life for the crime of writing a novel was rather paltry – with some shining exceptions. 

This weakness has persisted, with Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” as a case in point. Even with leftist luminaries like Noam Chomsky signing on to endorse the elementary notions advanced therein — that free society requires rigorous and open debate, that narrowing discourse won’t bring democratic inclusion — it encountered substantial pushback.

When one signatory apologized for her stand, tweeting sheepishly that she hadn’t seen the full list of names beforehand, Malcolm Gladwell shrewdly pointed out that he thought concordance among opponents on the letter’s contents was the whole point of the letter.

The arguments on this matter are simple and well-known, but bear restating. When one limits another’s speech, one becomes a prisoner of one’s own ideas. They miss the chance to expand their mind through new thought or to recognize, disprove or stamp out through ridicule any pernicious bigotry or stupidity that rears its head.

The right to say or write anything without subjection to state punishment exceeds any consideration of offense, and one should remember that racist and degenerate ideas don’t tend to die by legal prohibition. One mustn’t — and doesn’t — advocate profanity or disrespect in holding this view; rather, discretion as to what one chooses to say is simply a separate discussion. 

The left learned this through a ruling by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1917, several socialist Russian refugees were arrested for distributing fliers, in Yiddish, opposing US involvement in The Great War. Such activities earned them sanction under the shady Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918, which were drafted to quash wartime opposition. The crutch example of unprotected speech — shouting “fire” in a crowded theater — first appeared in Holmes’ decision. 

How do discussions on free expression typically play out today? It’s true they increasingly arise on Twitter. Likewise, it is vital to note is that this domain isn’t always directly translatable, since private companies aren’t bound by the first amendment in the same way as are public institutions. 

Still, happenings online reveal prevailing societal attitudes which can powerfully influence the character of institutions, a fact which renders the impatience and intellectual laziness of the cancel culture ethos undesirable. 

This indeed applies to the University. In November, employee Larry Jacobsen resigned after several incendiary tweets about Muslims — ones that displayed the basest kind of detestable prejudice. The administration said it could do nothing about his conduct since it came on a private account; then came Jacobsen’s sudden resignation after vigorous pressure from student groups to fire him.

I won’t criticize these calls; Muslim students must feel welcome in the care of their university. One could even view this as the left’s retribution for Steven Salaita’s 2014 loss of tenure after the University saw his tweets criticizing Israel’s bombings of Gaza, which killed many Palestinian civilians. 

Nonetheless, one simply must wonder whether a key lesson from this episode was lost. Namely, that the students clearly set the limits of discourse and hold the power to dictate those parameters to the University. 

This fact means that efforts should go towards the encouragement of open debate rather than immediate firings. If granted permission to fire at students’ behest, the University will one day use it against those very students. For no matter how noble the enshrined purpose for curtailing speech seems, power always warps and extends it in unwanted directions.

Don’t mistake my meaning: political correctness is a positive force. Additionally, right-wing griping about cancel culture and the supposed death of campus free speech tends to be exaggerated and self-pitying. Still, those who’ve never lived without the liberties afforded by the Bill of Rights sometimes grow complacent with their oral privileges

On campuses and elsewhere, the left should take up the cause of dialectical debate more seriously in the solemn knowledge that it will one day require a renewed defense. All would do well to strive for critical, independent thought over the impetuous snap judgments of the internet age. 

Eddie is a sophomore in LAS.

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