Very Selective Defenses of Free Speech

Yesterday John K. Wilson wrote about the Kansas Board of Regents new policy mandating institutional oversight of the blog posts, tweets, and other public digital communications of faculty and staff at Kansas colleges and universities. Because it is not restricted to communications made with institutional resources, this policy goes well beyond violating of academic freedom, abrogating the fundamental freedom of speech.

I was inspired to write a comment on John K. Wilson’s post that became so extended that I decided to post it separately as an “addendum” to his post, though in hindsight that title may have suggested more of an implicit endorsement from him than he may be comfortable with. John, Peter N. Kirstein, and Hank Reichman, as well as several others who post to this blog, have much more expertise on issues of academic freedom than I have. If I bring anything distinctive to this sort of discussion, it may be that I take more perverse satisfaction in ridiculing—sometimes viciously–the Far Right’s ideologically driven hypocrisies, lunacies, and cynical appeals to ignorance and bias.

All of those targets are all too plainly in view if one juxtaposes what has been mandated in Kansas with what is reported in the following excerpt from an article published yesterday by World Net Daily, the source of news and opinion for those who think that the National Review and American Spectator are much too moderate:

“A lawsuit against a California college over its decision to enforce a ‘free speech zone’ and prohibit a student from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution appears to be on track for a settlement that would revise the school’s policy.

“According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a stipulation has been reached in a lawsuit brought against Modesto Junior College.

“As WND reported in October, student Robert Van Tuinen filed the complaint after campus police halted his effort to hand out copies of the Constitution in a grassy area by the student center Sept. 17, the anniversary of the Constitution’s signing.

“A campus police officer told Van Tuinen he could not pass out any materials without first registering with the student development office.

“He was one of several college students banned from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day.

“FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said the college administrators, who were caught on camera intervening, ‘were so unfamiliar with the basic principles of free speech that they prevented him from passing out the Constitution to his fellow students on Constitution Day.’

“Now, Modesto Junior College has agreed to suspend enforcement of its “free speech zone” during negotiations to end the federal lawsuit.

“FIRE reports a joint stipulation filed in federal district court by the school and attorneys for the student states that the parties have agreed on several significant revisions to the college’s ‘free speech policies and procedures,’ pending final approval by the Yosemite Community College District, expected this spring.

“’FIRE welcomes this development as a sign that Modesto Junior College is making important progress towards bringing its policies in line with the First Amendment,’ said Lukianoff. ‘Today, Robert Van Tuinen and over 17,000 fellow students and faculty members may exercise their First Amendment rights without being confined to a free speech zone or required to register in advance.’”

The real essence of this case is quite obviously not that students were being prevented from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution. That issue is an all too familiar Far Right rhetorical strategy: the obverse of creating a straw man that can be attacked more easily than the real position of one’s opponents, this strategy involves disguising ideological tactics as patriotic gestures. Almost no one would object to the simple distribution of the Constitution, though almost everyone would think it a fairly pointless exercise. What will be objectionable to a great many people is that the distribution of the document will almost certainly be accompanied by a forceful ideological explanation of why such a distribution of the Constitution is especially necessary now.

There is no denying that the developers of some “speech codes” have sought to impose their own ideological biases on others, or that some “speech codes” have simply been poorly conceived. But what the most vehement Far Right opponents of “speech codes” refuse to recognize is that the designation of “zones” for public political discourse typically serves two important functions: first, they prevent heated ideological arguments from disrupting the main business on campus, which is after all instruction, and second, while allowing everyone to express themselves on contentious issues, such “zones” prevent relentless ideologues from imposing their views on everyone else on campus—from obliging everyone else to listen. In short, it is easier to designate specific spaces for the articulation and exchange of strong opinions than it ever would be to try to enforce distinctions in the vehemence with which opinions can and cannot be expressed without constituting a major annoyance or distraction.

You can argue whether “annoyance or distraction” are sufficient reasons to isolate certain types of discourse on campus. But you cannot argue that any exercise of free speech trumps the primacy of the academic mission of our institutions and also support the far more draconian constraints on free speech just mandated by the Kansas Board of Regents.

Since Far Right critics of President Obama are very fond of suggesting that everything that he does is reminiscent of the tactics employed by Hitler, one feels compelled to point out that the selective right to free speech is not democracy but authoritarianism. It poses as the antithesis of “political correctness,” but it is the embodiment of ideologically “pure” expression—of a kind of conformity that not only represents intolerance but also demands intolerance.

4 responses

  1. Let me respond to a few points. For example, “Almost no one would object to the simple distribution of the Constitution.” Actually, it’s quite common for virtually every shopping mall or Wal Mart to ban people from handing out copies of the Constitution–what’s unusual and appalling is when a college does it. Let’s clarify a few terms: all colleges must have speech codes in the sense of regulations that limit certain kinds of speech–death threats, harassment, shouting down speakers. But FIRE uses the term speech codes only to mean those that violate the First Amendment (which virtually all of them do). Now, speech zones are different. In fairness, all colleges have different zones of speech. Just because a college owns certain property, it doesn’t mean that anyone is free to speak in someone else’s classroom or office or dorm room. However, “free speech zones” means when a college limits the right to speak or protest in the general public spaces outdoors on campus. I strongly disagree with the idea that “such ‘zones’ prevent relentless ideologues from imposing their views on everyone else on campus—from obliging everyone else to listen.” No one is obliged to listen, and freedom of speech is not “imposing” views on everyone. I am deeply disturbed that anyone thinks it’s a good idea to give the administration the power to ban protests anywhere it wants on campus (say, in front of the administration building), and to isolate free speech to the parts of campus where no one goes, all in order to spare sensitive people annoyance or distraction. There is no such thing as a right to be free from annoyance, a right to ban free speech so that a campus remains tranquil and placid. The vibrant expression of ideas is precisely what we ought to encourage on college campuses, and we must not treat free speech like it’s a communicable disease to be isolated and confined.

  2. I agree that “free speech zones” can be abused and used to suppress political expression.

    I cannot speak for every institution, but the designation of a “free speech zone” at our university, and probably at other institutions, was not a result of administrative fiat. The zone was established by agreement between our Faculty Senate (not our AAUP chapter) and the administration, and it was established in response to a series of situations in which highly ideological speech became disruptive precisely because it was not quite so easy to separate academic spaces from “other” spaces on campus. What was not disruptive in certain spots on the quad, for instance, was very disruptive in other spots because of the proximity to classrooms, and the most vocal proselytizers, regardless of political ideology, tended to migrate to doorways and into the vestibules and even the hallways of the classroom buildings. In short, the effort to avoid policing free speech was creating an increasing need to police the speakers.

    The issue of “annoyance” doesn’t necessarily have to do with ideology (though I will admit that I personally find the Far Right proselytizing especially annoying). It has to do with being harangued as you are trying to focus on your primary reason(s) for being on campus–which, however one defines them, do not include the free and full expression of one’s political ideology. Just because that expression is not precluded does not mean that it is the primary consideration. In fact, I think that some distinction is made, in practice, between speech and actions related to institutional issues and political issues directly connected to higher ed and other, much broader political issues. Still, regardless of the issue, I am absolutely certain that if any sizable group on campus–whether students, staff, or faculty, or some combination–wished to hold a mass rally or protest, they would do so on our quad, the most central location on the campus, and completely ignore the boundaries of the “free speech zone” and normal concerns about being disruptive.

    The distinction in what is allowable is, I think, similar to what occurs at our statehouses. If legislation that is being considered is contentious enough, large crowds of people supporting one or both sides will flood the buildings and surrounding grounds and have their voices heard. There is always some argument over what the rights of the protesters are–about what degree of disruptive behavior does warrant expulsion from the area or even detention. But, regardless of where that line is drawn, those protesters are always given much more leeway than one or several very vocal protesters in the gallery would be given during a “normal” legislative session.

    In any case, the main point of my post is that one cannot argue in one instance for unfettered free speech on campus and then in another instance argue that political views expressed by university employees off campus and on personal media accounts are subject to institutional oversight.

    • It’s extremely dangerous to support restrictions on free speech and believe that if something important is worth protesting, “leeway” will be given. You can’t rely on that. Now, you can have noise-based restrictions if they disrupt classroom activities. You can also have voluntary free-speech zones where you encourage speakers to appear. What you can’t do is designate a small area as the only “zone” for free speech and leave everyone vulnerable to punishment if they speak anywhere else.

      • I think it is significant to point out that Northeastern Illinois University was confronted by FIRE when President Sharon Hahs established a full-range of speech-code restrictions n 2009. These included a requirement that posters, fliers and signs must be submitted to the administration two-weeks prior to their display or dissemination. The Orwellian, N.S.A. sounding “Policy Concerning Demonstrations on Campus, Distribution and Display of Visual Communications and Solicitation of Signatures on Campus,” also required that no demonstration or protest could occur without a one-week prior notification of the administration. Coupled with the recent tenure-denial case of John Boyle, it is apparent that N.E.I.U. is a troubled institution due to the oppressive approach to free speech and academic freedom on that campus. This is a link to the FIRE v N.E.I.U. struggle: http://thefire.org/spotlight/schools/northeastern-illinois-university.html

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