When to Ban Free Speech

Christ spoke to the University of California this week. Chancellor Carol Christ, that is. And according to Politico she gave her support to a new internal study of the terrible speech riots that plagued Berkeley in 2017. The report’s conclusions make sense to me, but not to Milo.free speech berkeley 2

I know SAGLRROILYBYGTH are divided on questions of campus free speech. We all should be; it’s a complicated issue that deserves more than sound-bite attention and one-size-fits-all solutions.

What if young-earth creationists intentionally manipulate our fondness for free-speech rights in order to water down science instruction? What if political radicals cynically take advantage of their speech rights in order to further their careers at the cost of other people’s feelings?

IMHO, a recent report from Berkeley hit the nail on the head. To wit: Speech must be protected, especially on university campuses—double-especially on public university campuses. But intentional provocateurs forfeit their access to some free-speech protections with their cynical manipulation of our fondness for free speech.

At Berkeley, you may recall, planned speeches by right-wing pundits Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter provoked violent, riotous protests. A committee of faculty, students, and staff concluded recently that their campus is still a tolerant place. Most students support free-speech rights on campus even for people with whom they disagree strongly.

trump tweet on berkeley

Provocateurs provoking…

But the committee defended the notion that some speech and some speakers deserved to be banned. Yiannopoulos and Coulter were singled out by name. How could the committee say so? In their words,

Although those speakers had every right to speak and were entitled to protection, they did not need to be on campus to exercise the right of free speech. . . . Indeed, at least some of the 2017 events at Berkeley can now be seen to be part of a coordinated campaign to organize appearances on American campuses likely to incite a violent reaction, in order to advance a facile narrative that universities are not tolerant of conservative speech.

Not surprisingly, Milo took affront. As he retorted, the committee was made up of

Marxist thugs … criticizing people they don’t listen to, books they haven’t read and arguments they don’t understand.

I’m no Marxist thug, but I think the Berkeley committee has the better end of this argument. The tricky part, IMHO, is that the committee’s conclusion rests on the shaky foundation of their interpretation of Milo’s intent. If he intended to talk politics, they imply, he should have been welcomed. But he didn’t. As they put it,

Many Commission members are skeptical of these speakers’ commitment to anything other than the pursuit of wealth and fame through the instigation of anger, fear, and vengefulness in their hard-right constituency.

In most cases, I’d be nervous about relying on the gut feelings of a few committee members. In this case, though, even thoughtful conservatives fret about Milo’s brainless bluster. In the end, free-speech decisions can and must rely on an informed decision about a speaker’s intent. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.

Consider a different but related example. Many creationist-friendly school laws these days rely on claims to free-speech protection. These bills claim to promote critical inquiry and reasoned free discussion. For example, as Missouri’s 2015 bill worded this mission, schools must

create an environment . . . that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution.

Sounds good, right?

You don’t have to be a Marxist thug to conclude, however, that the intention of this bill is to water down evolution education. The intention is to promote a certain creationism-friendly environment in public-school science classes.

The way I see it, speech acts that deliberately hope to manipulate free-speech protections for other purposes create a new category of speech. Do people have a right to speak such ideas? Sure! But universities do not need to fork over huge sums of money to provide a home for those speeches. K-12 schools do not need to accommodate speech that intentionally weakens science education for religious purposes.

What do you think?

Leave a comment


  1. Thanks for an excellent post.

    The “free speech” wars have been troubling. But reactions, such as that of Jerry Coyne, have not seemed right. From the start, it looked to me as if Milo was more interested in provoking reaction than in expressing ideas. And it is clear that the Intelligent Design debates are an attempt to undermine the teaching of science.

  2. Agellius

     /  May 7, 2018

    The “one size fits all solution” is the one we’ve been operating under for decades, which is that anyone can say anything except a direct incitement to violence or the overthrow of the government. This is simple, clear and easily enforced.

    “some of the 2017 events at Berkeley can now be seen to be part of a coordinated campaign to organize appearances on American campuses likely to incite a violent reaction”

    Well guess what? They wouldn’t have been able to organize appearances likely to incite violence, if people wouldn’t respond to speech they don’t like with violence! It’s one thing if the speakers are endorsing violence, but if other people get violent simply because they don’t like what you say, is the speaker to blame??

    The report blames the “rise of ultra-conservative rhetoric, including white supremacist views and protest marches, legitimized by the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, encouraged far-right and alt-right activists to ‘spike the football’ at Berkeley. This provoked an at-times violent (and condemnable) response from the extreme left, tearing at the campus’s social fabric.”

    If the blame for the violence goes to far-right activists, I’d like to know how many preplanned leftist speeches on college campuses were met with violent attempts by the far right to shut them down using physical intimidation, violence and destruction?

    Suppose instead of right-wing speakers we were talking about pro-choice speakers. To many conservatives, abortion is a grave evil, every bit as evil as racism, sexism or homophobia, or worse given the massive scale of abortion. Accordingly, an on-campus talk in favor of abortion should be expected to provoke every bit as much outrage among conservatives as anything Milo might say. Suppose right-wingers reacted to a pro-choice speech by showing up in droves carrying clubs and wearing masks and proceeding to shoot people with pepper spray and otherwise cause havoc and destruction. What would have been the findings of this panel?

    Can you even *imagine* the panel blaming a left-wing speaker for saying provocative things that upset right-wingers leading to violent right-wing protests? Please. The speakers would be lauded as heroic for speaking “truth to power” and no expense would be spared to ensure their right to provoke right-wingers whenever and wherever they pleased.

    “You don’t have to be a Marxist thug to conclude, however, that the intention of this bill is to water down evolution education.”

    But you do have to be a liberal with atheistic tendencies to conclude that there is anything wrong with the quoted language. Supposing it is intended to “water down evolution education” (whatever that means) in some way or form, nevertheless, assuming one considers that to be an error, at least it errs on the side of freedom of thought and expression, and not the other way around. (Say, who’s the liberal here, anyway?)

    The problem with using “speech acts that deliberately hope to manipulate free-speech protections for other purposes” as a criteria is that it all hinges on whether the “other purposes” are judged to be good or bad. And who gets to be the judge? Isn’t that the whole point of free speech rights in the first place — that if you decide some speech should be forbidden then someone gets to decide which speech gets the axe — and that’s a recipe for tyranny?

    • I’m troubled, too, by the notion of using provoked reactions as a justification for banning speech. Don’t we all remember “Piss Christ?” The notion of shocking the rubes has been a steady hallmark of leftist political and cultural activism. Can anyone on the left really want to ban speech that is intended to provoke strong responses?
      If I’m reading them correctly, tho, the Berkeley commission was trying to say that provocative speech can and should be free and protected, but it does not also have to be welcomed and paid for by Berkeley. I think this is the “platforming” part of today’s free-speech debates that too often gets overlooked.

      • Agellius

         /  May 7, 2018

        Yeah, but Berkeley is a public university. I don’t see how it can justify allowing violent tactics to succeed in forcing a de facto campus ban of controversial right-wing speakers. This is viewpoint discrimination and I don’t believe it would be allowed to happen if the shoe were on the other foot.

      • Agellius

         /  May 7, 2018

        To put it another way, the only reason provocative right-wing speakers are not deserving of a “platform” on the Berkeley campus is because left-wingers have been willing to use violent, destructive tactics to shut them down, and the university doesn’t feel it should be forced to pay for the destruction or the security to prevent the destruction.

        This implies that if right-wingers were willing to use the same tactics, then provocative left-wing speakers might lose their “platform” too. (We all know they wouldn’t, but let’s assume this for the sake of argument.) In other words, it’s an incentive to use violent and destructive tactics; an incentive to the left because they see that their tactics ultimately were successful, and an incentive to the right to do the same if they want the same result.

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