The Progressive Case for Free Speech and Opposing “Social Justice” Censorship

© Josh Sager – January 2016

During the 20th Century, the progressive left was the driving force behind the free speech movement. Progressive social justice activists like Mario Savio pushed civil rights, economic equity, the rejection of war and the protection of speech for decades, while conservatives and religious extremists sought to stem the tide of progress.

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In many regards, this fight was incredibly successful and the United States saw dramatic increases in civil equity for African Americans, LGBT Americans, and women, as well as protections for free speech, both on campus and in society in general. Today, we are still fighting to promote more economic equity and less war, but have had relatively less success on these issues than the others.

Unfortunately, a large number of modern leftists, particularly younger leftists on college campuses, have begun to backslide on the issue of free speech and are now threatening to erase one of the most important victories progressives achieved in the last century. By promoting “safe spaces” (places where their opinions are sheltered from criticism, not referring to legitimate demands that people not instigate violence with speech) censorship based upon personal demographic, and the insulation of personal experience from factual criticism (ex. “invalidating somebody’s experience” by proving them factually wrong), this contingent within the left attempts to stop speech that it disagrees with and demonize those who deliver that message.

It is important to note that this is not a purely leftist issue, as the right has not learned the lessons of history and has consistently held a regressive view of speech—in effect, those on the left who hold anti-speech positions are simply adopting the conservative position on speech in order to insulate their “progressive” values from any debate (ex. calling anybody who disagree with their opinion on racial inequality a racist, regardless of the facts).

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One recent example of this situation occurred at Yale, when a faculty Master had the temerity to send an email saying that Yale should not try to police student’ Halloween costumes. Erika Christakis’s email was by no means offensive and simply read:

“If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free society.”

This manifestly reasonable email led to a massive backlash which centered around whether the university was a “safe space,” where people should feel sheltered from offense, or a place where free speech lived, and offense was sometimes taken due to clashing opinions. Unfortunately, free speech lost this fight, and Christakis resigned after large protests. These protests illustrated the very worst of the anti-speech left, and you can watch this cringe-worthy video of one such event at this link.

I honestly think that this student protest perfectly summarized the central ethos of the anti-speech left: they don’t want to exist in an “intellectual space” where they have to debate their beliefs. They are hyper-sensitized to offense and perceived aggression, but are perfectly willing to shout down or scream at others and are incapable of understanding that people who disagree with them have the right to speak as well. This example is made even more galling by the fact that these are some of the most privileged students in the nation (ex. the female protester in this video comes from a millionaire family, lives in a $760,000 home in CT and is attending Yale).

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Those on the left who oppose free speech out of a desire to insulate ideas or groups from criticism or offense have no idea how dangerous their tactic is. They forget the simple fact that the progressive position is not the establishment default (quite the opposite in most cases) and that speech codes can easily be used to crush progressive action. Their intentions may be good (ex. to defend disadvantaged minorities), but their results are truly toxic to progressive causes.

For example, at the start of the civil rights movement, it was considered deeply “offensive” to argue that all races are equal and there was a very real worry that pictures of interracial couples could “trigger” sensitive whites. By the logic of these anti-speech leftists, those in the establishment would have every right to repress those who publicly championed these “offensive” causes and prevent them from speaking up on campus. At the time, conservatives on campus did try to push such censorship, but progressives pushed past this and achieved change.

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There are analogous situations in basically every other major progressive political issue—for example: For every well-intentioned liberal who claims the right to censor anti-immigrant speech, there will be a corresponding racist who is “triggered” by talk of letting “criminal aliens” into the nation and will demand the equal right to censor. For every pro-gay activist who wants to censor anti-gay bigots who foment hatred, there will be an anti-gay bigot who wants to censor gay rights activists for offending their religious sensibilities. For every pro-Palestinian activist who demands censorship of pro-Israel protesters, there will be a corresponding pro-Israel activist who demands the same right to censor anti-Israel protests. For every anti-war activist who demands censorship of pro-war voices, there will be a war hawk who demands the censorship of anti-war activists as “anti-troop.”

In short, this situation rapidly becomes untenable and, either the establishment gains the ability to repress those who have an anti-establishment position (one side gains the right to censor while the other is given 2nd class status), or both sides gain the ability to mutually censor one another, barring discussion of vital issues on campus (both sides censor one-another).

If we, as progressives, don’t protect an absolutist protection of free speech, we open the door to censorship that can be used to destroy our campaigns for equity. The second we decide to support censorship in one area of speech (ex. the right for people to say racist and culturally offensive things), we lose the moral high ground to criticize forms of censorship that are directed at us. Progressives in the past understood this and made concrete efforts to avoid such a toxic precedent. For example, in 1978, the ACLU represented neo-Nazis in their court case (National Socialist Party v. Skokie Illinois) to get the right to peacefully march through a Jewish neighborhood in the town to Skokie. The ACLU used the exact same legal precedents in this case that they used to defend the right of civil rights protesters to stage their own marches, and they were 100% correct to do so.

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The proper avenue to fight against offensive speech is to use your free speech to fight back, not to use censorship to crush debate. If you truly believe in your progressive positions, you must be prepared to defend them rather than rely on censorship to stifle debate. I, for one, am perfectly happy to meet in the arena of ideas and argue against those who disagree with me. I don’t demand a “safe space” and to be sheltered from offensive opinions, nor do I claim the power to repress those who say stupid, inane, offensive, ignorant, or bigoted (basically, the Donald Trump combo platter) things.

12 thoughts on “The Progressive Case for Free Speech and Opposing “Social Justice” Censorship

  1. I have a great deal of trouble getting my mind around the idea that any college which claims to be an “academic” institution would seek to limit free speech, no matter how offensive to some. When I attended university (1968-72) it was assumed that ideas and beliefs would be challenged. It was assumed that differences of opinion were to be encouraged. Perhaps I am wrong about the “good old days” but I do not recall any administration of a secular institution trying to silence speech.
    There is a difference between expressing differences based on knowledge , evidence and opinion on one hand and blind hate speech on the other hand. For example, I can say I think blacks are inferior to whites, even though no data exists to support that idea. I can even say that I hate blacks if that is my opinion But I cannot call for violence against blacks because now my speech is intended to take away the rights of others. It is the old, common sense concept that says: My right to swing my fist ends where your jaw begins. In my mind, that should be the only restriction.
    As an old liberal/ progressive, free speech has never threatened me. I welcome the legitimate disagreements, even if those are based on ignorance and fear and lack scientific validity. I suppose I simply believe that, in the end, most people will respond to arguments based on evidence. Perhaps I am naive.
    The idea that secular institutions of higher learning would silence minority viewpoints is disturbing. It goes against the very purposes of higher education in the first place. It iis antithetical to a “liberal education”. To expose one to new ideas. To challenge one intellectually. To make one uncomfortable.
    Colleges should not be “safe places” when it comes to hurting feelings. It should be a “safe place” for ideas. Instead it should encourage thoughtful intellectual responses to racism, sexism, etc. Colleges should encourage discussion and debate, not censor ideas.
    I am reminded of the quote attributed to John Morley: You have not converted a man becasue you have silenced him.

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  2. My thoughts on this issue are conflicted. After WWII, Germany made unlawful any and all Nazi propaganda, vowing to prevent a resurgence of Fascism in their country, and it was accepted for many years. Free speech was absolutely rejected for that topic. In the US, especially since Barack Obama was elected, racism has blossomed into a refreshed garden of hate. Should free speech allow effigies of an American President to be hung and burned in public, and nooses be allowed to be displayed on college campuses? Should those who have been cursed with an upbringing of racism be allowed to flaunt their ignorance?
    http://thesource.com/2016/01/23/6-high-school-girls-line-up-to-spell-nr-with-shirts-on-picture-day/

    Free speech in it’s purest forms can raise awareness and rectify social behavior, or it can raise anger to the point of where mobs ( Trump fans) call for injury of another who is merely using their right to free speech at Trump’s rallies. And of course on the other hand, speech was what rallied British subjects to begin a Revolutionary war, who enabled a whole continent to declare independence and a democratic government.

    Free speech can author and promote the good or the ugly – where do we draw the line?
    http://kfor.com/2015/11/23/trump-on-protester-maybe-he-should-have-been-roughed-up/

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3273497/Donald-Trump-supporter-seen-SPITTING-immigration-protester-state-police-forced-break-fights-GOP-frontrunner-s-rally.html

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    • In my opinion, banning things like Nazi speech is counterproductive and can only serve to force such feelings underground. It doesn’t eliminate them, but rather hides them so that they are never addressed. Additionally, as I cover in the article, it sets the precedent that those in power have the right to repress uncomfortable speech, which threatens future positive movements that offend the status quo.

      Things like nooses and cross burnings have a historic context that make them more than simple speech. They were designed to cause terror and were a prelude to violence, so there is a very good argument that they should be banned (like how threatening the kill somebody isn’t protected under free speech). For example, it is perfectly okay for somebody to fly an ISIS flag outside their home, or even yell their support for terrorism on a street corner, but the second they start threatening to commit violence, they have gone from free speech to a criminal act.

      I have actually been (prospectively) selected to provide an op-ed to the Boston Globe as a representative of the McCormick School of Government (home of my MPA program) on this very topic. It is called “Rejecting the Politics of Hate” and it deals with this very issue. I can’t post it yet but, hopefully, it will be run in the globe sometime around the Iowa primary.

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    • As we all know, there are reasonable limits to free speech.Libel. Slander. Fighting words. Calls for violence. None of these are protected under the Constitution. There is always a line between speech being harmful and speech being unpleasant.
      In regard to the high school girls with their shirts. Not protected if the school, acting “in loco parentis” has an obligation to be more restrictive since young adults are their charges. They are required to maintain an environment where all are “safe”.
      Colleges, because they are dealing with older students, are less restrictive. But not unrestricted.
      Any speech which encourages or condones violence may not be protected, Even some jokes are not protected, like joking that you are carrying a bomb on a plane or want to kill the POTUS.
      But those are not examples of political speech or IDEAS, which should always be protected in colleges. This article was really about the exchange of ideas in colleges, where you should expect to be challenged. But even in colleges there is an institutional expectation that a person will be protected from potential violence. Hanging a noose is a call for violence. Using epithets is also not protected. Neither adds to the exchange of ideas.
      It says a lot about the character of Donald Trump that he does not immediately and without reservation condemn violence against people who are simply disagreeing with him.

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      • Perhaps what we are asking is, what is the purpose of using “free speech”? It’s pretty well known that morals, ethics, and understanding cannot be legislated. However, drawing lines in the sand against free speech for an unquestionably evil purpose should be resoundingly rejected. Colleges and other learning institutions should have administrations that can discern the difference, and lay out rules that allow student’s ability to free speech, while rejecting with penalty those who cross that line.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes.
    I have to agree with your statement about government’s ability to pick and choose which free speech is allowed being dangerous. Since as we know, racism merely was very shallowly underground until Obama’s election.
    However, the KKK marching through an all Black neighborhood also has an historic context – one which still has repercussions and reverberations across the US. If in fact that was deemed acceptable, why not nooses and effigies? That march, in my opinion was quiet terrorism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is receprocity in the precedents set for such marches. For example, banning a legal and peaceful protest by KKK members based upon their ideas would make it almost impossible to stop the banning of peaceful and legal civil rights protests by racist localities. This is why the ACLU defended the right of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie–it isn’t that they supported their speech, but that they knew the terrible ramifications of a bad ruling in such a case.

      Nooses and cross burnings were disqualified as free speech in Virginia v. Black because the SCOTUS found that they were a type of intimidation that violated the 1st Amendment protections. While they didn’t go as far as to say that they were prima facia evidence of intent, they did concur with lower courts that these acts fall outside of protected status. Ironically, Clarence Thomas was the primary dissenter and argued that cross burnings should be protected speech under the 1st Amendment

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  4. The problem is thinking of free speech as a “progressive” value. It’s not and it’s origin was not as any kind of progressive agenda. The main arguments for it have always been 1) That it’s necessary to defend against tyranny (because once people can control what you can say, they can control the ideas you’re allowed to think). Politicians and despots will tend to seize on this as a method of control (and nearly always do)
    2) It’s necessary in order to understand the facts of the world. We’re so terrible at understanding facts. Reality is complicated and counter-intuitive. There can be no ideas that can’t be spoken because it’s only through testing things that we ever really know right from wrong. Apriori knowledge doesn’t really exist and if someone’s a bad idea, discrediting it is always better than banning it.

    Neither of these are progressive values. They’re liberal or libertarian values and tend to be equally shared between Left and Right. And equally abused by Left and Right (usually whoever’s in power)

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