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?

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Leaves are falling and campus speakers are speaking. What else is going on out there? Here’s our ILYBYGTH collection of stories of interest:

Almost two-thirds of colleges/universities missed their enrollment targets this year.

The Wall Street Journal agrees with Ed Stetzer. There is no call for anxiety about religious judges or other officials, they note.

Ben bucks Berkeley boos: What happened when Ben Shapiro brought his in-your-face conservatism to California?

What does it mean for a public school to be “public?” Sarah M. Stitzlein of the University of Cincinnati wonders in the pages of EdWeek.Bart reading bible

“Is this heaven?” Some Iowa schools lock bad kids away in “little dungeons,” from The Progressive.

Should we defend Professor Wax’s right to be wrong? That’s Jonathan Zimmerman’s argument at IHE.

Across the (other) pond: South Korean ministry nominee and professor of engineering testifies about his belief in a young earth.

Free-Marketeer Arthur Brooks in the NYT: Universities need to “form communities that do not just tolerate conservatives but actively embrace ideological diversity.”

Is fundamentalism roaring back? John Fea looks askance at recent developments at Southern Baptist Seminary.

Who blocks campus speakers? A reminder from IHE that progressive speakers are being shouted down, too.