May 8, 2017
On April 19, 2017, University of California, Berkeley announced that, as a result of failing to secure adequate safety measures, it would be cancelling Ann Coulter’s speaking engagement. Like clockwork, debate ensued over “free speech” on university campuses and never one to shy away from attention, ex-Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos announced a call to arms, because nothing screams free speech like violence.
Many individuals are decrying this episode as further proof of efforts to stifle debate on college campuses. Other speakers who have been at the center of these debates include Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve which supports the pseudo-scientific argument that race affects I.Q., and Robert Spencer, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) describes as “America’s most prolific and vociferous anti-Muslim propagandists.”
Another side to the free speech debate is the recent discovery that Fordham University blocked the formation of a student group focused on advocating for the human rights of Palestinians. Additionally, efforts have been taken to undermine and censor the non-violent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement across American campuses. In contrast to dis-inviting speakers who espouse racism and xenophobia, these instances do infringe on students rights to free speech, free expression, and academic freedom. This categorically has more weight under the free speech defense than speakers who simply make bigoted remarks in their quest for fame.
Universities are supposed to be a bastion for critical thinking. They are places where our views are tested; where we are forced to question our preconceived ideas. It is essential to protect this place given the rising intolerance and bigotry in this country. However, this space is not independent of the effects of power. Marginalized communities are too frequently forced to exist in places where our words, our thoughts, and our pain are not given the same value as others.
Too often, the free speech defense is deployed by those who seek to uphold the structures of white supremacy. It is politicized and weaponized against those who seek to critique our current Euro-American centric modes of thought. Level playing fields do not exist as marginalized communities are victims to structural inequalities. Thus, those advocating for viewpoints that uphold white supremacy get more leeway than the viewpoints which challenge it. While hysteria has arisen in response to Coulter’s cancellation, there has been deafening silence in response to Fordham University’s possible violation of academic freedoms.
“Dialogue” and “free speech” are the two phrases most often launched in response to instances involving controversial speakers. But dialogue can’t occur in rooms of unequal power relations. At these events, speakers have the platform. When students ask question, speakers hold the power to control where the conversation goes. In a most recent example, Sebastian Gorka simply walked off the stage at a panel discussion held at Georgetown, after a few pointed questions from students. There are no back and forth in Q&As; speakers get the last word. This is no place for true dialogue.
What is so often overlooked in these discussions of free speech is that American conceptions of the First Amendment are informed by the long-standing liberal principle of a free marketplace of ideas.
In the US, this rationale originated with the dissent of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in Abrams v. US. (SCOTUS, No.316 1919) His dissenting opinion remains the foundational text upon which much first amendment jurisprudence relies. Holmes argued that it is not the place of the state or its institutions to regulate the content of speech and prosecute ideas it perceived to be subversive or threatening. Political speech (within certain limits) must be protected, for the “best of truth” is that which is able to weather and become accepted within the competition of this free marketplace. Language that is hateful, bigoted, or false is protected by law under the presumption that it would not retain its legitimacy once introduced to a marketplace of ideas in which others can freely provide counterpoints and alternative perspectives.
It is not surprising however, that a white cis-het male justice who notoriously upheld Virginia’s forced sterilization programs targeting disabled individuals, would also peddle the myth that everyone has equal access to this allegedly “free” marketplace. The law guarantees everyone’s right to speak, but not everyone’s right to be heard. In a political landscape where money constitutes speech but the government claims a mandate to prosecute what it believes to be extremist ideas, speech, and intent, the marketplace serves only as an echo chamber for the powerful and well-connected.
This further entrenches the white supremacist, ableist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal structures upon which this nation stands, thus making it glaringly clear that the promise of the First Amendment was never meant to empower the most marginalized and vulnerable. Instead it serves to enshrine these oppressive systems with a cloak of legal legitimacy.
University campuses appear to have unquestioningly bought into this myth of a free marketplace of ideas. They argue that problematic speech should not be censored but challenged by those who disagree. But therein lies the problem: the ideas that are being given platforms are not merely controversial opinions. They are viewpoints that fundamentally deny the humanity of those who have historically been targeted, oppressed, and disenfranchised in this country. Thus any university that views such speech as falling within the realm of academic discourse (and therefore worthy of protection) has legitimized the very same hateful ideologies that the law had presumed would be discredited once introduced to the marketplace of ideas.
University administrations are failing uphold their responsibilities and meeting the needs of their students. Too often, administrative response has come too late, with reactive emails, rather than proactive engagement with student concerns.
So what’s the solution? The ideal situation would be a level playing field, but until we can achieve that, perhaps we can all ask ourselves the following questions when it comes to speakers who are deemed controversial.
1) What are the speaker’s credentials on the specific topic being discussed? Too often, individuals are brought to speak on topics they have no expertise in. Today, there are countless individuals who claim to be “experts” on Islam and Muslims, when really they either first lack any academic credentials and/or have simply used suspicious personal narratives to propel them into “expertise.” Take Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the woman who has used her narrative and now sits herself at one of the country’s most prestigious universities, Harvard University. This is the woman who rationalized the very clear racist motives of Andres Breivek, painting him as a victim of censorship and blaming authorities for his massacre of 77 people. A woman who openly advocates for violence and states “we are at war with Islam.” In academia, broad generalized statements and arguments without proper evidence and support are unacceptable. Can we start applying this rigor to speakers as well?
2) What are the values and mission of the organizing body of the university? Does the mission of the individual and what he/she preaches violate the guiding principles of the organizing body/student group/university?
3) In response to controversial speak, is there a counterpoint being offered? Isn’t this what true dialogue is about? Isn’t free speech all about challenging one’s beliefs, how do you challenge a belief if you simply reaffirm the narrative with a one-sided conversation. On issues concerning Muslims, too often we are spoken about but rarely heard from.
4) Is the University upholding its responsibility in providing a conducive learning environment? Universities are bastions for intellectual rigor. They are never a place to shelter individuals from a different mode of thinking. But different mode of thinking does not necessarily equate protecting, honoring, and giving a platform to bigotry. Universities are meant to serve the individuals paying tens of thousands of dollars, the students, not to outside interests. Welcoming speakers onto campus means being held responsible for the environment they create. It has been well documented that hate leads to mental health issues with physical signs of concerns. Words have power and speech can be dangerous. Students cannot learn if they are in spaces that negatively impact their mental and emotional wellbeing. By inviting hate preachers like Coulter, Yiannopoulos, and Robert Spencer, universities are creating hostile environments and thus failing to uphold their responsibilities in providing a safe and conducive learning environment.
It is imperative to understand the unequal power relations marginalized communities are forced to live, work, and learn under, and to shine light on points that are rarely considered. Free speech is not immune to this hegemonic order. Today, this defense if often levied after there is pushback against individuals who have spout violent agendas. These individuals cover themselves and their bigotry under this cloak of free speech. Members of academic communities have the right to decide who enters their community, and who is turned away. Speakers may have a right to say what they want, but they do not have a right to a platform.