Free Speech besieged, but not by the White House

thisdfjasdlfkjasIn this political environment that prominently features a president who prizes conflict with a so-called crooked media it would be easy to conclude the First Amendment is under siege after outlets like “fake news” CNN and the “failing” New York Times were excluded from an informal briefing at the White House. On its face the notion sounds crazy, at least it did before the Times responded by issuing a nearly Trumpian communique that described their exclusion as “an unmistakable insult to democratic ideals.” Before anyone in New York or Washington lights their hair on fire in protest, it’s important to understand that off-camera briefings are not new phenomenon — previous administrations have also used them. It is also worthy of note that the “gaggle” admitted to Sean Spicer’s office was not stacked with presumed allies like Fox News and Breitbart, but also included major networks, and presumed adversaries, like ABC, NBC, and CBS.

This president is more overtly hostile in word and tweet than his predecessor, but Barack Obama did more than spout off about anonymous sources that don’t “use somebody’s name” and demand that they “say it to my face,” like his successor did during a speech at the CPAC conference. In 2013 the Justice Department branded Fox News’ James Rosen a co-conspirator for his use of leaked information and, through a search warrant, obtained phone records and emails; a representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists later described the Obama administration’s crackdown on whistleblowers as “the most aggressive…since the Nixon administration.” For all his bluster about “fake media,” Donald Trump has shown little interest in anything more than libel laws because that same media is a reliable villain in this reality TV presidency. Every slap and slur Trump and his team delivers is another shake of catnip for a base more interested in boycotting allegedly hostile outlets than shuttering them.

If freedom of speech has a genuine adversary in the US, it is a community that can be found on college campuses and generally promotes tolerance, but makes an exception for dissenters. That’s what Daily Wire editor Ben Shapiro found out when he visited CSU Los Angeles last year. The event was initially postponed by the university’s president so he could arrange a panel discussion — but eventually William Covino allowed the speech to proceed as planned. Chanting protesters crowded the lobby while trying to keep guests from entering the hall, before the night was over somebody pulled a fire alarm, and it didn’t end there. Shapiro was escorted from the campus by police due to safety concerns; days later, students held a sit-in where they called for Covino’s resignation. Some of them tried to block him from leaving campus.

The most commonly reported stories of campus protests and demands for silence, to the extent they are politically motivated, are aimed at conservatives and provocateurs like Shapiro and former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, but the phenomenon is not one-sided. In September 2016 a student history club at Kansas’ Newman University invited Kansas Supreme Court Justice Carol Beier to speak with students about how to get into law school, what it’s like to be a judge and explain the role people in her position play in the judicial system. The event was cancelled after antiabortion activists launched a social media campaign university provost Kimberly Long described as “unsettling.” There were no threats of violence, but reportedly the activists believed Judge Beier was at the university to talk to the history club about abortion on Constitution Day.

These incidents could be brushed off as annoying, yet isolated, the social equivalent of a fly buzzing around an outdoor barbeque if not for a new development uncovered by FIRE. Over 200 universities across the country have developed what they call “bias response teams,” administrators who handle complaints from students about their professors, or each other. The decision to act on an ill-defined concept like bias has already led to complaints at Appalachian State University over both pro-Trump chalk messages and others that labeled the president a racist. In California they’ve gone beyond counseling offended students and presumably reprimanding offenders; an unnamed UC San Diego official allegedly encouraged the school’s lawyers to find “creative” ways to censor offensive speech — such as a student newspaper article satirizing safe spaces.

The punchline is contained in a Pew survey conducted in 2015 which found 40% of millennials and 24% of baby-boomers would accept some form of censorship if it protects selected groups from hearing offensive language. This twenty-something generation will not enter the halls of power for several years, and it’s possible time will bring change. The unknowable future is not what’s troubling about the mood on some campuses; the willingness of university officials to accommodate students when they demand veto power over clubs like YAF, College Republicans, and Newman University’s history club is. Schools like NYU and DePaul have cancelled events, while noting that some “have been accompanied by physical altercations” as well as “harassment of community members.” The rules have changed to the point that speech is considered a form of violence and people who respond by shaking fists or yelling at perceived enemies are brave. That reality is more offensive than anything Ben Shapiro or Carol Beier have said.

photo courtesy of rationalstandard.com

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2 Comments

March 8, 2017 · 1:06 am

2 responses to “Free Speech besieged, but not by the White House

  1. Interesting piece, I agree that people can say whatever they like provided it is not libellous. We should therefore consistently challenge such people with logic or ignore them if they’re clearly trying to be a troll.

    Liked by 1 person

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