Tampa Bay Times
When will liberals reclaim free speech?
‘Professor, why are you so conservative about free speech?” Several students have asked me versions of this question recently, which speaks volumes about universities right now. I’m a liberal and a Democrat: I’m pro-choice, pro-Obamacare and vehemently anti-Trump. But I’m also a strong supporter of free speech, which marks me as a right-winger on campus.
That’s because my fellow liberals have largely abandoned free speech to conservatives. Turn on Fox News, and you’ll see “cancel culture” decried in bright lights. But in the liberal press — and most of all in the liberal academy — free speech has become a rhetorical third rail. Sure, we’ll invoke it when Republican state lawmakers try to ban critical race theory. But in our own house, free speech is seen increasingly as a tool of repression rather than liberation.
Here’s how the argument usually goes: White people love free speech, because it lets them say any hateful thing they want. But the real burden of it falls on racial minorities, who are forced to absorb constant slights and slurs against their very existence. That’s why we need to police racist speech: to protect its victims.
The problem is that people will inevitably differ about which speech qualifies as racist. The term has become our own scarlet letter, an all-purpose way to prohibit ideas you dislike. So we need to defend the free-speech rights of everyone, even avowed racists. The best response to hateful speech is to raise your own voice against it, not to ban it.
Once you decide to swing the censorship hammer against racist speech, almost anything can look like a nail. A business-school professor who discusses a Chinese word that sounds like an American slur. A law-school professor who says that her African-American students underachieve academically. A math professor who criticizes diversity training. And so on.
All these examples are real, and in each case the faculty member was recently fired or suspended for the allegedly racist transgression. Most of my liberal colleagues stayed quiet about it, even when they believed these people were treated unfairly.
I get it. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the free-speech winds are blowing these days. It’s prudent to keep your big mouth shut. But that’s anathema to a liberal university, which requires debating differences fully and openly.
It’s also hardly clear that this censorship will help the minorities it purports to protect. The University of Michigan instituted a code in 1987 barring speech that “stigmatizes or victimizes an individual” on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or gender. In the ensuing 18 months, Black people were charged with violating the code in 20 cases. One Black student was punished for using the term “white trash.”
When speech can be suppressed, the people with the least power are likely to lose the most. That’s why every great tribune of social justice in American history — including Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. — was also a zealous advocate for free speech. Without it, they couldn’t critique the indignities and oppression that they suffered.
In the antebellum years, slave owners tried to block abolitionist literature from the U.S. mail and even from the floor of Congress. But abolitionists fought back, invoking what Douglass called “the great moral renovator of society and government”: free speech. They kept writing and talking, censors be damned.
In the mid-20th century, government authorities routinely censored gay publications, which were deemed “obscene” and “degenerate.” But the courts ultimately allowed distribution of these materials, which in turn helped gay people connect and organize. The modern LGBT-rights movement owes its birth and growth to free speech. Ditto for Black civil rights, women’s liberation and every other cause that the American left holds dear.
I’m glad that conservatives have embraced free speech, but I’d also like to see my fellow liberals reclaim it. We need the courage to speak up again for free speech, which remains the best vehicle for righting the wrongs of America.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author, with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, of “Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn.” This column originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal and is reprinted with permission.