Defending free speech used to be the job of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other liberty-loving champions. But, nowadays, that awesome task falls to police on and off campus, where furious politically-driven protesters shut down speakers with whom they disagree. Too often, at campus events and at political rallies and street demonstrations, ideological combatants (pro and con Donald Trump) come to blows—and fisticuffs, including assaults and battery. Such violence seems all the rage.
The academy, the erstwhile marketplace of ideas—once the home of free speech zones—is being lost and ceded to those who strangle and throttle those whose ideas and speech they despise. It is visceral hatred that’s on display on the part of protesters who claim higher moral purpose than "haters" by opposing “hate speech.” But, hate speech is protected in America—there is no law against it—yet. And if it’s allowed to be spoken and heard it can easily and effectively be answered. That era of talk and talking back, however, is no more. It’s long gone, if not obsolete.
Nowadays, one needs to check and clear their and their guests' talks with the thought police on campus and in our social precincts. Driven off campus and pummeled at rallies and on the streets are the speakers with whom we disagree and disagree with strongly. Examples abound.
* This week officials at the University of California Berkeley canceled an April 27 scheduled talk by Ann Coulter, the conservative pundit and author, on the grounds of "safety” concerns. That cancellation came a week in advance of the talk, the university conceding that they could not guarantee Coulter’s safety or prevent damage to college property or injury to students, including the talk’s invitees—the student group that had invited Coulter to campus.
* Berkeley last February also scrubbed a talk by conservative talker and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos on grounds, ahem, that they could not guarantee his talk a “safe space.” As violence broke out in anticipation of the Yiannopoulos speech—Milo fled the campus.
* Last month, political scientist Charles Murray was scuttle off the stage at the erstwhile serene campus of Middlebury College in beautiful Vermont. He was shouted down as a “white supremacist racist”. When violence ensued, Murray fled.
* This month at Claremont McKenna college the pro-cop, Black Lives Matter Movement critic heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, was taunted and also shouted down as a “white supremacist racist.”
On college campuses nationwide, elite and public, once the citadels of academic freedom, and of debate, “hate speech” talkers have been stopped. The speech we liberals used to just hate and answer is unwelcome, heckled, deplored, and silenced. Controversial speakers flee or are dis-invited as soon as there is a whiff of dissent on campus over a student group’s choice of speaker or a speaker’s choice of topic under consideration—usually around race, gender or identity politics. There are and have been exceptions, but at too many campuses the predominant feeling towards the unfashionable speaker with unpopular viewpoints is that of studied hostility. Some celebrities won’t even consider campus invites—out of fear of being booed or hounded off campus by angry “students” and masked protesters.
College officials are not without fault in making some speakers unfathomable. They have been funding and beating the drums of racial and gender identity politics for years—making it untenable for students and visitors alike to have, much less voice, criticism of such racial idiocies as—at predominantly white colleges and universities—dormitories exclusively for black/African-American men. We who are unrepentant integrationists, who blur the color lines of this black and white world, who question and oppose identity groupthink, are today’s pariahs, too. There was a time when Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan were the pariahs—and we liberals who defended their speech were understood and in the mainstream. No more. We who defend the right to free speech of racial dunces are also marginalized and unwelcome in the elite and academic circles. Fair and balanced are curse words in this anti-intellectual climate.
Where are the big voices among the liberals who are upset, like me, and fed up with the anti-free speech movement that’s tearing us apart right in front of our eyes?
I was curious and personally interested in finding out where the ACLU of California stood on the protests at Berkley that had expelled Milo Yiannopoulos from their public campus. I contacted the ACLU chieftains there to check on what they had said and done to take exception to the censorship and exclusion of a controversial speaker n their turf. A former ACLU national vice president, I had standing and email addresses on hand of the ACLU leaders there—and I emailed them to find out whether they had dispatched civil liberties—free speech monitors to the campus, to watch out for breaches of anyone’s free speech rights. Yiannopoulos had a right to be heard. The disinfectant to errant speech was more—and counter—speech, but not censorship, I inveighed. That’s what the ACLU always preached and I had thought they’d say in the moment. But I had found no press release on its web site about either the cancellation of Yiannopoulos's talk or about the violence that he fled. I found no statement deploring the hecklers’ veto of Milo’s speech. The ACLU chieftains there never bothered to answer my e-mails. Their silence was alarming and appalling.
The ACLU is no fan of hate speech, of course—or of hate groups—but they’re our guardians of free speech or are supposed to be such. The perils of silence in protecting others’ free speech rights are too severe. There can be no silence when liberty needs defense.
Disruption, violence, censorship, civil disorder are no-nos to anyone and for all guardians of free speech.
Nor is free speech defense a strictly legal issue. Free speech is to be protected from squelching by government and especially at public colleges and universities, naturally. But, our free speech protections are broader than the California and U.S. Constitutions. Even at private colleges, there is supposed to be an ethos of academic freedom—a respect and regard for a diversity of ideas. That is the very mission and purpose of higher education. Our colleges and universities are supposed to practice what they preach and uphold a culture of tolerance for the speech we hate.
We ought to refrain from tarring the speakers with whom we disagree as undeserving of protection on grounds that their views are “regressive,” “unpopular,” “racist,” “sexist” or plainly “offensive.” So what if it is—racist, sexist, offensive—used to be our retort: "Sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never harm us.” That is what we used to think, and say. And, "Let the idiocy be heard" was the American credo.
Those of us who think of ourselves as better informed than the errant speaker need only answer them—or ignore or simply walk away. Taking down the speaker from his pulpit—or going up to the dais and taking the platform or mic from the speaker—is undemocratic and anti-democratic; it’s plain anti-intellectual and anti-freedom.
We need new alliances in defense of free speech. Where will they come from? Shockingly, campus officials have been quick to concede that their campus cops are outnumbered--and to show sheer panic, displaying cowardice in the face of threatened violence from protesters. In so reacting, the colleges sometimes impose extraordinary burdens on the speaker's sponsors--such as surety bonds-- curious 'guarantees" against any property damage from lawbreakers. As often, campus officials postpone or outright cancel invites to controversial figures, out of fear that violence will break out from the hecklers and noisy audience that is not only hostile but opposed to the speaker speaking. Similar hostilities have broken out on the streets and at political rallies, where demonstrators have clashed and come to fisticuffs with others on the "other side" of their entrenched point of view or of their candidate. Anyone who shows signs or wears a hat that favors or disfavors a cause is likely to be clobbered. This is decidedly unAmerican, brutish behavior.
When mobs succeed in heckling, chilling and defeating a speaker's words, and silencing his/her voice, however shrill or errant, there occurs a breach of a fundamental constitutionally-protected right, not just of the peace. Where from is the protection for free speech to come? Where are the formerly proud and many vocal liberals who once hawked the defense of speech from those whose opinions differ from ours? Will university and government officials continue to cede the stage and the streets to hecklers and to the unruly mob? It doesn't have to be that way; indeed, there are ready-made, tried and true, proven methods for protecting the free speech and associational rights of the minority voices on campus and in the streets. In the 1960s, when civil righters faced mob violence when trying to exercise their civil rights, and when state officials refrained from or refused to provide them protection for that free exercise--rather than cede to the demands, whim and will of the mobs, the President and Attorney General acted.
Radio talk show host and lawyer Mark Levin has offered a hardly novel but self-evident but not self-executing idea: why not mobilize the national guard to stand down the mobs? When governors refused or failed to protect civil rights protesters and minorities, the federal government stepped in; the president could and would federalize the state's national guard. Doing so again in this anti-free speech time appears necessary and preferable to President Trump's long range taunt and wish of cutting off federal funding to colleges that fail to provide protection to controversial speakers.
Banning the speaker--canceling his or her address out of "fear"--playing scarety-cat is no way for a government or university official to react to threatened, impending or actual violence from any the mob, or marauders who interfere with others' civil rights. Calling in and federalizing if necessary the national guard is overdue as an affirmatively action to defeat the brutes who want to stop a peaceable assembly or to halt controversial figures from being heard.
Michael Meyers is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and formerly assistant national director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as a former national vice president of the ACLU.