Very selective defenses of free speech

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This week John K. Wilson wrote about the Kansas Board of Regents new policy mandating institutional oversight of the blog posts, tweets, and other public digital communications of faculty and staff at Kansas colleges and universities. Because it is not restricted to communications made with institutional resources, this policy goes well beyond violating of academic freedom, abrogating the fundamental freedom of speech.

I was inspired to write a comment on John K. Wilson’s post that became so extended that I decided to post it separately as an “addendum” to his post, though in hindsight that title may have suggested more of an implicit endorsement from him than he may be comfortable with. John, Peter N. Kirstein, and Hank Reichman, as well as several others who post to this blog, have much more expertise on issues of academic freedom than I have. If I bring anything distinctive to this sort of discussion, it may be that I take more perverse satisfaction in ridiculing—sometimes viciously–the Far Right’s ideologically driven hypocrisies, lunacies, and cynical appeals to ignorance and bias.

All of those targets are all too plainly in view if one juxtaposes what has been mandated in Kansas with what is reported in the following excerpt from an article published by World Net Daily, the source of news and opinion for those who think that the National Review and American Spectator are much too moderate:

“A lawsuit against a California college over its decision to enforce a ‘free speech zone’ and prohibit a student from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution appears to be on track for a settlement that would revise the school’s policy.

“According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a stipulation has been reached in a lawsuit brought against Modesto Junior College.

“As WND reported in October, student Robert Van Tuinen filed the complaint after campus police halted his effort to hand out copies of the Constitution in a grassy area by the student center Sept. 17, the anniversary of the Constitution’s signing.

“A campus police officer told Van Tuinen he could not pass out any materials without first registering with the student development office.

“He was one of several college students banned from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day.

“FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said the college administrators, who were caught on camera intervening, ‘were so unfamiliar with the basic principles of free speech that they prevented him from passing out the Constitution to his fellow students on Constitution Day.’

“Now, Modesto Junior College has agreed to suspend enforcement of its “free speech zone” during negotiations to end the federal lawsuit.

“FIRE reports a joint stipulation filed in federal district court by the school and attorneys for the student states that the parties have agreed on several significant revisions to the college’s ‘free speech policies and procedures,’ pending final approval by the Yosemite Community College District, expected this spring.

“’FIRE welcomes this development as a sign that Modesto Junior College is making important progress towards bringing its policies in line with the First Amendment,’ said Lukianoff. ‘Today, Robert Van Tuinen and over 17,000 fellow students and faculty members may exercise their First Amendment rights without being confined to a free speech zone or required to register in advance.’”

The real essence of this case is quite obviously not that students were being prevented from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution. That issue is an all too familiar Far Right rhetorical strategy: the obverse of creating a straw man that can be attacked more easily than the real position of one’s opponents, this strategy involves disguising ideological tactics as patriotic gestures. Almost no one would object to the simple distribution of the Constitution, though almost everyone would think it a fairly pointless exercise. What will be objectionable to a great many people is that the distribution of the document will almost certainly be accompanied by a forceful ideological explanation of why such a distribution of the Constitution is especially necessary now.

There is no denying that the developers of some “speech codes” have sought to impose their own ideological biases on others, or that some “speech codes” have simply been poorly conceived. But what the most vehement Far Right opponents of “speech codes” refuse to recognize is that the designation of “zones” for public political discourse typically serves two important functions: first, they prevent heated ideological arguments from disrupting the main business on campus, which is after all instruction, and second, while allowing everyone to express themselves on contentious issues, such “zones” prevent relentless ideologues from imposing their views on everyone else on campus—from obliging everyone else to listen. In short, it is easier to designate specific spaces for the articulation and exchange of strong opinions than it ever would be to try to enforce distinctions in the vehemence with which opinions can and cannot be expressed without constituting a major annoyance or distraction.

You can argue whether “annoyance or distraction” are sufficient reasons to isolate certain types of discourse on campus. But you cannot argue that any exercise of free speech trumps the primacy of the academic mission of our institutions and also support the far more draconian constraints on free speech just mandated by the Kansas Board of Regents.

Since Far Right critics of President Obama are very fond of suggesting that everything that he does is reminiscent of the tactics employed by Hitler, one feels compelled to point out that the selective right to free speech is not democracy but authoritarianism. It poses as the antithesis of “political correctness,” but it is the embodiment of ideologically “pure” expression—of a kind of conformity that not only represents intolerance but also demands intolerance.

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