Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Universities and Free Speech in Our Era of White Nationalism

There have been several instances where invitations to controversial personalities have generated protests at our universities designed to prevent that person from speaking.  One would be justified at being uncomfortable with such an occurrence.  It would, at first blush, appear that the fundamental right of freedom of speech has been nullified.  At second blush, however, one might be delighted that some obnoxious crank has been stopped from spewing objectionable nonsense in a public forum.

Can one argue that universities are not required to allow a public forum for just anyone?  News media have the right to decide what is newsworthy; not every person has an opinion worth publishing.  Do universities have the ability—and duty— to decide that some discussions of issues are inconsistent with the goals of an educational institution?

Ulrich Baer, “vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, and professor of comparative literature at New York University,” provides an answer in the affirmative.  His thoughts were presented in a New York Times article, What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech.  If you are unfamiliar with the term ‘snowflake,’ Wikipedia comes to your rescue.

“Generation Snowflake, or Snowflake Generation, is a term used to characterize people who became adults in the 2000s and 2010s as being more prone to taking offence and less resilient than previous generations, or as being too emotionally vulnerable to cope with views that challenge their own. The term is considered derogatory.”

“The term "snowflake" has been used to refer to children raised by their parents in ways that give them an inflated sense of their own uniqueness.  This usage of ‘snowflake’ may originate from Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel Fight Club, and its 1999 film adaptation. Both the novel and the film include the line ‘You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake’."

“The term ‘Generation Snowflake’, or its variant ‘Snowflake Generation’ probably originated in the United States and came into wider use in the United Kingdom in 2016 following the publication of Claire Fox's book I Find That Offensive!.”

Baer does not see the protesting students’ actions as necessarily offensive to fundamental rights, and suggests that the students may in fact be ahead of the general public in understanding what is at stake.

The student activism that has roiled campuses — at Auburn, Missouri, Yale, Berkeley, Middlebury and elsewhere — is an opportunity to take stock of free speech issues in a changed world. It is also an opportunity to take into account the past few decades of scholarship that has honed our understanding of the rights to expression in higher education, which maintains particularly high standards of what is worthy of debate.”

He reminds us that this behavior is not new and points out that the issue has been addressed previously.

“The recent controversies over the conflict between freedom of expression and granting everyone access to speech hark back to another telling moment. In 1963, Yale University had rescinded an invitation to Alabama’s segregationist governor, George C. Wallace. In 1974, after unruly protests prevented William Shockley from debating his recommendation for voluntary sterilization of people with low I.Q.s, and other related incidents, Yale issued a report on how best to uphold the value of free speech on campus that remains the gold standard for many other institutions.”

“Unlike today’s somewhat reflexive defenders of free speech, the Yale report situated the issue of free speech on campus within the context of an increasingly inclusive university and the changing demographics of society at large. While Yale bemoaned the occasional ‘paranoid intolerance’ of student protesters, the university also criticized the ‘arrogant insensitivity’ of free speech advocates who failed to acknowledge that requiring of someone in public debate to defend their human worth conflicts with the community’s obligation to assure all of its members equal access to public speech.”

What Baer and the Yale report are saying is that a university has a duty to generate debate on issues, but debate must be fair.  The incidents making headlines were not intended to be fair debates; they were occasions where people with defined views were to be allowed to promote those views.  If the purpose of the presentation was to promote the notion that a class or classes of students were in some way inferior or illegitimate as citizens, how does that further education in a multicultural society, and what mechanism do the referenced students have to respond?

“The recent student demonstrations at Auburn against Spencer’s visit — as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others — should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship. Liberal free-speech advocates rush to point out that the views of these individuals must be heard first to be rejected. But this is not the case. Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.”

“In such cases there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public. In today’s age, we also have a simple solution that should appease all those concerned that students are insufficiently exposed to controversial views. It is called the internet, where all kinds of offensive expression flourish unfettered on a vast platform available to nearly all.”

If that seems like logic that is a bit weak, consider this example where the asymmetry in power between speaker and listeners is both overwhelming and grotesque.

“….[an] extreme example was Holocaust denial, where invidious but often well-publicized cranks confronted survivors with the absurd challenge to produce incontrovertible eyewitness evidence of their experience of the killing machines set up by the Nazis to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Not only was such evidence unavailable, but it also challenged the Jewish survivors to produce evidence of their own legitimacy in a discourse that had systematically denied their humanity.”

Allowing a white nationalist to claim that blacks must prove that they are not inferior puts them in the same position as the Holocaust survivors.  Similar viewpoints about immigrants and refugees place them in equally disadvantageous positions.  How is that in any way part of the educational process in a multicultural nation?

Baer suggests that these student protestors are not coddled “snowflakes” but prescient observers of dangerous changes taking place in our society.

“When Yale issued its guidelines about free speech, it did so to account for a new reality, in the early 1970s, when increasing numbers of minority students and women enrolled at elite college campuses. We live in a new reality as well. We should recognize that the current generation of students, roundly ridiculed by an unholy alliance of so-called alt-right demagogues and campus liberals as coddled snowflakes, realized something important about this country before the pundits and professors figured it out.”

“What is under severe attack, in the name of an absolute notion of free speech, are the rights, both legal and cultural, of minorities to participate in public discourse. The snowflakes sensed, a good year before the election of President Trump, that insults and direct threats could once again become sanctioned by the most powerful office in the land. They grasped that racial and sexual equality is not so deep in the DNA of the American public that even some of its legal safeguards could not be undone.”

“The issues to which the students are so sensitive might be benign when they occur within the ivory tower. Coming from the campaign trail and now the White House, the threats are not meant to merely offend. Like President Trump’s attacks on the liberal media as the ‘enemies of the American people,’ his insults are meant to discredit and delegitimize whole groups as less worthy of participation in the public exchange of ideas.”

So, universities have the right to take away the privilege of a public forum on their site, and this does not limit anyone’s ability to promote their views.

Furthermore, if one feels threatened by a person’s views, one has the right to a response that is commensurate with that threat.  Long live the resistance!


The interested reader might find the following articles informative:




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