Campus Protests and Blatant Attacks on Free Speech

The blatant attacks on free speech seen recently on college campuses pose a special challenge to Democrats and liberals.  This, because the illiberalism inherent in the conjuring up by campus progressives of things like “trigger warnings,” “microaggressions,” and “safe spaces” is an outgrowth of the identity politics and victim culture that have been promoted by Democrats and liberals generally.

Take, for instance, immigration and our changing racial demographics.  In a demonstration of the most corrosive kind of stereotyping, Democratic strategists like Stanley Greenberg triumphantly wave the “demographics is destiny” meme like a sword.  Whether there is any predictive value in Greenberg’s recent claim that racial minorities are “supporting Hillary Clinton by more than 2 to 1 in today’s polls,” how is it helpful to profile them as bloc voters, politically defined by their ethnicity?

Are not Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans interested in having for themselves and their families secure middle-class lives?  And if so, might not some, perhaps many of them, come to see the governmental nostrums promoted by Democrats as being inimical to their ambitions?

The demographics-is-destiny meme crosses into the preposterous in the hands of people like the dyed-in-the-wool Democrat Chris Matthews….  >> Read More

                                   

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on Nov. 25, 2015.

Free Speech Week: Time To Celebrate, Time To Reflect

As Free Speech Week gets underway today, it’s a good time to celebrate this fundamental freedom (as the week is intended to do) – but it’s also a good time to reflect on the state of free speech in America today.  Even the most cursory reflection, however, is sure to give one pause.

Freedom of speech remains under assault on many fronts.  And most people, when they think of free speech, think of the First Amendment. But it’s important to draw a distinction here.  The First Amendment only protects speech that is threatened by government control, and thus laws and regulations seeking to limit speech can be subjected to First Amendment challenges in the courts.

Paradoxically, however, the gravest threats to free speech today aren’t coming from government lawmakers and regulators, but from non-government groups and individuals who want to stifle the speech of others.  That type of speech suppression is, in its own way, even more insidious because there is no fail-safe defense against it like the First Amendment.

Media Institute President Patrick Maines has written numerous columns in this space decrying all manner of attempts to suppress free expression.  One of the most onerous threats is the political correctness (or “PC”) movement, whereby the “politically correct” try to stifle the speech of those with whom they disagree.  Nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses, which should be the ultimate marketplaces of ideas.

Examples abound of campus activist groups pushing to “disinvite” guest lecturers or even commencement speakers whose views they dislike – often with the tacit or overt support of university officials.  High-profile incidents at Fordham, Brown, and Brandeis universities have captured media attention, but they were hardly isolated occurrences.  In fact, an organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) exists solely to fight these and other types of PC attacks on campus.

Speech suppression beyond the reach of the First Amendment takes other forms as well.  Activist groups and their “speech police” routinely try to intimidate speakers, especially through social media.  And even some journalists and editors in the mainstream media are prone to political correctness, though here the approach might be more subtle – a story presenting a PC point of view uncritically, or a story about a contrarian viewpoint never written at all.

Free Speech Week, then, offers the chance to celebrate the First Amendment as the protector of our speech (or the vast majority of it) from government interference.  The week also invites us to celebrate free expression in the broader sense.  Yet as we applaud freedom of speech generally, we need to be aware of the threats that continue to render this a fragile freedom.  There is a vocal opposition to these threats out there, including The Media Institute, FIRE, and others – but the voices challenging these threats and supporting truly free speech need to be more widespread.  We can indeed celebrate during Free Speech Week – but we can’t afford to be complacent.

Free Speech Week (FSW) is taking place Oct. 19 to Oct. 25.  You can learn more about how to get involved here: www.freespeechweek.org.

The First Amendment and Free Speech Under Assault

If you’re not alarmed by the assault on the First Amendment and free speech generally, you’re not paying attention.

Consider the list of offenses committed by the government.  They range, in recent times, from the Department of Justice’s spying on the phone records of reporters at the Associated Press, to the National Security Administration’s domestic call tracking, and from the IRS’s targeting of conservative nonprofit organizations, to the suggestion by the ranking Democrat on the Federal Elections Commission that political speech on the Internet should be regulated.

Other examples include the Obama Administration’s resistance to Freedom of Information Act requests, as documented in a study by the AP, and the issuance, by the CIA, of a subpoena to James Risen of the New York Times, demanding the identity of one of his confidential sources.

The party-line passage, by the Federal Communications Commission, of its so-called “Net Neutrality” regulations is another example.  In addition to inaugurating the regulation of the formerly unregulated Internet, the Title II approach adopted is certain, as FCC Commissioner Pai has warned, to open the door to attempts to use this regulation for purposes that, both intended and unintended, undermine free speech.

The most recent example of governmental speech suppression is the subpoena served on the online version of Reason magazine by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.  The subpoena, which for a time came with a gag order, demanded to know the identity of a handful of commenters that, angry about the life sentence handed down to the founder of the drug trading site, Silk Road, wrote denunciations of the judge who presided over the trial.

An example of one of the comments that occasioned the U.S. Attorney’s subpoena for the identification of that commenter: “I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.”

So there it is.  Your taxpayer dollars at work!  And not just by a few bureaucrats, but by a veritable army of them: DOJ, NSA, CIA, IRS, FEC, FCC.  As Everett Dirksen might have put it, an agency here and an agency there, and pretty soon you’re talking about some real government.

Making matters worse and infinitely more depressing is the assault on free speech being committed by people wielding the bludgeon of political correctness, a concept that from the beginning symbolized the very opposite of free speech.

The venues of choice for the PC speech police are mainly the media (social media especially) and college campuses, and 2014 was a banner year for such stuff.

Take, for instance, the petition generated by two “climate change” groups in February of last year.  Having collected 110,000 names, the groups demanded that the Washington Post stop publishing “editorial content denying climate change.”  The Post refused, but the Los Angeles Times happily adopted a policy that was similar to what the groups were demanding.

And then, of course, there are the campuses.  Last year’s examples of campus “disinvitation” campaigns against speakers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Condoleeza Rice, and Christine Lagarde have been widely chronicled, but the beat goes on.

In its 2015 Spotlight on Speech Codes, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that 54 percent of some 400 public colleges and universities it sampled maintain speech codes that violate the First Amendment.

FIRE’s response to this state of affairs has been to create a free speech litigation program that threatens offending colleges and universities with legal action, and the organization has had some notable successes.  But it’s doubtful that legal action alone will put the brakes on a concept that’s never depended on the law for its foundational principles or propagation.

Incubated on campus by activists and ideologues, and disseminated through the media, half-baked theories like “white privilege” and “microaggressions” and practices like “trigger warnings” and “speech codes” need to be challenged in those same venues by arguments based on logic, history, and science.

Absent this, and without congressional action to rein in the out-of-control federal agencies, free speech in the United States is at risk of becoming a dead letter; extant in the Constitution but without force or meaning.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. 

Free Speech Week: Not a Moment Too Soon

With two and a half months still to go, 2014 has been one of the toughest years on record for freedom of speech in the USA.

In February, for instance, two “climate change” groups collected 110,000 names on a petition they then sent to the Washington Post.  The petition demanded that the Post stop publishing “editorial content denying climate change.”  In a press release issued by one of the groups, columnists George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and the Volokh Conspiracy blog were singled out by name as “climate change deniers.” Happily, the petition went nowhere, though the Los Angeles Times has adopted an editorial stance similar to what the petitioners demanded of the Post.

In March, Kickstarter, the crowd-funding site, demanded that the producers of an anti-abortion film about convicted abortionist Kermit Gosnell remove from their proposal vivid language about the way Gosnell went about his work. Kickstarter said the language in the proposal went against its “Community Guidelines.”  One day after the producers refused, and loudly took their proposal to another crowd-funding site, Kickstarter said it would allow the proposal, and later said it was amending its guidelines.  Too late.  To date the film has raised over $2 million on the competing crowd-funding site, Indiegogo.

April was an especially busy month for the nation’s speech police.  On April 3, Brendan Eich resigned his position as CEO of Mozilla Corporation.  Eich had been roundly attacked on social media, and by LGBT activists, for a contribution he made six years earlier to California Proposition 8, which sought to establish that only a marriage between a man and a woman could be recognized as valid in that state.

Five days later, on April 8, Brandeis University reversed its decision to award an honorary degree to women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, following heated criticism of the award to her by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Arab American Institute.  As a young Muslim woman, Hirsi Ali endured genital cutting and later wrote the screenplay for the film “Submission,” which was critical of the way Muslim women are treated. Defending the decision, the president of Brandeis said that Hirsi Ali was free to come to the campus “to engage in dialogue” but that there is a difference between having a provocative speaker on campus and awarding an honorary degree.

Things proceeded apace in May, with Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde being targets of opportunity for local censors.  The former secretary of state withdrew from a commencement address at Rutgers after student and faculty protesters criticized her role in the Iraq war.  (We can only wonder if, a few years from now, the same students and faculty will protest campus addresses by members of the Obama Administration for their role in the bombing of ISIS.)

And Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew as commencement speaker at Smith College following the appearance of an online petition objecting to her role, at the IMF, in strengthening “imperialist and patriarchal systems.”

The media’s own PC patrols were out in June, as the struggling St. Louis Post-Dispatch used its mischaracterization of a George Will column as an excuse to drop the columnist altogether.  Will had argued, in a piece titled “Colleges become the victims of progressivism,” that colleges were opening themselves up to litigation in cases where allegations of sexual assault deny due process to those accused.  The paper’s editorial page editor, no friend of conservatives, averred that Will’s column caused hurt among people in the social media and some female friends of his … or that Will was past his prime, take your pick.

The months of July and August were relatively free of such fireworks, presumably because the PC too need a vacation, but the current month has already been marked by more of the same.  On Oct. 6, for instance, Scripps College, a women’s liberal arts institution and one of the five undergraduate colleges that comprise Claremont Colleges, disinvited George Will from delivering an address as part of a program that was designed to bring prominent conservatives to the Scripps campus.

Will’s offense?  The same column he wrote last summer about sexual assault on campus.  In the inscrutable words of the Scripps president: “Sexual assault is not a conservative or liberal issue.  And it is too important to be trivialized in a political debate or wrapped into a celebrity controversy.”  One assumes, on reading such stuff, that the Scripps president was engaging in some kind of liberal arts equivalent of speaking in tongues.

Interestingly, the Scripps president doesn’t appear to honor the distinction made by the Brandeis president – that there’s a difference between allowing someone to speak on the one hand, and giving that person an award on the other – but who’s to question disagreements between such giants?

Ensuring that October will not go out like a lamb, no matter what happens from now until the end of the month, comes the latest brouhaha, an attempt by the City of Houston to subpoena sermons delivered in five area churches by pastors who oppose passage by the Houston City Council of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO).

After the city disqualified a petition by opponents to put HERO to a referendum, some of the petition organizers filed a suit against the city; in response Houston and its pro bono attorneys subpoenaed the sermons and other information from the five churches, though none of the five was among the groups suing the city.

It is (or was) the city’s position that the subpoenas are a legitimate tactic in the discovery process, but since the mayor and the city attorney have now reversed themselves and say that they think the subpoenas are overbroad, it’s not at all clear where this matter will end, most likely in the withdrawal or quashing of the subpoenas.

October 20 begins the start of the annual celebration called Free Speech Week.  As demonstrated by events to date this year, one hopes it will grow and gain traction.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.