Where’s the Beef?

I didn’t think it was all that complicated, but at least two smart people have misunderstood my complaint, so I’ll try to clarify. If SAGLRROILYBYGTH think I’m splitting hairs or being overly persnickety, I’ll shut my yap. But I don’t think I am and I don’t think the point is all that abstruse.duty_calls

Here’s what we’re talking about this morning: Last week, I wondered if evolution maven Jerry Coyne had a glitch in his code. He didn’t think protesters against Steve Bannon had a legitimate right to block Bannon’s appearance at UChicago. Coyne pooh-poohed protesters’ claims that the issue wasn’t really about free speech.

But I assumed—correctly it appears—that Prof. Coyne does reject some claims to free-speech protections. Prof. Coyne and I agree: Just because someone claims free-speech protection doesn’t mean they should get it. Some claims are bogus. Some are even harmful, at least potentially. The most obvious case is the perennial free-speech claim of America’s creationists. In state legislatures, bill after bill purports to protect the free-speech rights of creationist students and teachers.

Especially since we agree on everything, Prof. Coyne wondered what my beef was. As he put it,

Laats’s beef seems to be this: if I, Professor Ceiling Cat Emeritus, favor free speech on college campuses, why don’t I favor free speech in the classroom?

Coyne goes on to explain—and I agree with him as far as he goes—that creationist teaching in classrooms is not the same as controversial invited speakers on university campuses. However, he didn’t identify my beef correctly. Here it is: If Prof. Coyne doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of creationists’ claims to free-speech protections, why doesn’t he grant other people similar rights to un-recognize free-speech claims?

After all, Professor Coyne makes it clear. He says,

I do not recognize creationists’ desire to teach goddy stuff in the classroom as a “free speech” claim. [His emphasis.]

Coyne means, I think, that creationists can’t claim protection for their speech if it establishes a government religion unfairly, contra the First Amendment. By doing so, creationists give up any right to free-speech protection for their creationist teaching. The important point, IMHO, is that Prof. Coyne recognizes that some free-speech claims are faulty. Those claims are not legitimate and they do not deserve the protection they demand. Creationists insist on their right to free speech; they insist that their rights to be heard are often dismissed unfairly. In general, I think Prof. Coyne and I agree—we don’t lose any sleep over such creationist complaints, because we do not recognize them as legitimate claims to the protection of free-speech rights.

Which leads us to the main question again: If Prof. Coyne is willing to dismiss some claims to free-speech protection as illegitimate, why doesn’t he at least respect the anti-Bannon argument, even if he disagrees with it?

In other words, though I agree with Professor Coyne both that Bannon should be allowed to speak and that creationists should not be allowed to teach creationism in public-school science classes, I disagree with his glib dismissal of the arguments of the anti-Bannon protesters.

I think we need to acknowledge that there are real and important reasons why some intelligent, informed, well-meaning people refuse to recognize Bannon’s claims to free-speech protections. Further, there are good arguments to be made that a private (or public) institution has a responsibility to consider the implications of its speaking invitations. By inviting Bannon to speak, an elite university like Chicago is conferring on Bannon and Bannon’s ideas more than a touch of mainstream legitimacy. Blocking someone from speaking at the University of Chicago is not the same as blocking his or her right to holler on a street corner. I don’t think the Chicago protesters are hoping to shut down Breitbart; they are merely hoping to deny Bannon the enormous prestige of a Chicago speaking appearance.

Now, in this particular case I think the decision should swing in Bannon’s favor. But that does not mean that the anti-Bannon protesters don’t have a decent case to make. It does not mean that the UChicago protesters are “discarding one of the fundamental principles of American democracy because they don’t like its results,” as Prof. Coyne accused.

Some free-speech claims are bogus and don’t deserve to be recognized. The Chicago protesters and I merely disagree about the proper decision in this one particular case. They are not necessarily against free speech; they are disputing Bannon’s claim to free-speech protections; they are against their university recognizing Bannon’s legitimate status.

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2 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  February 6, 2018

    I admit I’m having a hard time grasping your point too. For me the difference between the two scenarios is that in the classroom, you are judging whether to include certain teachings using the “state of the art” of the subject as the criterion. You don’t want to teach inaccurate or disproven or obsolete things in a science class.

    But politics is different. There’s no correct answer, it’s all opinion, which is why we vote on political issues or candidates, whereas we don’t vote on science.

    If you want to ban political views that you find abhorrent then you should drop the pretense of free speech, because what you’re doing then is claiming that there *are* correct and incorrect answers; or in other words, orthodoxy and heresy. Whereas those who believe in free speech do not try to ban political views that they find abhorrent.

    I’m not even saying that free speech is necessarily the best way to go. I’m more of an orthodoxy/heresy guy. But at least I say it up front. : ) If you claim to favor free speech then you’ve got to have it for all sides, not just the ones you like.

    I know that a private university has the legal and moral right to censor speakers and pick and choose what viewpoints they will allow on campus; just like the fundamentalist schools you’re always writing about. But in that case UC should just say it: We’re a liberal campus and we only allow approved liberal views to be spoken publicly. Whereas if they claim to favor “the spirit of free inquiry” then censorship and viewpoint discrimination have no place.

    Reply
  2. As a student at a public school, you have a right to be free of government coercion as it pertains to religion. So a teacher proselytizing creationism in class falls afoul of the Establishment Clause of the first amendment. It’s not a free speech issue. In this case the teacher is a government agent and must abide by the Establishment Clause. To frame it as a free-speech issue is a lie.

    On the other hand, you don’t have a right to not be upset or offended by the speech of private citizens.

    So the comparison is apples to horse apples.

    Reply

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