Trump and the Gullibility of Free Speech Absolutists

Trump and the Gullibility of Free Speech Absolutists March 5, 2019

Now can we admit that free speech has become camouflage for the right-wing agenda?

President Trump delivered a rambling, two-hour speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference this past weekend. In between engaging in his usual scaremongering about Mexicans and the Green New Deal, he threatened to sign an executive order that will ensure free speech on college campuses. According to the New York Times,

President Trump said on Saturday that he planned to issue an executive order that would help guarantee free speech at colleges and universities by putting their federal aid at risk if they do not protect the viewpoints of students of all political stripes.

Liberals Hate Our Freedoms

This is a hot-button issue these days because of an an incident last month where a conservative activist was attacked while he was recruiting at UC Berkeley. The university spent millions last year on security for events featuring conservative speakers, and the alleged assailant wasn’t even a student or employee of the institution. Nevertheless, conservative crybabies are exploiting the incident as a sure sign that freedom is under attack at liberal universities like Berkeley.

I’ve said before that the free speech issue has been hijacked by the right wing. This is different from marginalized communities mobilizing to get their voices included in our society’s discourse. What “free speech” does in 2018 is consolidate the privilege and power of the white, straight male majority by allowing bigots to demand that universities and media outlets provide them a platform for hatemongering and intimidation.

And free speech absolutists, who consider their commitment to free speech noble and principled, are playing right into the hands of Trump and his bigoted sponsors.

Loaded Rhetoric

I look at this in the same way as second-amendment absolutism. I can’t imagine anyone having a problem with private gun ownership in the USA if there were no gun violence or mass shootings. However, considering the vast social cost of unrestricted gun availability, we as a society have the right to balance individual rights against the safety of the community; “shall not be infringed” isn’t the be-all and end-all of the matter.

Similarly, just shouting “First Amendment!” doesn’t address the social cost of unrestricted hate speech. Speech isn’t just blah blah blah, after all; hate crimes increase when there’s an atmosphere of contempt and mistrust concerning minorities, thanks to a complete lack of restrictions on speech. Turning our society’s discourse into a cesspool of hate speech has consequences.

If you can’t see Constitutional rights in the context of power dynamics and socioeconomic privilege, but just treat them like something you’re entitled to, end of story, then maybe you need to think a little more critically about the matter.

The Hidden Agenda

I’ve said many times that academia has long been a thorn in the side of the right wing. With the waning of the unions, the university represents the last bastion of professional radicalism in the USA. This is exactly why the media blows every campus brouhaha up into an existential threat to freedom and democracy. This is why right wing demagogues submit hoax papers to gender studies journals and write magazine articles about how oversensitive college students are these days. Trump’s right wing backers would like nothing better than to control academia through being able to withhold funding from institutions that have qualms about allowing racist provocateurs to address their students.

This is a vendetta, plain and simple, and free speech absolutists are complicit.

 

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  • chemical

    It’s not just free speech that the alt-right are hijacking; it’s every freedom described in the constitution. The alt-right / fascist movement currently going on in the US do this nice little trick where they bludgeon anyone who disagrees with them with the same freedoms designed to protect minorities. If we refuse to give them a platform to spread their hate, then it’s censorship. If we refuse to let them discriminate against LGBT folks, then it’s a violation of their religious freedom.

    The thing is, the right doesn’t actually care about these freedoms in the least, and they’re only useful as long as they can continue to bludgeon leftists with them. They don’t tolerate any kind of dissent and would very much like us all to shut up forever. They whine about censorship while doxxing and sending death threats to anyone who disagrees with them, forcing them into hiding. They whine about religious freedom while committing hate crimes and burning down religious buildings that aren’t churches.

  • Milo C

    I think your conclusion about a vendetta is wrong. This seems more about the extending of authoritarian power and control than any other issue. Who should be allowed to determine what gets discussed on a university campus? Old rich white conservative males.

  • HematitePersuasion

    “Free Speech” used to terrorize and dominate is not free speech, it is abuse. Cloaking privilege under the flag of free speech only taints the concept of free speech.

  • Alpha 1

    I think an underrated aspect of the campus “free speech” scam is the fact that it’s a way for boomers to launder their rage at young people not respecting their elders and get it treated as a serious political issue.

  • Kevin R. Cross

    “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
    ― George Orwell

    “Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.”
    ― Neil Gaiman

    You are not good enough or wise enough to decide what constitutes “Hate speech” or “Free speech”. And by you, I am speaking of every human being on earth.
    The alt-right is not “hijacking” free speech at all. It is USING free speech for EXACTLY WHAT FREE SPEECH IS FOR. The communication of ideas, concepts and information they consider to be important.
    You disagree with them. Cool, so do I. But I want to keep my power to say what I want, even when the whole world is saying I’m wrong. I want to be able to make my case even when the majority see my case as being the ravings of a lunatic. I want to say things that the conservative establishment will laud and other things the progressive revolutionaries will adopt as slogans. And the only way that happens is if we maintain free speech as an absolute.
    If that makes me “gullible” I’ll wear the badge with pride, because the opposite is “authoritarian asswipe.”

  • kenofken

    Those of us who are free speech absolutists are neither gullible about extremists nor complicit in them. We accept their antics as the cost of freedom. We also know that nobody is ever better off or safer under censorship regimes.

  • Dave Maier

    I think that what Shem is saying is that if the alt-right gets the power they want, all that stuff about free speech goes right down the memory hole. That is, when he says they’re “hijacking” it, he means that they don’t really believe it, and are simply using it as a club. You are right, though, that that doesn’t mean we get to take it away from them.

  • kenofken

    None of us are under any illusion that the alt.right is well intentioned or sincerely committed to free expression beyond their own use

    But I am shocked at how many of my so-called “progressive” allies are eager to embrace authoritarian methods in the name of justice.

  • How interesting that you define the entire matter of free speech in terms of what you’re allowed to say, rather than what’s worth saying.

    I want to say things that the conservative establishment will laud

    Why is that? Doesn’t it make you wonder whether you’re playing into the hands of interests that don’t share your political ideals?

    If that makes me “gullible” I’ll wear the badge with pride, because the opposite is “authoritarian asswipe.”

    And is that false dilemma supposed to represent the entire range of possibility here? Either anything goes or we’re living in a repressive dictatorship?

  • Chuck Johnson

    Central planning was the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union.
    And Now Trump wants central planning or Federal oversight and control to determine what can or cannot be publicly spoken at colleges and universities.

    A stifling of free speech under the guise of promoting free speech.
    Trump is a shrewd and crafty authoritarian.
    The kind of duckspeaker that Orwell warned us about.

  • Kevin R. Cross

    First, who says they don’t share my political ideals? I’m no radical progressive. To be fair, I’m hardly a reactionary either. But I’ll take a good idea from anyone, wherever they stand on the political scale. And my concept of a good idea may not be yours.
    And I wouldn’t call that dilemma false. Historically, you have a grand total of two primary outcomes – something at least close to freedom of speech and expression, or somebody is getting crushed by the full weight of unleashed governmental power. (There are, to be fair, outliers, but they are few and hard to find.) One of the basic concepts of liberal democracy is that every group or individual should share the burden of government reasonably equally.
    Everything I say is worth saying, otherwise I wouldn’t say it. You’re welcome to disagree, but I don’t care.

  • Kevin R. Cross

    Oh, I don’t doubt they’d squash freedom of speech like a bug if they could ensure only their message got out to the populace. It’s one of the (many) reasons I oppose them. I just want to make it quite clear that dicking around with freedom of speech is a really good way of making sure I oppose you.

  • You couldn’t conceivably have a more simplistic approach to this whole issue. Do you even understand the point I’m trying to make in this post, that there’s a difference between the free speech activism of minorities in the 60s and the free speech activism of privileged white men in 2018?

    Your witless grandstanding makes it seem like you’re only dimly aware that there’s even a problem here.

  • kenofken

    The rights of free expression under the text of the First Amendment and its related jurisprudence do not have qualifiers for race or the relative “privilege” of the speaker. They apply to everyone, all the time. May it ever be so.

    It’s not clear to me what exactly you’re proposing, if anything. I don’t like Trump’s use of executive orders to fight culture war agendas, but I also think public universities and other tax supported properties should not be able to regulate expression based on the content nor identity of the speaker. I find a clear qualitative difference between the 1960s Civil Rights speech and that of, say, Steve Bannon. There is a problem with the latter, IMO. The solution is critical thinking and counter-arguments with more speech, not censorship or narrowing of the First Amendment.

  • Kevin R. Cross

    You’re right. I do have a simplistic approach here, because when you get right down to it, it’s a simple question. Does government have a role in regulating the speech of the general populace?
    And the answer to that question is, in all but the most extreme instances, no.
    The problem with Trump’s latest brainchild isn’t the fact that it threatens to reduce money for universities and colleges if they don’t follow the government’s guidelines. The problem is the government having gotten the universities addicted to it’s money in the first place, and thus having the power to force them to obey or cut them off. I don’t have a problem with such organisations being government funded and controlled – I live in a place where that’s the standard methodology. I don’t have a problem with purely private colleges. But this half-and-half system the US has allows government to put pressure on the universities without taking responsibility for their actions or being held accountable for their policies.
    Maybe you want to make a little more clear what you see the problem as being. Because right now I’m seeing it as being that the conservatives have gotten savvy and are using the concept of freedom of speech to advance their agenda the same way minorities have since the end 1950s. But NOW you’re against it because the wrong people are using their rights.

  • public universities and other tax supported properties should not be able to regulate expression based on the content nor identity of the speaker.

    Why not? I don’t see why the community can’t mobilize to disinvite speakers it considers objectionable. I also think universities should be able to decide how much is too much in terms of the cost of security for events featuring the provocateur du jour.

    The first amendment doesn’t oblige media outlets or venues to provide a platform, no questions asked, for every nutcase who wants an audience.

  • Like I said in the post, there’s a big difference between free speech activism trying to protect the rights of the marginalized on one hand, and free speech activism trying to intimidate and incite hatred against the marginalized on the other. You seem to be saying that using guns to protect oneself and using them to kill and harm others are both Constitutionally protected freedoms.

    If you don’t have a problem with letting the majority create an environment of hatred and mistrust toward minorities, then that’s just swell.

  • swbarnes2

    So you think that Nazis having more public discussions over whether or not Jews were capable of being good German citizens would have been helpful? You sincerely think that Jews would say “Hooray, putting our basic humanity up for debate over and over again is going to lead to really great policies”?

  • Kevin R. Cross

    Of course I have a problem with it; I’m unpleasant, not stupid.
    But you’ve just confirmed for me that I can’t support your position in any way. You don’t care about freedom of speech at all – you only care about your point of view. You are unwilling to allow that the people who are using their freedom of speech might honestly believe in their position just as much as you believe in yours. That they might choose to say the things they do because they wish to do EXACTLY the same thing as the ’60’s activists you so laud – to create social change that they see as positive.
    Freedom of speech is a content-neutral concept. It is open to all comers, and it is from that openness that it holds it’s strength – to maintain it supports all who would have their point of view expressed, and to infringe upon it helps only those who would censor and eliminate expression. In seeking to remove the freedom from freedom of speech, you are kicking those ’60’s activists in the teeth.
    If you want to place a content test on general speech, I can’t prevent you from trying to convince others – and I wouldn’t if I could. But do understand, please, that I and many other supporters of freedom of speech won’t be “complicit” in the use of freedom of speech by the people you are attacking. We’ll be actively doing everything we can to ensure you do not succeed.

  • Kevin R. Cross

    No. But I absolutely deny that you or I have or should have any power to prevent it.
    You want to get angry, then get angry. Attack them in the press. Sue them for slander when that happens, expose them for the idiot hypocrites they are, just out and out tell them they’re fucked up and unfit to live in civilized places. Inform their workmates and bosses. Protest their presence in your community.
    But when you stop them from being able to speak their piece and deny them their voice, then hang up your hat. Because you just became them, and they won.

  • kenofken

    It’s notable that many of the most strident and effective free speech “absolutists” are Jews. It was a Jewish ACLU attorney who won the right for Nazis to march in Skokie Illinois in the 1970s.

  • swbarnes2

    The Skokie march was in fact overwhelmed by counter-protesters. If there had been a good chance that the Skokie march would have ended with a literal lynching, would you still say that it was a great idea to support it?

  • swbarnes2

    You sincerely don’t want anyone to prevent people from saying “People like Kevin Cross do not belong here. He’s sick, and the world is a better place without him.”? Even if you watched ‘people like you’ lose their jobs, and be victims of assaults?

    just out and out tell them they’re fucked up and unfit to live in civilized places.Inform their workmates and bosses.

    Oh, why didn’t the Jews and blacks in Jim Crow South just do this? Because it’s obviously so easy and safe to tell hateful violent bigots that they are wrong.

    But when you stop them from being able to speak their piece and deny them their voice,

    They can speak their piece…but they don’t automatically get their choice of venue. Places that care about the welfare of people don’t have to host speech that will get someone lynched.

  • swbarnes2

    We understand perfectly well that there are people, who, for instance, really, truly want transgender people to be tortured to death. We know this already. We aren’t ignorant of that point of view.

    But you want transgendered people to live in an atmosphere where saying that is welcomed, and treated as a great message that requires respect and any platform they desire. The rest of us don’t want that.

  • kenofken

    Beyond the principles involved, the reality is that disempowered and marginalized minorities are always the first ones to go under the wheels in any censorship regime, no matter how well intentioned and focused its creators intended. They are also the least able to endure the damage.

    As just one recent example, nearly all of the big social media sites have purged virtually all images, groups and often discussions about adult sexuality. Almost any picture that an algorithm decides even might contain partial nudity is gone. All groups, gone. All personal ads, gone. The rationale is a new federal law called FOSTA which imposes unlimited criminal and civil liability on ISPs and sites for anything anybody does on them. Consenting adults can’t talk to each other about sex because it might be “trafficking”.

    Cracking down on pimps is good, right? Sure. But in the process we’ve also entirely erased the voices and lives of sex workers who can’t even openly engage in advocacy for themselves. We have also deprived them of a valuable tool for vetting potential customers, so many of them have to resort to street work, where they are routinely raped, beaten and worse. One of the other communities hardest hit by collateral damage is the LGBT community. Online groups which were invaluable to young people working out gender and orientation issues are now gone. Gay writers and artists have told me their material is much more heavily screened and penalized than equivalent hetero material. The Nazis and misogyny and other hate rhetoric in many cases remained untouched.

    Hate 1. Safety based censorship, 0.

    That’s one of the main problems with censorship and it’s a design, not a bug. You can’t protect disfavored minorities by creating a blunt instrument weapon which, in the end, is always goign to be wielded by those at the top of the privilege/power dynamic, and very often tacit or eager oppressors themselves. Do you really think if we start cutting corners on the First Amendment to allow government silencing of “hate speech” that the axe is going to fall primarily, or even at all on privileged white male bullies? Particularly in parts of the country where MAGA sentiment runs high? No. It’s going to be used against Black Live Matter, transgender activists, reproductive rights activists, immigrants and…atheists. Their rallies and communications will be gone over with a nano-sized comb, and the second any Antifa type hits someone or says something in anger, the police will shut the whole thing down.

    Nobody would love to have the power of content-based speech restriction more than Donald Trump and his alt.right wolf pack.

  • > I’m unpleasant, not stupid.

    Upvoting for this

  • Major Major

    I think there is a conflation between platforming and free speech. I think people should be allowed to say what they want, and they should also be able to suffer the consequences of their speech. Just because someone says something doesn’t mean that they “deserve” a platform. A university giving a platform to a speaker gives them a certain amount of legitimacy. There are people on the left like Noam Chomsky and Michael Brooks who tend to be more on the side of free speech. In fact, Noam Chomsky came to the defense of a French prof who published a book on Holocaust denial:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faurisson_affair

    Also, a deep dive in deplatforming:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d88qjt_qf6I

    Also, historically has tended to stifle the free speech of the left such as McCarthyism and Anarchists protesting WWI:

    http://depts.washington.edu/antiwar/WW1_reds.shtml

  • Freedom of speech is a content-neutral concept. It is open to all comers, and it is from that openness that it holds it’s strength – to maintain it supports all who would have their point of view expressed, and to infringe upon it helps only those who would censor and eliminate expression.

    Good grief. Every time I try to get you to acknowledge any nuance or ambiguity in this matter, you climb a few more stories up in your ivory tower.

    In seeking to remove the freedom from freedom of speech, you are kicking those ’60’s activists in the teeth.

    Just to bring us back to what the rest of us call reality, this isn’t about anyone “removing” freedom of speech at all. It’s about a scaremongering despot fanning the flames of his followers’ paranoia by threatening to shut off funding for colleges who think they should be able to set the standards for who gets to appear in front of audiences on their campuses. I don’t consider the universities’ actions an unconscionable affront to our precious freedom of speech, any more than I consider reasonable gun control measures an undue infringement on our Constitutional liberties.

  • kenofken

    There are a few different issues in play. You’re correct that privately owned platforms and actors have no obligation to yield or share that platform with any other speakers. Universities have no obligation to extend an official invitation to any speakers. However, they cannot dictate who students invite at their own initiative and they cannot bar some and allow others based on the content of their speech.

    Some of the most notorious recent provacateurs essentially invited themselves by taking advantage of university policies which rented venues to people not affiliated with the institution. There again, they cannot discriminate based on content. They can, and some have, decided to restrict the venues to official university groups. They still cannot prevent others from speaking in outdoor spaces subject to content neutral restrictions on time place and manner.

    Security is a valid concern, but officials cannot use it as a smokescreen to simply pre-empt any speaker or expression they feel “might” stir up angry sentiment or violence. Speech cannot be punished simply because it is hateful or inflammatory unless it intentionally and effectively provokes a crowd to immediately carry out violent and unlawful action.

  • kenofken

    Any rally involving hated minorities and raw feelings has the potential to end in a “literal lynching” (or equivalent violence) if mishandled. Fortunately these things are very well attended by police.

    The Skokie march never materialized as the head Nazi, Frank Collins, decided to hold them in Chicago’s Marquette Park. It was the very place where Martin Luther King Jr. had been attacked and very nearly lost his life in 1966. Should his march have been prevented based on the probability (ultimately realized) of violence? The segregationists would have loved to been able to do that.

    Interesting aside, Collins turned out to have Jewish ancestry himself. Also turned out to be a convicted pedophile. Real piece of work. That’s the other real weakness of censorship. When we allow the ugly truth of hate groups to be seen in the light, people see them for what they are: a bunch of angry wankers who by and large can’t hold a job and live in mom’s basement. When we seek to silence them at every turn, we feed their narrative of martyrdom which they rally to and use to recruit.

  • Kevin R. Cross

    No, that isn’t even close to what I want.
    But what I want doesn’t matter. What you want doesn’t matter. Even what the shithouse bigots want DOES NOT MATTER.
    What matters is for EVERYONE to have the right to say their piece. You don’t have to listen to them. You can post your opposition, argue the point and make your own. But you want to censor them? No. Because you do that, and sooner or later that same power will be used against you, or those you care about, or a cause you support. I do not think you would enjoy that.

  • Kevin R. Cross

    So, who ever said they did? I’ve defended YouTube for taking the anti-vax terrorists down. YouTube is a private venue – they are under no obligation to give ANYONE a soap box.
    If you’re just talking about Trumpo the Incompetent’s latest little brainchild, then I’ll state for the record that like everything else he’s done it’s a load of shit, and the Universities should use this opportunity to take themselves off the federal funding teat.
    But Shem isn’t just talking about that. He’s talking outright censorship and the end of free speech, denying those HE thinks unworthy of the opportunity to speak publically. And that’s a whole different thing.
    “Oh, why didn’t the Jews and blacks in Jim Crow South just do this? Because it’s obviously so easy and safe to tell hateful violent bigots that they are wrong.”
    Yeah, not safe at all. Who the fuck told you this world needed or was ever going to be safe? Who lied to you and said any of this was going to be easy?
    But do you know what event turned more people towards the cause of MLKjr and civil rights than any other? The marches in Selma. When middle America turned on their TVs one night and saw pictures of little black children getting water cannoned, menaced by police dogs, beaten bloody. It woke people up. And do you know what footage the powers that were most desperately sought to censor? I’m sure you do.
    FFS, if the government had the power to censor, do you think this blog would be here? We’re freaking ATHEISTS, man! No chance!

  • Kevin R. Cross

    You want to restrict this to Trump’s latest idiocy, OK. I agree that no private organization is required to give everyone or anyone a venue for their speech. Simultaneously, government isn’t required to fund any private organization. I would hope that the Universities call the bluff and just deal with it if they don’t get Fed money anymore, but I have my doubts.
    But I’ll have to count this as a backdown, mate, because you sure as hell weren’t just talking about this issue. You even made a completely false dichotomy about the use of freedom of speech based on who was using it and what they were using it for. You’ve been arguing for censorship this whole time.
    And while you may think of it as an ivory tower, I’d call it the last, crumbling edifice protecting our civil rights. There is no “nuance”. There is no “ambiguity”. Either you have free speech or something damn close to it or you have a censorship regime. And without the capacity to speak your mind, forget about having any other civil rights.

  • kenofken

    There are also a few points to be made regarding Trump’s nonsense. First, he so far has “threatened” to sign this supposed executive order. Well, he says a lot of shit and follows through on a tiny percentage. It’s very doubtful such an order would hold up. Presidents seem to think they can just replace the legislative branch authority with an executive order anytime they feel like it. The money in question is not so much about entitlement. It’s money for basic research given to universities because they are the only ones able to properly put it to use on a large scale. Cutting that off wouldn’t screw universities so much as it would abandon America’s technological lead in pretty much any field. We’d be burning our seed corn.

    Many of the incidents mentioned were not really even about university’s ability to invite or disinvite speakers. That is a matter to be handled by university policy within the confines of First Amendment law and the courts, not a president’s rantings. The speakers in these cases apparently had access to the venues but were shut down not by protests of opposing speech, but by mob action and thugs who decided to either attack the speakers or block anyone from getting into the venue. That should not be tolerated in any instance, but it’s hardly a matter that requires federal micromanagement.

  • swbarnes2

    So you really think the world would be a better place if it was flooded with people saying that Paganism should be illegal, and pagans should not be allowed to live or hold jobs in American communities?

    You’d really rather live in that world than one where your basic humanity is not being eroded by constant debate?

  • kenofken

    I am a pagan and I do live in that world. Things have gotten vastly better for most of us in the last decade or two. They got better because we did a lot of outreach and education which dispelled the ignorance behind most hate. Where people still refused to respect us, we fought for and secured our constitutional rights.

    I truly don’t believe that abridging the free speech of our haters would have helped that process. Sure, it might have spared us some discomfort of public confrontations. But those people would not stop hating as a result. They would have simply gone farther underground where it would have festered. Letting bigots talk puts their full ugliness on display. Most people I think even now have the sense and empathy to make the right choices in a free and even chaotic marketplace of ideas.

  • Chuck Johnson

    You have not described for us what free speech as an absolute consists of.
    You have not described what mechanisms are best for promoting absolute free speech.
    You have not told us if communicating American military secrets to North Korea and to all other nations around the world would be a good thing and would be protected under the policy of absolute free speech.

    You left out a lot.

  • kenofken

    For my part, I would say the body of law and tradition in the United States, give or take, is pretty damn close to ideal. It would not be accurate to call it “absolute”, but it is very expansive. Over the long haul, courts have generally concluded that government cannot restrict speech and closely related expression except in very narrow circumstances for essentially unavoidable reasons. I don’t think anyone has every put forward a serious argument that espionage is a protected form of speech and I’m quite certain no court has or would give it serious consideration.

    But generally outside of a very small handful of circumstances, the government has no legitimate role in the marketplace of ideas. The speech put on offer in that marketplace might strike most, or nearly all folks as vulgar, hateful, incendiary, absurd, toxic and utterly without merit, but that’s for people to decide for themselves, not government. The antidote to bad speech in this tradition is more and better speech, not less. Respecting the right of everyone to offer their wares in this sense does not mean we have to respect the ideas put forward or to pretend that every idea is equally valid and worthwhile. Certainly no one has to yield their personal or privately owned platforms to speakers or ideas they don’t agree with.

    Probably the best detailed guide to my own concept of an absolute(ish) concept of free speech can be found on the ACLU’s site. I would agree that there is much that is broken and sickly about our civic and political culture, but free speech is not the problem. It is a crucial component of any potential cure.

  • Letting bigots talk puts their full ugliness on display. Most people I think even now have the sense and empathy to make the right choices in a free and even chaotic marketplace of ideas.

    You seem to forget that the guy that used his sacred freedom of speech to push the racist birther conspiracy now sits in the White House. How does this reflect on the sense and empathy of our populace, pray tell?

    Every time I hear the light-is-the-best-antiseptic canard trotted out, I wonder what color the sky is in the world free speech absolutists inhabit.

  • But I’ll have to count this as a backdown, mate, because you sure as hell weren’t just talking about this issue. You even made a completely false dichotomy about the use of freedom of speech based on who was using it and what they were using it for.

    Because, unlike you, I’m wondering exactly who needs free-speech protections and why. It’s about power dynamics. If free speech is being used by members of the majority in their campaigns of intimidation against marginalized minorities, I see that as the same kind of abuse as invoking the second amendment to excuse a mass shooting. It doesn’t deserve protection.

    You’ve been arguing for censorship this whole time.

    No I haven’t, except in your overheated imagination. Please feel free to quote me as saying the government should limit speech. I simply think that universities shouldn’t have their federal funding threatened just for trying to establish and enforce standards in a reasonable and consistent way. Not offering a platform to bigoted nutcases isn’t unjustified censorship.

    There is no “nuance”. There is no “ambiguity”. Either you have free speech or something damn close to it or you have a censorship regime.

    But the reality is that free speech is a problematic issue, and it deserves to be looked at in all its messiness and not just from high up in your ivory tower. Here in the atheist blogosphere, what do we call people who deny reality, Kevin?

  • But generally outside of a very small handful of circumstances, the government has no legitimate role in the marketplace of ideas. The speech put on offer in that marketplace might strike most, or nearly all folks as vulgar, hateful, incendiary, absurd, toxic and utterly without merit, but that’s for people to decide for themselves, not government. The antidote to bad speech in this tradition is more and better speech, not less.

    Like many here have been trying to get through to you, though, the marketplace of ideas is no more a meritocracy than the economic one. Marginalized populations have their voices drowned out in a cesspool of hate speech and intimidation from even the bigoted subset of the majority population.

    And let’s not pretend that the products sold in the marketplace are harmless, either. Creating an atmosphere of hatred and mistrust against women and minorities causes hate crimes against them to increase. You really have to get past the notion that speech is just expressing opinions or conveying information. If you want to approach this matter realistically, that is.

  • Kevin R. Cross

    In this case, censors.
    I’m not wondering who needs free speech protections because everyone needs free speech protections.
    “As long as one man is in chains, no man is free.” As long as one man is denied freedom of speech, no man can safely speak his mind.
    You want to use your understanding of power dynamics to criticise what some one said, go for it. Especially if they’re punching down, they almost certainly deserve it.
    But throughout this, and certainly in the case of your blogpost, You haven’t been attacking what they’ve said, and it’s damned disngenuous of you to claim that you’ve only been talking about the universities. You’ve been attacking the concept of freedom of speech and strongly advocating that the people you don’t like shouldn’t have it. No, you haven’t used the term “censorship”, and that’s probably because you’re a very capable writer and fully well know how negative that term is in people’s perceptions, but the fact remains that you either have free speech or a censorship regime.
    I’m well aware of the “messiness” of modern free speech. I can see the downsides, maybe better than you from your myopic, tunnel-vision POV. And I’ll stand by freedom of speech for as long as my legs hold out. This IS a hill worth dying on!

  • Kevin R. Cross

    In all honesty, Chuck, go eff yourself. Or better yet, go educate yourself so you can come back and actually contribute.

  • kenofken

    To frame the issue of “getting through” to me is to presume that anyone who doesn’t share your views in totality must be inherently too stupid to reason with. It is an unfortunate trait of both the extreme left and right in this country. It is one of the reasons people are losing faith in the ability of reasoned debate and even democracy itself.

    I fully grasp the reality that the free marketplace of ideas is very far from perfect or that it produces good outcomes for everyone all of the time. It’s just that a lifetime of experience, a career in the news media and the full weight of evidence from history lead me to conclude that our system of free speech sucks far, far less than any of the many alternatives.

    If the marketplace of ideas is hopelessly dysfunctional for marginalized people, how do you account for, among others, the LGBT experience in this country? In my roughly half century on this planet, gay Americans have gone from arguably the most reviled and marginalized people to achieving very nearly full rights. ALL of that progress happened in the context of unrestricted free speech and happened because of it, not in spite of it. In the opening years of the revolution which began with Stonewall, the very existence of gay and lesbian people was criminalized. They were so marginalized it was virtually legal to kill them with impunity. They had NO support outside of tiny circles of the avant-garde and intellectual classes.

    They fought upstream against violence, a terrible epidemic, governments which were obsessed with marginalizing them in law and the most vile and hateful speech ever assembled from human language. This tiny minority, well under 5%, ultimately prevailed. Big. How did this happen, with no big hand of government to muffle their haters? It happened in that marketplace. LGBT advocates made their case relentlessly to the consumers in that marketplace. They came out, first in trickles, then by the millions. They revealed themselves as everyone’s neighbor, brother, daughter, co worker and plead for nothing more than the same justice as everyone else. That’s all they had to go on, in a system massively rigged against them, and it worked. People heard the LGBT case and weighed it against the bigotry they had been taught to believe all of their lives. The vast majority in the end made the right choice. In the century prior to Stonewall, virtually no progress was made in large part because of censorship regimes like the Comstock Laws, which were also justified as ways to protect the vulnerable from dangerous ideas. Simply publishing and mailing a magazine advocating for gay rights (or reproductive rights) could land you in prison.

    Now let’s examine the minority experience in countries with idea marketplaces which are very tightly controlled so as to avoid hateful incitement and public disorder of any sort. How are the Uighar Muslims in China doing? Well, we don’t know exactly because virtually all of them are in concentration camps right now. No outside media reports of this get into China, and even if the average citizen knew, they wouldn’t dare say anything about it unless they wanted a bunk in those camps. Russia has lots of laws limiting “extremist” speech. How’s life for LGBT over there these days? They, along with virtually any disfavored minority, have become the “extremists” targeted by the law while gangs of Orthodox pro-Putin thugs who beat them in the streets somehow escape that designation.

    You seem to think the power to suppress speech should be granted to government on the basis that it would only be used to protect the weak from the powerful. There is nothing at all in history to suggest it would, or could, ever work out that way.

  • kenofken

    Part of the reality of allowing people choices is the possibility, no, the inevitability, that they will make poor choices at times. Trump is where he is largely because the majority of us abdicated our own right to speak out and to follow it with action at the polls. The Democratic Party was not structured to win or respond to the will of its voters but to honor dyanastic succession. Too many of us who favored Bernie in the primaries stayed home in November in protest. Boy, that sure showed them what’s what. Vast numbers of the most vulnerable minority voters didn’t turn up at all and women voted for Trump in large numbers (majorities in some cases) despite the fact that he quite openly views them in the same way an Imperial Roman brothel slave trader might. Evil didn’t triumph because of free speech. It won because the forces of good had their thumb up their asses and were more interested in emty emotivism than in bothering to effectively use the marketplace built by our ancestors and secured with blood.

  • I didn’t ask for a round of kensplaining about the election, I just wanted to dispute the notion that the marketplace of ideas magically eliminates hateful or racist ideas. This is a pretty foundational belief of the free-speech absolutist, and it doesn’t appear to be even remotely true.

  • You seem to think the power to suppress speech should be granted to government

    See, the reason I wonder whether I’m “getting through” to you is that you keep making statements like this without any cause. I’ve never, not once, said that the government should have the power to suppress free speech. In fact, this article is explicitly condemning Trump’s ploy to bring academia to heel by making it hard for campuses to control what speakers get a platform there. It’s a really complicated matter that you and your amigo here don’t seem to have any intention of discussing in a way that does justice to its complexity.

  • kenofken

    I agree it’s not a proper matter for a president to micromanage university policy. It’s their jurisdiction subject to court rulings.

    You claim not to advocate censorship, but you seem to see free speech as The Problem, and the marketplace of idea as unworkable, there is literally nowhere else your line of reasoning can go other than state censorship.

  • Chuck Johnson

    You are trolling.

  • Chuck Johnson

    “I don’t think anyone has every put forward a serious argument that espionage is a protected form of speech and I’m quite certain no court has or would give it serious consideration.”

    You call it espionage.
    I call it government secrets.

    There is a full spectrum of questions concerning protected government information. For example, there are the legal questions concerning photographing and filming police activity.

    It is possible that videos of police committing crimes (even murder) can be disallowed as evidence in court and that the person who is doing the filming can be charged as a criminal.

    These are questions that Edward Snowden has given serious consideration. Also Woodward and Bernstein.

    These are not trivial legal matters.

  • But they are, for the most part, a minor cul-de-sac of the conversation, rather than the main point. Unless the question is one of criminalizing certain speech directly, the intersection between speech acts and law enforcement is not primarily an issue of speech but rather one of criminal justice as public policy. And, besides, the questions of filming and photographing police activity have been mostly answered by legislation and the courts in favor of the validity of such acts for the purposes of law, so it’s even more mysterious why it is coming up as a serious part of the conversation about free speech.

  • Chuck Johnson

    “. . . have been mostly answered by legislation and the courts in favor of the validity of such acts . . . ”
    Good.

    Also, as I see it, free speech and free access to information are closely related.

    People (including government people and corporate people) too often use privacy and classification of information to cover up bad behavior up to and including criminal behavior.

  • Sure they do, but my point was merely that while in general access to information is an important component of useful speech, discussing the specific intersection of access to particular types of information has very little to do with the conversation about the stringency of the freedom of speech in the first place. We are not in an information desert. If anything, we’re drowning in the stuff. So while government secrecy is in itself an important topic, it is peripheral to this one.

  • Kevin R. Cross

    An interesting statement considering I more or less dismissed your post as a troll. And I’ve yet to see anything to change my mind. If I’m being too harsh, apologies, but I’m less than sanguine that it’s necessary.

  • kenofken

    I can only swing at what I’m pitched. You described espionage in terms of directly passing state secrets to enemy foreign powers. That has never been contemplated as protected by the First Amendment. The law has on the other hand held that news media cannot be punished for publishing or reporting on classified documents because of the public interests of press freedom and an informed public etc.

    I’ve never meant to suggest the ground-level mechanics of free speech are simple, or painless, but it is far from an unworkable problem. We’ve struck a pretty good balance over a couple of centuries of working these problems and we will continue to do so unless we throw up our hands and decided that free speech is just too much trouble or “too dangerous.”

    If we do that, we will get exactly the government we deserve.

  • I just wanted to dispute the notion that the marketplace of ideas magically eliminates hateful or racist ideas.

    Who claims this? Casual fans of the surface concept, maybe, like casual fans of market capitalism exulting in the magic of the invisible hand. You won’t catch modern economists saying the same, and your presentation of free speech ideology is likewise a casual caricature.

    The function of free speech in regards to bad speech is to force it into a marketplace where it must directly face competitors and where the society in turn must face it, and where consequently it becomes marginal and the wider society can take proper stock of its extent and its virulence. Free speech creates a cystic effect for bad speech; it is diagnosis and containment, not cure, identifying purveyors who must enter the public to speak and exposing them and their ideas directly to ridicule. The alternative to this is to encourage bad ideas to spread anonymously by whispers, where purveyors remain covert and their infiltrates can reach many parts of the social fabric before anyone notices anything is wrong.

  • Otto

    Gee…Shem did not describe what free speech as a non-absolute should consist of.
    Shem did not describe what mechanisms are best for limiting free speech. He also left out a lot.

    I asked Shem these questions last time he whined about this subject, and I was basically told to shut up.

    There isn’t an absolute right to free speech currently… and Shem seems say it isn’t limited enough, but doesn’t care to explain further other than to lob the ‘you support fascism if you don’t agree with me’ grenade. Agree with what? I guess we will have to wait some more for that post.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Yes, I have seen that Shem sometimes gets touchy as a substitute for being clear and explicit.

  • Otto

    So do you have any idea what I am suppose to agree with Shem on regarding limiting free speech further or face his accusation that by not agreeing with him I am therefore supporting fascism? I still have no clue.

  • Hey, guys, leave me out of your little booger fight, okay?

  • Chuck Johnson

    Hey Shem, leave me out of your trolling, okay ?

  • Chuck Johnson

    “. . . by not agreeing with him I am therefore supporting fascism? I still have no clue.”

    Otto, you’ll have to show me the “supporting fascism” comment.
    I haven’t seen it in the “Trump and the Gullibility of Free Speech Absolutists” comment section.

  • Otto

    1. We are not fighting
    2. I didn’t ask you the questions because you have already refused to answer them. But good job continuing to be condescending rather than address the issues. Bravo

  • Otto

    And free speech absolutists, who consider their commitment to free speech noble and principled, are playing right into the hands of Trump and his bigoted sponsors.

    I still don’t know what a free speech absolutist is under Shem’s definition…because he never cares to define it. I guess it is like the famous quote for the judge about obscenity…he knows it when he sees it.

    And then there is this little gem…

    This is a vendetta, plain and simple, and free speech absolutists are complicit.

    He never explains how they (we?) are complicit, other than if someone takes issue with what Shem says here they are complicit.
    “You are ether with us or against us” comes to mind. There is no nuance or further discussion to be had, Shem has spoken.

  • Otto

    This is the exact end point I got to with Shem last time he wrote about this issue. He not-so-subtly implies speech needs to be curtailed but never explains how that is to be accomplished, the only conclusion is the gov’t is supposed to limit speech, but Shem stomps up and down that that is not what he means…and never explains anything further. Good luck on getting a straight answer (I notice it has been 12 days and no response to you here). I have seriously never seen anyone hand wave away questions and issues more since the time I was involved in religion.

  • Chuck Johnson

    I have to give an answer to you based on the content of Shem’s blog post.

    Shem describes the situation on college campuses where right wing extremists schedule speeches which are more than just controversial.
    Such events might include hate speech, racism, bigotry of various kinds and attempts to incite hostility or violence.

    These right-wing extremist speaking events will then flourish and they will be free to advocate all sorts of hate speech, etc. under Donald Trump’s executive order.

    This executive order threatens to deny Federal aid to colleges which do not establish a sort of “free speech on campus” which is suited to the political needs of Trump and his cronies.

    In other words, under the guise of First Amendment free speech, Trump proposes to control from the White House the content of public speeches on the college campuses in the USA, and he will do it to advocate his own preferred politics.

    So in this scenario, “absolute free speech” means no more and no less than what Trump wants it to mean.

    And that is how the concept of “absolute free speech” can get spun by Trump to become fascism, right-wing extremism or Orwellian doublespeak.

  • You’re too kind.

  • I didn’t address the issues because you didn’t ask, you just swooped in with insults and accusations.

    As I told you a couple of years ago in my free-speech discussion on Secular Spectrum, I think communities and colleges have every right to prevent bigoted provocateurs from reaching an audience. Activists should be able to mobilize to get campuses and organizations to disinvite speakers. Deplatforming is a legitimate method of battling hate speech and bigoted attention seekers. And the government has no right to threaten to withhold funding from organizations who refuse to provide a paying audience and security, no questions asked, for the bigoted nitwit du jour.

  • Otto

    I think communities and colleges have every right to prevent bigoted provocateurs from reaching an audience. Activists should be able to mobilize to get campuses and organizations to disinvite speakers.

    I have never argued that they did not have that right…but the question put to you is how should they be allowed to do that? You are attacking the very notion of free speech, not just specific situations. You ‘explain’ your position so poorly I have no idea how I could possibly agree with you.

    Every right under the Bill of Rights is already limited to some degree including free speech, and quite often rightly so. You seem to want to make yourself the arbiter of what is allowed and what is not. As others have pointed out to you here, once you put limits in place those same rules can suddenly be used against those you are fighting for unless you define your meaning and rules very clearly. Just waving a hand at free speech as if it is the problem is misguided at best, and downright dangerous at worst.

    And the government has no right to threaten to withhold funding from organizations who refuse to provide a paying audience and security, no questions asked, for the bigoted nitwit du jour.

    I agree with you, but the question here is how are the nitwits gonna be separated from people who are just unpopular. I hate that the Office of the President has so much power to dictate…but the problem there isn’t free speech, the problem is giving the President too much authority, and that problem has been notched up slowly by both parties over decades.

    I don’t see how attacking free speech either A) solves the problems you complain about and B) doesn’t create more problems unintentionally. If you can answer these questions I might change my mind…but historically all I get from you are insults to questions.

  • Your main misunderstanding here is that I’m attacking free speech.

    All I’m saying, and all I’ve ever said, is that there are cases where it’s legitimate to think that free speech is being repressed and cases where it isn’t. I’m saying that the ideal of free speech shouldn’t be anything goes in literally every case, but rather to take into account the power relations involved in the matter at hand. I’m saying that the downside to free speech isn’t just people having their feeling hurt, but rather that turning our public discourse into a cesspool of hate speech and bigotry increases violence and discrimination against marginalized groups. I’m trying to point out a paradox between what Constitutional protection for free speech is intended to achieve, and what appeals to those Constitutional protections by bigoted provocateurs achieve in reality.

    I’ve never claimed to be a legal scholar, and I have no intention of rewriting Constitutional law or listing what’s acceptable in every conceivable circumstance and what isn’t. Feel free to engage with the topic I’ve laid out here, but don’t accuse me of evasion or incivility just because you don’t like the way I’m framing the issue.

  • Otto

    And as is the case with many things Shem writes I can agree that there is a real issue there, an issue that needs to be sussed out and discussed. But implying that free speech is the problem and the solution is to curtail free expression without so much as attempting to be exact in what expression is a problem and offering very specific solution leads to misunderstanding, and people like me who could be on his side are alienated with his fuzzy rhetoric.

    I don’t like many things people say and do, especially people that promote real racism and bigotry as well as violence. But those words are fuzzy and saying ‘bigotry will not be tolerated as speech’ can and will lead to some serious problems. The bigot label is easily thrown around and trying to regulate it would be a real problem. As an example Bill Donahue of the Catholic League will call anyone a bigot who criticizes the Catholic Church. If defined poorly enough he could be right, and then under what I understand Shem to be saying Colleges, Universities and Communities could stop anyone who has said critical things about the Church from speaking. Freedom is about allowing people to say and do things that many of us staunchly disagree with, but at the same time freedom is not, and has never been, absolute. There are always lines drawn, and it is a delicate balance. For Shem to treat this subject with such a cavalier attitude is not giving this important issue the respect it deserves. And for him to broad brush anyone who would point this out to him as ‘supporting bigotry’ is just an attempt to poison anyone who might push back. If he thinks the line between freedom of expression and limiting that freedom needs to be moved I think it is reasonable to want specifics on what and how that is to be accomplished, rather than an attempt to vilify his dissenters in lieu of real debate.

  • the only conclusion is the gov’t is supposed to limit speech, but Shem stomps up and down that that is not what he means…and never explains anything further.

    And for the millionth time, that’s not what I mean. If you’re adamant that free speech issues can only and ever be about the government limiting speech, then I’m not surprised that you’ve failed to get my meaning every single time I’ve explained it.

    This article, and the article about the Dawkins brouhaha that was our previous tête-à-tête on the subject of free speech, aren’t about the government limiting speech. They’re about colleges, media outlets, and other communities making decisions about the propriety of hosting speakers whose speech conflicts with their standards. This isn’t a cut-and-dried matter, but basically I don’t consider either campus speech codes or the deplatforming of celebrity speakers to be an example of someone’s free speech being violated. Speakers don’t have the right to a platform and an audience, no questions asked.

    Now that I’ve explained myself yet again, if you still respond by asking, But how do you propose the government curtail speech?, then I submit you’re not arguing in good faith.

  • Otto

    I don’t consider either campus speech codes or the deplatforming of celebrity speakers to be an example of someone’s free speech being violated.

    I don’t either, unless the campus is an entity of the gov’t, which many are, in those cases it is an issue of free speech. I certainly don’t agree that this or any president should be able to micromanage schools and the way they determine what content should be allowed, but the way you are going about addressing that issue is simply inept.