My lawyer friend who is very smart, and probably doesn’t even know who Bari Weiss is, recently recommended to me a very good article by University of Minnesota law professor Heidi Kitrosser. The article, titled “Free Speech, Higher Education, and the PC Narrative,” and published in the University of Minnesota Law Review last year, is remarkable for several reasons, including but not limited to the fact that the Atlantic’s libertarian visibility advocate Conor “I’m just asking questions” Friedersdorf emerges from it looking quite bad.
More instructive is how the article exhaustively untangles bad-faith arguments about free speech and political correctness. To examine the relationship between free speech and what she calls “the PC narrative,” or the idea that political correctness impinges upon one’s right to speak freely and is therefore causing an intellectual crisis, Kitrosser looked at media mentions of political correctness on college campuses from 1989 to 1995 and 2014 to 2016. Perhaps her most significant takeaway is that there is “tremendous imprecision throughout the public discourse” with regards to free speech and political correctness. You might say, “no shit Leah and University of Minnesota law professor Heidi Kitrosser,” but this is an important point, especially when we’re dealing with thinkers of Bari Weiss’s ilk.
There is indeed an enormous amount of sloppy thinking and bad faith involved in these discussions. I’ll hopefully return to this issue at greater length, but we can use the Lewis and Clark controversy to make some critical distinctions:
- Actually preventing people from speaking is a potential free speech issue. Sommers was ultimately allowed to speak, although she was cut short by the administration (which is within their authority.) Some students did try to stop her from speaking, a tactic I disagree with, although whether it’s worth 800 words in the nation’s most prominent opinion real estate is another question.
- Arguments that a speaker is not worthy of a particular forum are exercises of free speech, not denials of free speech. People are allowed to have views about who represents the values of the community and who doesn’t. If Liberty University doesn’t want to invite pro-choice speakers to campus it’s not violating anybody’s free speech rights. Nobody is entitled to any particular forum. Students have a stake in the campus community and are free to express their views about which speakers have views that can make a constructive contribution and which don’t. (And virtually nobody really believes that free speech requires anybody to have access to any platform — google “Ward Churchill Hamilton College.”)
- I’m not sure if this is unique to Weiss or a broader thing, but to state the obvious mischaracterizing someone’s views is not a “free speech” issue (and if it was, Weiss would be the new Comstock.) I’ve been teaching political science at the college level for two decades, and the thing is that even very intelligent students sometimes don’t use political labels with the greatest precision. This doesn’t strike me as an urgent national crisis, but at any rate it’s got nothing to do with “free speech.” Also, if you don’t wan’t to be mischaracterized as a “fascist” it would be helpful not to actively promote social movements that are saturated with fascists.
Bari Weiss, an editor for the Times opinion section, has written a column about the incident, arguing that these students, who asked that Sommers not address their school, then heckled and insulted her (as she insulted them), and then finally let her speak and engaged in dialogue with her, fundamentally don’t understand how “free speech” works.
“Yes,” Weiss says, “these future lawyers believe that free speech is acceptable only when it doesn’t offend them. Which is to say, they don’t believe in it at all.”
I couldn’t agree more: If you think offensive speech shouldn’t be aired in certain contexts and venues, you don’t believe in free speech. Which is why it is incumbent on Weiss, and her bosses, to ask me to come to the offices of the New York Times and give a talk to the editors and columnists of the opinion page about how stupid they are.
It is absolutely necessary, for the sake of democratic ideals, that the staff attend my talk, and they must listen politely (and quietly) as I condescendingly dismiss their idiotic worldviews and personally insult them. They cannot yell at me or express indignation in any way. For them not to allow this to happen would be an alarming sign of the decline of liberalism in the West.
It’s not enough that I have the right to criticize Bari Weiss, James Bennet, and Bret Stephens here at the web publication I work for, or on Twitter, or really any other platform I have access to. The problem is that there is a platform I don’t have access to—the offices of the New York Times, specifically the opinion section—and, therefore, I have no way to personally and directly criticize the people I find objectionable. That is a clear-cut violation of the principle of open and lively democratic debate.