Free Speech: Who Gets to Decide?


TW Opinion by J.p. Lawrence

Why There Are Limits to the Free Market of Ideas


“Day 287: Saying Bad Things” © Ansy Wong

Today’s students are soft. So says Greg Lukianoff, an attorney and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). In his 2014 book Freedom from Speech, Lukianoff puts it this way:

A society in which people can avoid physical pain comparatively easily will produce people who are less prepared to deal with it. Similarly, an environment in which people can easily avoid emotional and intellectual pain will produce people who are less prepared to deal with and are more intolerant toward harsh disagreement, objectionable words, and differing perspectives.

He’s not talking about the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo here, although his point of view has broad implications for how people learn tolerance for ideas they don’t like. Lukianoff argues that American colleges are producing students who shy away from the discomfort of thorny intellectual challenges. For him, trigger warnings—disclaimers that a text may offend some readers—in classrooms and syllabi are symptoms of a disturbing trend away from free speech. And when student groups disinvite controversial speakers such as Condoleeza Rice, Charles Murray, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, they subvert the ideals of learning.

It’s a passionate and convincing argument, on the surface, but I get the feeling what he really wants to say is this: Won’t these students shut the hell up?

Freedom from Speech book coverFreedom from Speech was published by Encounter Books as part of its “Broadside” series, which includes such conservative titles as The Dependency Agenda, Obama and the Crash of 2013, and How the EPA’s Green Tyranny Is Stifling America. Lukianoff’s short broadside draws on both ACLU arguments and a right-wing individual rights agenda, and he maintains the issue goes beyond the liberal-conservative divide.

Yet, it doesn’t take long for him to muse about the liberal preoccupation with care and empathy. He quotes the work of NYU business professor Jonathan Haidt, who concludes that political conservatives have multiple sources for moral norms—traditions, sacredness, loyalty—while American liberals are "largely one-dimensional, driven primarily by the care ethic,” in Lukianoff’s words.

Lukianoff emphasizes that this care ethic protects bad ideas in the intellectual marketplace. He and other laissez-faire thinkers say let all ideas grow—and let the strongest survive. The trouble is, a completely laissez-faire marketplace of ideas would be like a game of Monopoly: a lot of noise, followed by increasing domination of the board by the few loudest voices.

“Absolute free speech is only useful if all you want is noise,” writes legal theorist Stanley Fish in his 1994 book There's No Such Thing as Free Speech—and It's a Good Thing, Too. A soapbox is a wide-open forum for speech (or should be), while lunchrooms need a few shared cultural restraints on yelling at the top of your lungs.

Classrooms need even more. No one would argue it’s acceptable for a teacher and one or two students to ramble on about their fantasy football teams in the middle of a math class; speech that doesn’t contribute to the purposes of teaching is often regulated. More to the point, in a marketplace of ideas, we sometimes need to be protectionists, especially if we’re in editorial or teaching positions.

There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech book coverThis is something I learned during the three years I was editor of an entirely student-run college newspaper. I was the doorway between writers and the public, cutting stories—often childish and thinly veiled personal attacks—that I deemed unhelpful to campus debate or that would have prevented other, more timid voices from joining in. We did our best to protect unpopular ideas from those that would crowd them out.

Lukianoff objects to student demands because they spoil the purpose of the forum. But who gets to decide what the purpose is? He claims that since 2000, 257 speakers, many of them conservative, have been invited to speak on U.S. campuses by administrators, then disinvited through student activism. But he certainly misunderstands the purpose of a commencement speech. It’s not about providing a chance for open debate and learning. No one’s taking notes at his or her graduation. These speeches combine celebration of a personal achievement with PR for the particular college.

The trend in trigger warnings for hot-button texts does speak more directly to the main points of Freedom from Speech. Lukianoff refers, anecdotally, to one female student who objected to having to watch a film in class depicting rape. "The rules of political correctness,” he writes, “seem to counsel against responding with the real answer: that college is where you are supposed to learn about the world as it truly is, which includes some horrific and dreadful topics.”

Based on my own college experience, I’ve also been tempted to think the typical upper middle-class white student seems overly fearful of healthy intellectual debate. But much as fervent calls to respect the First Amendment do my heart good, Lukianoff doesn't address why students object to certain speakers or writers.

As Jacob Canfield, who cofounded Carleton College’s comics journal, notes in a recent essay about Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism of your own speech. His pointed essay in the Hooded Utilitarian reprints some of the offensive anti-Muslim cartoons that appeared in the French paper—and he confronts what’s meant by “political correctness” when the satirists are in the majority:

[T]he editorial staff of Hebdo consistently aimed to provoke Muslims. They ascribe to the same edgy-white-guy mentality that many American cartoonists do: nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship. And just like American cartoonists, they and their supporters are wrong. White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out.

The rhetoric of free speech is often invoked by those who are, in fact, offended by the divisive ideas expressed by less powerful voices. The ironic—even horrific—result? Privileged writers and artists argue for free speech in order to silence criticism by a marginalized group.

So, back at American campuses, the marginalized are finally getting to speak, criticizing their teachers, saying they don't like what they're hearing. Good for them! Yet, this clearly makes Lukianoff uneasy, and the way he reduces trigger warnings to cartoons does his argument no favors. Many of the student movements he describes can’t be brushed away as the product of kids afraid to leave their intellectual comfort zones. Topics like sexism, racism, ableism, gender identity, and other divisive issues—yes, I mean religion—generate intense discussions on college campuses.

What Lukianoff really finds troubling, it seems, is the erosion of authority and the intellectual comfort of those on top. For him, college administrators should be able to hire any speaker they want, and teachers should be able to teach anything they want. Students are passive receptacles—meant to listen, not to speak. I’m all for presenting both sides of a serious debate, but today’s students aren’t soft—they’re simply exercising their right to free speech.

Too bad Lukianoff and his colleagues aren’t listening.


Publishing Information

Art Information

J.p. LawrenceJ.p. Lawrence is a writer, a first-generation Filipino immigrant, and an Iraq War vet. He’s a TW contributing writer and has also been published in Salon, Pacific Standard, and the American Interest.

He currently studies at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City and has received an Overseas Press Club grant and a Regional Emmy Award.


I've always wondered what

I've always wondered what that point of protecting this notion of "free speech" is. Are we protecting it to acknowledge the right of everyone to have their own opinion and to be able to say whatever they want?

Or are we protecting it to allow social discourse so that slowly but surely we can get to the actual truth of things?

Thanks for this review and essay, Mr. Lawrence. It comes at an important time. I think we're really kind of losing our way with this issue.

Greg Lukianoff is pointing

Greg Lukianoff is pointing out that when sharing a space for free speech everyone's opinion and ideas must be listened to and debated equally. His examples of conservatives not being able to attend certain graduation speeches possibly points out that the bias, and censorship of some colleges towards controversial viewpoints. Greg's main focus is for students to be more open-minded and fully expose to diverse perspectives. At a university or college the use of free speech must be used to help students be prepare for real world conflicts and solutions . As a result, of being familiar with controversial topics and ideas, he is saying that students will form a more solid and well-balance perspective that will help them to understand others viewpoint which will benefit society as a whole.And not leaving the students feeling vulnerable to unconventional ideas or opinions. It is similar to a garden that has different types of vegetable and fruits whose fruitfulness is based on the diversity of the garden. A diverse garden do not have a monopoly. When a fruit or vegetable tries to monopolize it brings the attention of a herbicide that targets that particular fruit or vegetable. So it become difficult for a particular fruit or vegetable to monopolize on the garden. The same is with ideas that tries to monopolize and become the dominant idea or philosophy.

Yerodin, I think most editors

Yerodin, I think most editors, writers, and college profs support the idea that readers should be exposed to diverse ideas, especially young readers. The problem with the "let all ideas grow" premise is that it doesn't acknowledge how much the most powerful voices control access to the media and the whole platform for distributing ideas. Laissez-faire doesn't work in this regard, for all sorts of reasons, but largely because it depends so much on individuals having equal opportunities to speak. That's just not the case. Freedom of speech is considered a fundamental right by Americans, and it is fundamental, but that doesn't mean the ideal isn't a very flawed, messy thing in reality. After decades of battling for media access as a feminist writer, I have to say it's far too easy for that garden of ideas to look largely white, male, and straight.

What is the purpose of free

What is the purpose of free speech -- is it to convert others to your viewpoint or to engage in exchange of ideas. Increasingly we live in intellectually segregated environments where we only read and listen to options and news that reinforces our own perspective. When we read opposing views it is mostly to disparage and laugh at their "ignorance and stupidity". We never acknowledge that the other side has real issues with which they are concerned and that it is at least theoretically possible that in a given instance one could simply be wrong. If you can’t accept that then what you are saying is that mistakes cannot be fixed and that attitude I find especially troubling.

I'd say free speech has many

I'd say free speech has many purposes, and one of them is certainly to engage in an exchange of ideas. Part of that exchange has to involve flexibility and a willingness to change one's original position—or to admit to being wrong. David, I'd be interested in knowing whether you're troubled by a lack of flexibility in the way ideas are discussed in mainstream media, esp. by pundits, or by J.p.'s argument regarding who gets to decide how much of speech should be free. My sense is that he would agree with what you're saying. The trouble with the standard apple-pie rhetoric about free speech is that it rarely acknowledges inequalities of access to the podium. I would love to see a wonderfully diverse garden of ideas when I look at that metaphorical garden, but I don't think the folks in power are conscious enough of their own privilege for that to be a reality—at least not yet.

I guess what I am most

I guess what I am most troubled about is that especially in online communication there is too much ego and too little reflection. We have divided ourelves into "tribes" that have their own literature, pundits, and assumptions and spend too little time thinking, really thinking. And on top of this no one ever seems to accept the notion of an honest disagreement among ethical human beings.

Hmmm. I like this notion of a

Hmmm. I like this notion of a garden full of vegetables. I think we're better now than ever before at "diversity of opinion." It may not seem like that sometimes, but all you have to do is go on line and Google something that matters to you. Just don't necessarily read the top three or four listings first. Mainstream media is kind of like an asshole in the garden. The only thing that comes out of it is what they think will make them the most money. But that doesn't mean there's not a lot of other stuff all over the place. In all fairness, if you try to give diversity its full due on the nightly news or in a newspaper article, well, we'd never be able to finish a story would we?

Woke up this morning thinking

Woke up this morning thinking about this: It has always seemed like along with Free Speech there is always the corollary of Freedom to Not Listen.

As much as America and Europe are proud of the theory of letting people say what they want we are all quite good at saying Shut Up! to each other in many, many creative ways. Which is quite a tautology if you think about it.

I'm delighted with the debate

I'm delighted with the debate in these comments. As someone who has frequented forums before, I know full well how troll comments snowball and eventually drown out productive conversation. I think everyone wants the same things about free speech in the abstract (a forum where people can learn, even about things they disagree with) but the way of achieving that is what trips people up. Unrestricted free speech is not possible, so the next best option is regulated speech. The next step then is decided who gets to regulate speech. Often times then, arguments in favor of free speech become arguments for regulated speech by the RIGHT people.

Hey there J.P., thanks for

Hey there J.P., thanks for writing this column, you've raised some interesting issues. A couple quick thoughts:

Lukianoff and his colleagues' work falls into two broad categories. First, what public colleges *can't* do, because of the first amendment, and second, what students *should* do with regards to campus culture and intellectual discourse.

This book is about the second category of thinking, and I think that by forgetting the first, you've misrepesented him. The vast majority of FIRE's legal work takes aim at the administrators you say he wants to empower, in the many cases where they try to silence speech (conservative and liberal) they feel might bring bad press coverage on the school. He's not the ally of overactive admin's and prof's that you portray.

Anyways, thanks again for the column. As a college student, I'm glad people are discussing these issues. Cheers!

"White people punching down."

"White people punching down." The vast majority of Muslims in France are "white," no more or less swarthy, for example, than most French Jews, who are also primarily from North Africa. You and the Carleton editor are pulling two related rhetorical tricks. The first is defining issues of ideology (in this case, radical Islam) as issues of race. And the second is defining people as white are non-white based on the felt needs of political argument, rather than anything objective. So, for example, you are of fillipino descent, but if you went to work at Google, you'd be part of the New York Times story about how everyone at Google is "white", because they need to include Asians in "white" to make the racism angle work. Similarly, North African Jews need to be white, and North African Arabs non-white, so we can't say the problem in France is radical Islam, but French racism. And you, as a white man (!) should no better.

David B, you're right that

David B, you're right that mainstream media and various political interests manipulate race labels all the time to make an argument. In terms of this piece, though, J.p. is emphasizing who's in power and who is not, something he underscores when he discusses "less privileged voices"—indeed, his whole argument is based on those who are less privileged on college campuses, especially students from working-class or immigrant backgrounds. This topic can't be simplified by focusing on either race or religion, as you point out. And yet, I have to ask why can't both French racism and radical Islam be a problem, not one or the other? It's worth looking at the Hebdo cartoons reprinted in Canfield's piece, because they are very offensive to this white feminist reader, and I'm not Muslim. 

Will, as for Lukianoff not siding with college administrators who are just interested in PR for fundraising, that makes sense. I can't imagine FIRE supporting that kind of restriction of speech. However, I'd still argue this is a matter of privilege and access to the media. What makes this topic so complex is that many upper middle-class American kids don't question their right to speak up—hence, the silliest examples of college "anti" campaigns. But campaigns against gluten and for a bicycle-happy world are mixed with claims for far more serious kinds of freedoms (or restirctions on offensive speech). As a faculty instructor, I'm not fond of trigger warnings; but I do bear in mind the range of students who will be in my class—and I don't include readings in my syllabus just for shock value or to get students to "think." There are many ways to get people thinking in a classroom, including the kind of debate we're now engaged in here.

Martha, among other things,

Martha, among other things, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons have been taken out of context by many who don't know what controversies prompted them, and why what seems "offensive" may seem different in context. Beyond that, the magazine was a leading voice against the far right in France that expresses hostility to immigrants. The idea that it is a racist publication is a product of either ignorance, or, often, an implicit desire to blame the victim.

Dave, I appreciate your

David B, I appreciate your willingness to engage, but we may have to agree to disagree. I think it's unfair to talk about "an implicit desire to blame the victim." I just don't see it. It's very possible to be horrified by religious extremists killing editors and also to question some of those editorial choices. Sometimes, satire makes a necessary political point, especially when it tweaks those in power (as Hebdo often did with French politicians). Other times, I question that tactic. I know the context for the Hebdo cartoons, but still find many of them offensive. But beyond that, "freedom of speech" is too often bandied about by those who don't question their own privilege and entitlement to speak.

Just this morning, I came across a quote from cartoonist Trina Robbins in an SF Chronicle interview regarding the new documentary film She's Beautiful When She's Angry. The film documents the women's libreation movement. In answer to a question about what inspired Robbins and others to become feminist activists, she says:

"I was an artist and hippie in the '6os, and was one of a small number of underground cartoonists on the Lower East Side in New York. I noticed this misogyny creeping into the scene. The male cartoonists humiliated women, drew them being raped and tortured, and I didn't think it was funny. They said, 'Oh, you have no sense of humor.'

In 1969, I read something in an underground newspaper about how the guys think we're good enough to have their babies and wash their socks and make their brown rice, but they won't let us talk in political movement meetings. They won't take us seriously. That may have been the first time I heard the term 'women's liberation.'"

On this we do agree, David. I

On this we do agree, David. I want to see far more thinking and far less posturing. It seems to me that being allowed to disagree with what somebody else says, especially in public venues, is the essence of free speech. And I also believe in acceptance of honest disagreement among ethical human beings. I worry about social media trends that are powered by everybody "liking" the same thing or focused on "relatable" politicians or celebrities. The world is a very big place and encompasses many points of view.

Ridiculous self destructing

Ridiculous self destructing final comment you have here. Today's students are absolutely soft and if you did not see this in basic training or by the quality of guys coming into your unit years after you got in. You were probably one of them.

Exercising your right to free speech is one thing. But trying to claim that a student is by exercising his free speech by suggesting that it should be limited, is nothing to defend. You forget that college students are of voting age making them adults. As a vet in school you should know it is not just 18 year old kids coming into class. Do you want an education that is limited? You appear to have no faith your teachers knowing better in certain topics than you. It is why you are there to learn. Take it for what it is, make your own judgement, and move on. Like an adult.

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