I’m For Free Speech

Let’s hear it for Becca Meltz.

Meltz chairs the College Republicans of UW-Madison. When she was contacted for comment about the scheduled appearance on campus next week of 1619 Project author Nikole Hannah-Jones, Meltz said the group has always been and will continue to be advocates for free speech. Students should have the opportunity to be exposed to a diverse set of viewpoints and that can only happen when the university is accepting of any speaker regardless of their opinions and positions, Meltz is quoted as telling the Wisconsin State Journal.

“We just ask that conservative speakers are given the same respect and opportunity that liberal speakers are given,” Meltz said.

Good for her and good for the UW College Republicans.

I’m for free speech. I’m for free speech when it hurts my feelings. I’m for free speech when it outrages me. I’m for free speech when it’s factually wrong. I’m even for free speech when it’s hateful.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you’re not for protecting speech even when it is wrong, outrageous and hateful than you’re not really for free speech at all. Instead, you’re for speech that you like.

Now, to be sure, no right is absolute (note to Second Amendment absolutists: it’s not.) There are plenty of reasonable restrictions on our First Amendment rights. For example, there are laws against defamation (libel and slander), child pornography is illegal and hate speech that incites violence can be prosecuted. Donald Trump was impeached, I think appropriately, for his speech that incited the Insurrection. There’s a level of common sense responsibility that comes with any right.

But there is a trend, mostly but not exclusively on the left, to define certain speech as “harmful” almost as if it were truly physically dangerous. Sometimes the goal is to actually legally restrict it, but more often the aim is to shut it down by disinviting speakers, shouting them down, imposing speech codes or, more insidiously, simply creating an atmosphere of hostility against certain ideas. There are two problems with this: how do you define what’s harmful and who gets to decide?

As regards the first problem, it’s a classic slippery slope. It’s easy for me to agree that just about everything that spews from Donald Trump is either factually wrong, misguided, mean-spirited, vulgar or a combination of all these things. But what about me? I strongly object to the 1619 Project (though, like Meltz, I also think those ideas should be welcomed on campus) and a host of related ideas that I find wrong-headed. I like to emphasize personal responsibility over group grievances and I don’t buy everything coming out of the theory-heavy academic left. Believe it or not, there are those who charge that just talking about personal responsibility is some sort of code for racism. Should YSDA be banned? Is it hate speech?

And that leads us to the second problem: what happens when somebody else doesn’t like your speech and that somebody else finds himself in power? Since we’ve reduced the principle from supporting free speech, both good and bad, to supporting only speech that meets our own subjective criteria of “good” speech, what’s to stop somebody from deeming your ideas bad ones?

In fact, Republican Legislatures in several states have tried to ban the teaching of the 1619 Project. They’re in power and they’re intent on using their power to ban ideas they don’t like. Despite my strong objections to the Project, I also strongly oppose these bills because I don’t want politicians deciding what ideas are out of bounds. Moreover, it’s almost impossible to define things like Critical Race Theory (of which the 1619 Project is a part) in a way that doesn’t bleed over into other ideas that have little or nothing to do with it. That’s another inherent weakness in efforts to ban speech.

The problem is that we’ve taken a principle that can be applied regardless of individuals and we’ve made it personal. Now it matters who’s in power. You might feel great on a campus where your professors and administrators share your liberal views, but what happens when you get out in the wider world, where you encounter people with (gasp!) conservative points of view? And I don’t just mean crazy Trumpsters but traditional conservatives who believe in limited government and personal freedom and responsibility.

Moreover, since you’ve gone through your entire education without ever having to defend your point of view, you may find yourself incapable of mixing it up with somebody who doesn’t see the world your way. And, never having developed respectful debating skills, your reaction may simply be to declare the other side morally wrong and hurtful and to seek shelter in a safe space.

These are problems that are likely to only become more acute. Here’s a conclusion from a recent Knight Foundation study of the attitudes of college students:

When asked whether protecting citizens’ free speech rights or promoting an inclusive society that welcomes diverse groups is more important, students tilt toward inclusion, 53% to 46%. Students are as likely to favor campus speech codes (49%) as to oppose them (51%), and they overwhelmingly favor free speech zones on campus. Nearly two-thirds of students do not believe the U.S. Constitution should protect hate speech, and they continue to support campus policies that restrict both hate speech and wearing stereotypical costumes.

In my view, entire campuses should be “free speech zones.” In fact, free speech should be at the very core of every university’s mission because it’s only when ideas clash that better ideas are strengthened.

So, in this counter-intuitive way, trying to shield students from views they might find offensive and working to sharpen their sensitivity to taking offense, won’t shut down hateful ideas at all. Just the opposite. Because students won’t develop the skills of taking down weak ideas they’ll be ill-equipped to fight them in the wider world.

The only way to protect our own right to speak is to defend the right of others to say things we don’t like, even things we find dangerous, offensive and, yes, even hateful.

Becca Meltz gets it.

Welcome to the 334th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

One thought on “I’m For Free Speech

  1. “I can tell if someone is “judgemental”, just by looking at them” “etc”, “etc”, “etc”.— Thus, by their indictments, they display their own guilt.

    Common sense would seem to say that the insular world that they create for themselves will not serve them well out in the “real world”. What common sense is actually saying, is that they intend for their insular world to BECOME the “real world”.

    Another thought provoking column. (good on ya)

    Like

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