It Is Illogical to Assert That Death Threats Do Not Have a Chilling Effect on Free Speech

Dear Ulf:

I generally find your posts to be very amusing. But I think that you have missed not just the bullseye but the whole target in your most recent post.

Regardless of how the writer of the piece may have slanted it, the core issue in this situation was that the speaker was scheduled, she received a death threat, and she then asked that those attending the scheduled talk be screened for weapons. That request was denied because weapons are allowed on campus, apparently whether death threats have been made to a specific speaker or not.

So this was not someone simply and irrationally equating guns with danger. This was someone recognizing the potential danger in the very explicit message that someone intended to shoot her if she spoke.

Unless you have actually received a death threat that was tied to your expressing a particular viewpoint and have nonetheless courageously spoken to the topic, I think that it is very presumptuous to chastise someone for taking such a threat seriously. (And, frankly, even if you have demonstrated such tremendous courage, I think that it would be presumptuous to chastise someone for having less courage.)

Although I don’t wish to second-guess anyone’s concern for his or her own personal safety, because such a threat could be carried out en route to or from a venue, it might possibly be construed as an overreaction by her or others if she chose not to speak even if the audience were able to be screened for guns.

But, given that the host institution asserted that it could not prevent someone with a gun from attending, I don’t think that it’s a huge leap or lapse in logic to assert that in this instance second amendment rights have trumped first amendment rights.

I also think that it is very myopic to argue that this sort of event might not, if repeated often enough, have a very chilling effect on free speech on campus. What would be the alternative response to a death threat–to wear a Kevlar vest, to be surrounded on stage by campus police, to have a pistol on the podium so that one could fire into the crowd at anyone who seems to be behaving as an assassin might?

To note that many women have licenses to carry guns and enjoy hunting and to note that for every potential extremist with a gun there may be a Matt Dillon armed and ready to act are, in different ways, very dubious arguments.

On the first point, women are increasingly arming themselves for protection precisely because most crimes involving guns are committed by men, not women, and women are disproportionately the victims. Moreover, gun control is not about hunting or target shooting or any other use of guns for sport. In this instance, the issue isn’t even self-defense unless you are asserting that gun owners who wished to attend the speech should be allowed to protect themselves from becoming “collateral damage.”

Which brings me to the second point. Having followed this issue and the broader issue of mass shootings fairly closely, I have noticed that regardless of the venue, the length of the shooting spree, or the number of victims killed and wounded, the “good guy with the gun” is almost never the reason that the spree ends. Instead, the spree almost always ends when the shooter commits suicide, when the police gun him down, or, less often, when some unarmed but heroic individual wrestles him to the ground. Even though a proportionate number of the shootings have occurred in states in which permits are either readily available or unnecessary, the “good guy with a gun” is somehow almost never around when these sorts of incidents occur.

And so it seems even less likely that a good guy with a gun would be able to stop a lunatic intent on targeting a specific individual very visibly positioned on a stage.

Finally, without defending the Chronicle piece in full and without reservation, I think that it is a cheap shot–and illogical–to put words in the writer’s mouth that serve to demean her argument–as you do in this sentence: “But what is at least as disturbing as the professor’s mention that death threats were made against the speaker, and of course the professor automatically assumes persons who legitimately are carrying will shoot the speaker, is her ‘wimpfication’ or ‘sissyfication’ (let’s coin those terms) of the professoriate at her institution and at-large.” You are attributing to her a sort of ridiculous self-characterization when it is actually just your own characterization of her.

If I were in the speaker’s position, I would have acted in essentially the same way in declining the invitation and in explaining my decision. If that would make me a wimp or a sissy, so be it. I would not be willing to risk a bullet in the head simply to illustrate the flaws in your argument.

P.S. Matt Dillon–or at least James Arness (for those too young to remember, the actor who played the sheriff for two-plus decades on TV)–is dead, literally and figuratively, albeit by natural causes–and he was always a fictional character.

6 thoughts on “It Is Illogical to Assert That Death Threats Do Not Have a Chilling Effect on Free Speech

  1. Thanks Martin. I’ve been puzzling over Ulf’s post but all I can respond with is that anyone who fails to take direct death threats seriously in an environment where weapons are allowed is being irresponsible and reckless, not only with their own life but with everyone else present. There are no doubt issues that are worth risking your life for but talking to students on misogyny in gaming culture isn’t one of them.

    • I did not think that it was a satire because it is written in the style of Ulf’s previous posts, which are often very wryly ironic and dryly sarcastic. So, if it is satire, there should be some clearer clue that it is not simply ironic or sarcastic–that it is intended to be read and understood differently than his previous posts.

      I might attempt to write a parody of Far Right rhetoric on some divisive issue. But I am certain that I could then go to a lunatic-fringe Far Right news source such as Newsmax or World Net Daily and find rhetoric that is blithely more over-the-top than I could manage in my effort at satire. So the only way that anyone would recognize my piece as satire would be by broader context (for instance, my other posts clearly do not suggest that I would be embracing the opinion expressed in the piece) or by some unmistakable tonal clue in the piece itself (usually placed at the beginning or the end, a sort of rhetorical wink and nod).

      I read Ulf’s piece carefully enough to analyze it in some detail. So if I missed that a broader satiric intention was intended –that the piece was intended as a deadpan parody of the arguments that guns should be permitted on our campuses–the indication of that intention was too subtle, at least for me.

      The closest I have come to a satiric post on this issue is “Giving a Whole New Meaning to “Concealed Carry” and a Brief Rumination on What It Might Mean in the College Classroom” []. Much better is a piece that I re-posted, with the author’s permission several years ago: “A Modest Proposal on Gun Violence in Our Schools” [].

      • I could be wrong. The arguments offered by Kirchdorfer seemed to be right-wing cliches without a sound basis, so I thought his essay might be satire. For example, he reprises the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” slogan followed by “…a gun has helped clean up our society and defeat evil when such work was necessary.” That might be true on television but will the reader accept this claim at face value? Or is it satire? The essay also frequently makes accusations and then commits the sin that was just referred to. For example, he writes “…many professors don’t take in a lot of news … and so miss out on the world-at-large.” but then refers to a T.V. show, Hot Dawgs, as evidence. Is that satire?

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