Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

May 9, 2017

The First Freedom

Filed under: Free Speech,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:46 pm

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
– First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

At a recent speech at UC Berkeley former Federal Election Commission chairwoman Ann M. Ravel called for regulation of speech on the Internet as a move against “fake news.”

In the current issue of The Wellesley News, the student newspaper of Wellesley College, a staff editorial denies free speech is suppressed at the college but goes on to say there is no place for “discriminatory speech.”

“Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech.”

In other words, we don’t deny anybody’s right to free speech, we just tell them what they can’t say.

And lately there have been demonstrations, often turning violent, by black masked thugs who right up front proclaim there is no right of free speech for “Fascists.” They also proclaim their right to define who’s a fascist.
I wish I could say these were isolated incidences. They’re not.

In 2015, a poll by McLaughlin and Associates found that 95 percent of 800 college students polled said free speech was “very important” to them, and 87 percent said there was educational value in listening to views you disagree with.

Nonetheless 51 percent supported campus speech codes, 72 percent supported disciplinary action against “any student or faculty member on campus who uses language that is considered racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive.” Half said they felt intimidated about sharing views that differed from their professors and classmates.

Note two things about this. One is that in answer to the question “Do you support freedom?” people are likely to respond, “Yes, but…” Followed by an elaborate justification why freedom to do or say something they personally disapprove of isn’t really about freedom.

That’s a common reaction shared by a great many people on all sides of the political divide, differing only in the specifics of what they want to make an exception.

More worrisome is the poll, and the Wellesley editorial, reveal the students don’t just disagree with freedom of speech, they have no conception of what it is.

I am old enough to remember when the major threats to free expression came from the right.

But back then it was mostly about porn. If you wanted to read Terry Southern’s erotic novel “Candy” you had to buy it in Europe and sneak it through customs.

And it was a common comedy schtick that all you had to do to sell out a play, or send sales of a book through the roof was to have reviewers denounce it as “filth.”

It was seldom ever about political speech, and on the rare occasions it was you could count on principled conservatives and classical liberals to defend the rights of people they disliked, to say things they despised.

Moreover, academics who took free inquiry seriously supported the right of people with different and antithetical views to teach in public universities.

Many lived to find out their tolerance was not reciprocated.

For the first time in a long time we have a significant number of people who favor repression of free speech in this country, and what is more are willing to act on it, sometimes personally and violently.

And these are not KKK yahoos but the most educated and affluent in our country. People who often call themselves “liberal” or “progressive” but who are neither liberal nor progressive. Some who call themselves “anarchists,” which ironically means “without rule” – but who mean to rule with an iron hand.

We live in a time when careers are wrecked by a chance remark, a careless joke, or expressing an opinion.

I do not think Americans will put up with this for much longer, it’s just not in our nature to be bullied. But I fear the damage done in the meantime.

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