The free speech police are at it again. No not the Berkeley undergrads. Not the #cancelculture Twitter mobs. Not the #MeToo harpies who cry wolf when men’s expressive conduct involves whipping it out in hotel rooms.
It’s the free speech warriors themselves—who also happen to be pretty anti-speech when it suits their purposes. The last 24 hours brought into stark relief just how the selective and self-serving some of the free-speech warriors’s claims can be.
First, there is Bret Stephens. I won’t catalogue my running list of concerns with Stephens’s columns here (I’ll just note that the column where he published someone else was pretty good).
Stephens has used his space in the Times to warn us about the great dangers of censorship in the modern age, including censorship via Twitter. Consider this speech he reprinted in the Times:
By now I’m sufficiently immunized to the way social media works that none of this hurts me personally, at least not too much. And, at its best, platforms such as Twitter are useful for injecting more speech, from a vastly wider and more diverse variety of voices than we ever heard from before, into our national conversation.
What bothers me is that too many people, including those who are supposed to be the gatekeepers of liberal culture, are using these platforms to try to shut down the speech of others, ruin their reputations, and publicly humiliate them.”
Please read the emphasized portion twice before moving on.
Like so many free speech warriors, one of Stephens’s favorite targets are college students who raise concerns about racism. (Imagine—hear me out—that one of their professors goes around saying that America would be better if it was whiter.)
Here is a representative excerpt from one of the Stephens’s columns on campus free speech:
“They stress the need to respect and honor the feelings of others….. In this way they give credence to the idea that feelings are trumps with a decisive authority of their own. That in turn emboldens their students to argue that their feelings are reason enough to keep certain speakers away.” [Note: here Stephens was excerpting Anthony Kronman’s book.]
This is a bracing, even brutal, assessment. But it’s true. And it explains why every successive capitulation by universities to the shibboleths of diversity and inclusion has not had the desired effect of mollifying campus radicals. On the contrary, it has tended to generate new grievances while debasing the quality of intellectual engagement.
Hence the new campus mores. Before an idea can be evaluated on its intrinsic merits, it must first be considered in light of its political ramifications. Before a speaker can be invited to campus for the potential interest of what he might have to say, he must first pass the test of inoffensiveness. Before a student can think and talk for himself, he must first announce and represent his purported identity. Before a historical figure can be judged by the standards of his time, he must first be judged by the standards of our time.
Here, Stephens is arguing that “mollifying campus radicals” is one of the greatest threats to American democracy. He explains: “[I]t leaves them fatally exposed. It emboldens offense-takers, promotes doublethink, coddles ignorance. It gets in the way of the muscular exchange of honest views in the service of seeking truth.”
So imagine the surprise when Stephens was “using these platforms to try to shut down the speech of others” … on campus to boot!
George Washington University associate professor David Karpf wrote on Twitter about the bedbugs at The New York Times: “The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”
As this story recounts, “The tweet got nine total likes and zero retweets, Karpf said. So the professor was surprised when an email from Stephens popped in a few hours later.”
Stephens wrote an e-mail to Karpf and CC-ed Karpf’s boss, the university provost: “I’m often amazed about the things supposedly decent people are prepared to say about other people – people they’ve never met – on Twitter. I think you’ve set a new standard.”
Again, I’m just going to reproduce a paragraph from Stephens’s column here:
What bothers me is that too many people, including those who are supposed to be the gatekeepers of liberal culture, are using these platforms to try to shut down the speech of others, ruin their reputations, and publicly humiliate them.
(Stephens is now insisting that what really set him off was being analogized to an insect: “Analogizing people to insects is always wrong … Being analogized to insects goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes in the past.")
I’m just going to reproduce a few more excerpts from Stephens’s columns here:
The ironies could not be any more clear: Stephens persistently argues that college students and Twitter accounts are a threat to American democracy for … asserting that there should be consequences when people say racist things (like not inviting that person to campus to speak again). And Stephens, a New York Times columnist, e-mails a university provost in order to get a professor in trouble for … something the professor said on Twitter … that hurt Stephens’s feelings. There aren’t enough chefs’ kisses in the world for this kind of shallow hypocrisy.
Unfortunately, free speech hypocrisy doesn’t always come in the form of some tantrum by a white dude who is a columnist for a national newspaper. (Imagine what Bret Stephens would feel about the things that women and people of color have said about them when they dare to speak publicly!)
Sometimes, the stakes are higher and the costs of free speech hypocrisy more pernicious.
Consider, for example, the Trump administration. Because of their concern for the First Amendment, the Trump administration signed an executive order “to promote free and open debate on college and university campuses” (because those Berkeley undergrads were so … mean to people they disagree with!).
The executive order states: “Free inquiry is an essential feature of our Nation's democracy, and it promotes learning, scientific discovery, and economic prosperity. We must encourage institutions to appropriately account for this bedrock principle in their administration of student life and to avoid creating environments that stifle competing perspectives, thereby potentially impeding beneficial research and undermining learning.”
Because of the importance of free speech on campus, the executive order directed federal agencies and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to “take appropriate steps … to ensure institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry.”
Just yesterday, the very pro-free-speech Trump administration reportedly deported an incoming Harvard freshman (who happens to be a Palestinian resident of Lebanon) because of something an immigration officer discovered on the prospective student’s phone.
You guessed it … the thing the immigration officer discovered ... was speech. Even more appalling is that it was (apparently) something that one of the student’s friends said -- “people posting political points of view that oppose the US on my friend[s] list.” (Did the friend call the President of the United States … a bed bug?)
Again they hypocrisy could not be more clear: The same administration who is worried about free speech *on campus* deports a student -- and prevents the student from getting to campus -- for something the student's friend said.
If free speech on campus is such an important American constitutional value, then that free speech should extend to everyone—including Palestinian students who reside in Lebanon and professors who provide commentary on Twitter. It is beyond irksome to have people take seriously the claims of free speech warriors when those free speech warriors do everything they accuse their critics of (and more, since Berkeley students aren’t deporting Milo last time I checked). Until these free speech warriors take seriously the free speech rights of people who don’t agree with them, their free speech arguments are nothing more than opportunistic and hollow.