When toxic hatemongers* want to speak on our campuses, they don’t have an intellectual discussion in mind — they merely see a win/win situation to promote their own brand. If their visit provokes an outrage, then they can hold up this treatment to feed the appetites of their fact-challenged adherents. If they manage to appear on campus without a ruckus, then they are provided the legitimacy of our institutions while doffing the unearned mantle of an intellectual. Whether or not we make a fuss, they end up ahead and the university takes a hit in its credibility plexus.
It’s been argued that the intellectual high ground requires us allow toxic hatemongers on our campuses to preach hate, because the free exchange of ideas means that we can’t be the ones to judge the validity of another person’s ideas. I think there’s a lot to this idea, though I don’t agree with it. I think it makes sense to draw the line at folks who have a history of hate speech, and those who are intentionally counterfactual in their arguments. (As for what hate speech is, I’m happy with how our courts have sorted this out to a good extent.)
The anti-intellectual folks who don’t like universities are quick to paint this as a higher education vs. free speech issue. I don’t think this is, at heart, a free speech issue. Framing this as a free speech issue gets in the way of a useful conversation. Framing matters.
For example, a strong majority of US voters approve of the Affordable Care Act. But after years of fear mongering and race baiting, it turns out a bunch of folks hate Obamacare. And like the ACA. Even if the two are exactly the same thing. Labels matter.
When a hatemonger gets invited to campus by the Young Republicans or White Nationalists or the Milton Friedman Society or whomever, well, that’s their right to extend the invitation. Likewise, it’s the right of everybody else on campus to protest this person’s visit to campus, and the right of the university to decide whether they should be granting a larger platform for this person’s constitutionally protected speech.
When campuses have massive protests about a scheduled speech by a hatemonger, this is not the squashing of free speech. It is a celebration of free speech. Freedom of expression is fine, for both sides. If members of the campus community** are protesting against an invited speaker from other members of the community, then they need to have that right.
If hatemongers visiting campus were true champions of free speech, they’d be defending the people who came out to speak out against them. At the very least, they wouldn’t be claiming that those who are exercising their own free speech are against the free speech of others.
What would an actual anti-free speech movement look like on a college campus? It be a movement that works to get professors fired for remarking on politically controversial topics. It’d be one that creates a blacklist of people who say things that disagree with their views. Oh wait, that’s what the hatemongers are doing. They’re the ones who don’t like free speech. And yet, they’ve convinced the media convinced that limits to free speech on campuses is the problem? Yuck.
So if protesters on campus are against a campus visit from an outside speaker, how can this not be an assault on free speech? They’re not attacking free speech, they’re just against providing a venue. If they were against free speech, then they’d be following this person wherever they went in an attempt to keep them from speaking. Protestors against hatemongers aren’t trying to rob their free speech, they just don’t want their university to give them a megaphone.
If the country is doing something that we don’t like (for example, engaging in criminal activity in the Vietnam War), then it’s perfectly within our rights to protest — heck, it very well could be considered our patriotic duty. As citizens, if we don’t like the direction of the country, then we are its caretakers to make sure it takes its proper course by exercising our free speech in a legal fashion. Even if the powerful entities in government disagree, we can still voice our opinion over the direction the country. Likewise, members of a university community are empowered to use their free speech to express their opinions on whether or not a campus is acting ethically in allowing a person with a history of hate speech to speak to their own audience***. Even if the administration and trustees disagree, it’s still the role of other members of campus to exercise their opinions. That’s what free speech looks like. When protests against hatemongers are squashed on campus, that’s when free speech dies.
The folks who say protestors against campus speakers are against free speech are the same ones who will tell you that dissent is unpatriotic. Which is poppycock.
Let’s not fall into the rhetorical trap of hatemongers. We shouldn’t be arguing whether or not we have free speech on campus — our campuses robustly support free speech (and if anything, are too tolerant of hate speech.) We’re better off talking about whether or not hate speech belongs on campus. We’re better off talking about how members of the campus community have a right to protest, as a contribution to vision of the campus intellectual environment.
When campus protestors stand up to hatemongers and say, “You’re not wanted here,” that’s not a deprivation of freedom. Instead of cowering at accusations of bias, we need to point right back and say: “A free campus allows protest. We’re not going to constrain free speech.” If universities are the marketplace of ideas, then it’s not our duty to provide a table to those selling poisoned goods.
*You know, folks like Ann Coulter, Milo somethingopolis, and that guy who gets punched for being a Nazi. Though I’m also okay if you put folks like James Watson and Richard Dawkins in this category.
** When folks from off campus come to make trouble on campus to protest a speaker, that’s a whole ‘nother matter.
***If shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater is illegal, then does spreading lies and hate about ethnic and religious minorities to a heavily armed populace much different? That’s a more useful question about free speech than asking whether university campuses are against free speech.