Earlier this month, a controversy erupted at Wesleyan University surrounding the college newspaper, The Argus. Students were in an uproar, demanding that the paper’s funding be retracted. The editors issued an apology on the front page of the next edition, agreeing to many of the protestor’s demands, but that still was not enough for the protesters. Calls for The Argus to lose its funding continued. The newspaper’s crime? Having the temerity to publish an editorial critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The great conservative intellectual William F. Buckley once said, “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” Any politically active college student should be familiar with this sentiment. Liberals preach inclusivity and diversity of all kinds, but not the diversity of thought. Opposing views are problematic wrong-thoughts that need to be ignored, or, better yet, purged. Liberals often claim that this is a misrepresentation of their views, and that they only care about banning “hate speech” and other forms of offensive speech. This is not just something that college liberals support; many older liberals have endorsed anti-hate speech laws. But when pressed to come up with examples of what actually constitutes the kinds of speech they want to ban, it becomes clear that liberals are really concerned with banning speech that they disagree with. The case of The Argus is a perfect example. Many students didn’t want to hear an opposing view, so they demanded that it not be expressed. This intolerance of other opinions can also be seen in the concept of “microagressions” – supposedly small, everyday instances or offensive speech. To some, saying things such as, “I think the most qualified person should get the job” count as microagressions. Clearly, the motivation here is not to ban speech that may harm someone, but to ban speech that may present an opposing view.
Those who advocate for speech suppression never seem to address the issue of enforcement, which makes sense, as when it is more closely considered, this issue reveals a major flaw in anti-speech arguments. How can liberals guarantee that the government will restrict speech in the manner that they desire? A good rule of thumb to determine the effectiveness of any proposed law is to imagine how it would be implemented were the opposing party in power. In this case, it would appear that the laws meant to protect liberals would instead be used against them. It isn’t hard to imagine pro-abortion speech being banned for advocating murder, or people being punished for calling those who support abortion “terrorists” as Hilary Clinton did earlier this year. Bahar Mustafa, a student diversity officer at the University of London, learned this the hard way this week. Mustafa, who had previously argued against the merits of free speech, faces charges following a tweet she sent. The tweet included the hashtag “#killallwhitemen.” While intended as a joke, Mustafa was nevertheless ensnared by the very same laws that many of her ilk support.
Putting aside the practical implications of banning speech, there is a more salient question here: that of legality. Barring the highly unlikely case of a future constitutional amendment, many of the proposals to limit speech (such as banning hate speech) are blatantly unconstitutional. This is not really in dispute amongst legal scholars. There is not, nor has there ever been, a constitutionally unprotected type of speech known as “hate speech.” The actual categories of unprotected speech are extremely limited. For example, the famous “fighting words” exception to the First Amendment is actually much narrower than most people realize. It specifically refers to words spoken when face-to-face with someone else that are intended to incite physical violence. Despite this, those on the left, particularly in the media, love to draw distinctions between “free speech” and “hate speech.” These distinctions simply do not exist. (There are many different kinds of tropes that the media uses when discussing free speech. California lawyer Ken White has a great breakdown of them here).
So why do liberals hate free speech? The central reason is that liberals don’t wish to have their views challenged. Not having one’s views challenged creates the impression that one’s views are unassailable; it is obviously preferable to think that one’s views are impervious to criticism than to actually have to face that criticism. Suppressing free speech prevents views from being challenged in two ways. First, it can oftentimes prevent opposing views from ever being uttered, either through intimidation or outright banning. But the second and even more insidious way in which liberals do this is by labeling all opposing views as “problematic.” Thus, even if the speech is not banned, it is still labeled as troublesome in some way. Perhaps it is racist, or sexist, or classist, or some other “-ist.”
This is the most common way that we see liberals today– especially on college campuses — interact with free speech. It serves the purpose of labeling opposing views without having to interact with them, automatically discounting them for no good reason. Why engage with racist views; they are obviously incorrect. Thus, by labeling opposing views as such, liberals can feel assured that they are still correct. The only challenge to their view is a racist or “problematic” one, one that is not worth hearing. This stance allows liberals to simultaneously feel more confident about their own views and demonize those who oppose them.
One question remains: is it right to limit free speech? The answer to this question must be no. Giving the government the power to ban certain kinds of speech is enormously dangerous. The Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes learned this during the First World War. Many liberal critics of free speech like to cite Holmes’ famous free speech exception of “yelling fire in a crowded theater.” What these people fail to realize is the context of this quote. Holmes wrote this as part of an opinion upholding the government’s ability to prohibit dissenting speech during wartime. Following a trilogy of cases in 1919 in which he ruled similarly, he realized the error of his ways. Just one year later, Holmes dissented in Abrams v. United States, realizing the great wrong he had done in giving the government the power to ban speech it disagreed with.
The government, if it does have the power to ban speech, will always work to ban speech that it disagrees with. Hate speech laws thus have little chance of being used in the way that advocates desire. The government cannot and should not have the power to ban speech except in very limited circumstances. While the first amendment does not apply to college campuses, for all intents and purposes, people should act as if it does. College is a time to learn, and learning is impossible without opposing views. If free speech opponents have their way, college will become nothing more than indoctrination, with professors telling students only one side of the story and treating that as the complete truth. While this may seem terrible to some, it is what many of today’s liberals seem to desire: a safe space free of the horrors of opposing viewpoints.