The Real Crisis of Campus Free Expression

College campuses should be bastions of free speech.  Today, they often seem to be the very places in American society where there is the least tolerance for controversial ideas.  Unfortunately, much of the discussion of why this has occurred is based on the ad hoc experiences of a few campuses, including Berkeley, Claremont McKenna, and Middlebury that briefly gained national attention when lecturers were harassed or prevented from speaking by unruly and, occasionally, riotous crowds.

Systematic public opinion polling and anecdotal evidence suggests that the real problem of free expression on college campuses is much deeper than episodic moments of censorship: With little comment, an alternate understanding of the First Amendment has emerged among young people that can be called “the right to non-offensive speech.”  This perspective essentially carves out an exception to the right of free speech by trying to prevent expression that is seen as particularly offensive to an identifiable group, especially if that collective is defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity.

A Gallup survey sponsored by the Knight Foundation and the Newseum illustrated the emerging views of a new generation.  In fact, most college students (73 percent in our survey) are confident about the security of free speech, and even more (81 percent) believe that the free press is secure.  They are actually much more sanguine than older adults about both the current state of free speech (only 56 percent of adults believe speech is secure) and free press (64 percent for adults).

However, the same survey found that today’s college students also favor restrictions on free speech when it comes to slurs and other language that is deliberately upsetting to some groups.  Sixty-nine percent favor limitations on this kind of speech, while 63 percent support policies that restrict the wearing of costumes that stereotype particular groups.  Notably, all student subgroups – including whites, men, and Republicans – support restrictions on slurs and costumes.  Students view these restrictions as consistent with their understanding of the First Amendment.

The result, not surprisingly, are campus climates shaped by policies designed to reduce offensive speech but that also discourage expression.  Our survey found that 54 percent of students agree that their campus climate “prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”

Of course, high-level observations about an entire age cohort are by definition difficult and care must be taken in making generalizations.  However, to ignore the different view that many of today’s students have on free speech would be to doom any effort to promote intellectual exchange on campus.

The effort to promote free speech on campus cannot simply focus on how many speakers are allowed.  Rather, a systematic effort must be undertaken to educate young people about the importance of free speech.  Most notably, the case for free speech will be especially persuasive to young people if it is repeatedly and powerfully argued that free expression especially benefits minorities and those alienated from society.  Young people themselves are the best ambassadors for this message.  Such an approach will depoliticize the discussion and thereby build a larger constituency for free speech.  Absent such efforts, we may continue to speak past each other. Other critical steps include:

  • Elementary and secondary schools must educate students on the First Amendment, how far the right of free expression extends, and the opportunities it affords to those who want to change society.  Students carry attitudes with them to college so we must address young people when their views on free speech are first being formed.
  • Colleges and universities must make an absolutist case for speech to a generation of students who have more complicated views.
  • Colleges and universities will have to become much more deliberate about encouraging advocates of free expression.

Generational attitudes develop over long periods of time and it will require sustained attention to ensure that tomorrow’s leaders understand that the long-standing understanding of our First Amendment freedoms is critical to the functioning of our democracy.


Guest author Jeffrey Herbst is President and CEO of the Newseum in Washington, D.C.  This paper is excerpted from “Addressing the Real Crisis of Free Speech,” which can be found at: http://www.newseuminstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/WhitePaper_Herbst_FreeExpressionOnCampus.pdf.  The Free Speech on Campus project – including two conferences and this paper – was supported by a grant to the Newseum Institute from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Sunshine Week: A Timely Celebration

Sunshine Week, a nationwide event taking place this week (March 12-18), is an annual reminder that access to government information is not something we can take for granted. In fact, prior to July 4, 1967, when the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) took effect, access to federal government information was not a given at all. It took an act of Congress to counteract the tendency of government bureaucrats to over-classify, obfuscate, and procrastinate when it came to making even innocuous information available to the public.

Sunshine Week was created by the American Society of News Editors in 2005 and is now coordinated by that group in partnership with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. With these groups heading the effort, it would be easy to think of Sunshine Week as something primarily by and for journalists. Of course having access to public information is of great interest to journalists. That kind of access is essential if the press is to perform its role as a watchdog of government at all levels in this great democracy.

Continue reading “Sunshine Week: A Timely Celebration”

Obama’s Legacy: The Trashing of Free Speech

No administration in memory has more thoroughly undermined freedom of speech and of the press than that of President Obama.  From the White House itself, as well as the independent and executive branch agencies, have come a steady stream of policies, initiatives, and pronunciamentos that have threatened or compromised both of these constitutional rights.

Indeed, the Administration’s example has inspired like-minded actions outside of the White House.  For example, those Democratic members of Congress who actively encouraged IRS action against conservative nonprofit organizations before Lois Lerner turned to the task.

And the 16 state attorneys general, Democrats all, who have recently embarked on a campaign designed to silence people who are skeptical of the evidence of anthropogenic global warming and/or its effects and remediation.

But it’s the example of the Administration itself that is most notable.  Who could forget the performance of then-UN ambassador Susan Rice who, five days after the Benghazi attack that took the life of the American ambassador, went on national TV and blamed the attacks on an anti-Islam video shown on YouTube?

This followed by two days Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s similar claim, and all of it despite the fact that senior Administration officials knew at the time that Benghazi was a premeditated attack that had nothing to do with the video.  >>Read More

Maines is president of The Media Institute.  The opinions expressed are his alone and not those of The Media Institute, its board, advisory councils, or contributors.  The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on July 13, 2016.

The Overblown Backlash Against Peter Thiel for Destroying Gawker

The news that pro wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker has been financed by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel has sparked many opinions, some of them erroneous, some duplicitous, and some deeply shameful.

Before providing examples of each, a little background.  In 2007, Valleywag, a now-defunct blog site then owned by Gawker Media, outed Thiel, against his express wishes, as a homosexual.  Though he is in fact gay, Thiel was angry about this, and angry too about what he saw, and sees, as Gawker’s bullying journalism in its coverage of Silicon Valley’s tech industry.

For some apparent combination of these reasons, Thiel subsequently offered to covertly pay for Hogan’s legal fees in connection with the wrestler’s invasion of privacy suit against Gawker.  The gravamen of Hogan’s suit is that Gawker published online a secretly taped video of Hogan having sex with the wife of a friend of his.  At trial the jury awarded Hogan $140 million.

So right off the bat a couple of things are clear: Neither Hogan’s lawsuit nor Thiel’s payment of his legal fees are First Amendment issues, despite allegations to that effect in stories published by such as the New York Times>> Read More

Maines is president of The Media Institute.  The opinions expressed are his alone and not those of The Media Institute, its board, advisory councils, or contributors.  The full version of this article appeared in The Daily Caller on June 9, 2016.

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. 

Is This What Net Neutrality Is Really About?

Recent congressional hearings held in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) net neutrality ruling provide a glimpse into what is so deeply wrong with this regulation, and why so many activist groups were behind it.

It’s an aspect of this matter of which you were perhaps unaware while the FCC was considering its regulatory strategy. Perhaps you thought net neutrality meant what was said of it: that it was intended to prevent the blocking or throttling of websites, or of “paid prioritization.”

Silly you.  Actually, those were the interests of those companies — like Google and Netflix — that saw in governmental sway over the Internet commercial benefits for themselves.  But what about those groups and individuals who had political or ideological interests, and who played such outsized roles in the deal?

You know, groups like Free Press, Media Matters, Public Knowledge and New America’s Open Technology Institute?  Or what about the large grant-giving foundations, like Ford, MacArthur, Knight, and George Soros’s Open Society Institute that, in addition to munificently funding third-party net neutrality activists, directly lobbied the FCC themselves?

It should now be clear, even to those who weren’t paying attention earlier, that the primary interest these groups had, and have, in net neutrality is their desire to insinuate government in the regulation of speech on the Internet.  >> Read More

 

‘Forbearing’ the Constitution: Net Neutrality and the FCC

So the latest word is that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a branch of government that, amusingly, is still referred to as an “independent” agency, is about to enact so-called net neutrality regulations under Title II of the Communications Act.

This, because according to its fans at the Commission, such regulations are needed in order to ensure a “fair and open” Internet.  Because, however, even the most passionate among them understand the many problems this would otherwise cause, the majority Democratic commissioners are said to be poised to enact regulations that forbear the full imposition of Title ll rules.

Meantime, Congress is considering enacting a law that would itself aim to protect net neutrality, but would do so in such a way as to deprive the FCC of its ability to regulate Internet service providers as a utility under Title II.

If (you’ll forgive the expression) one googles the word “forbearance,” the first definition that comes up reads: “The action of refraining from exercising a legal right…. ” — and there’s the rub!

With every passing day it becomes clearer that the Internet is the future of the press, and the plain language of the First Amendment bars the government from abridging freedom of speech or of the press.  >>Read More

We Are Not Charlie. We Are Weak.

The worst aspect of the Charlie Hebdo affair is that human beings were murdered for practicing free speech.  A distant second is the way this affair, and the earlier hacking of the Sony Pictures studio, has exposed the pieties and inadequacies of so much of the media.

Speaking the other day at the Consumer Electronics Show, Kazuo Hirai, CEO of Sony Corp., is reported to have said that he was proud “of all of the employees of Sony Pictures for standing up against the extortionist efforts of those criminals that attacked” the company.

Really?  No acknowledgment that the studio belatedly moved to release the film only after being criticized by virtually everyone in the country up to and including the president?

And despite the happy profusion of “Je Suis Charlie” displays, what has been the response of American media companies to that monstrous act?  As reported in Politico on Jan. 7, CNN senior editorial director, Richard Griffiths, sent a message to CNN staff saying, among other things, that “Video or stills of street protests showing Parisians holding up copies of the offensive cartoons, if shot wide, are OK.  Avoid close-ups of the cartoons that make them clearly legible.”

And here, according to a piece in Rolling Stone, is the way the Associated Press described its decision regarding the Hebdo cartoons: “We’ve taken the view that we don’t want to publish hate speech or spectacles that offend, provoke or intimidate, or anything that desecrates religious symbols or angers people along religious or ethnic lines. …  We don’t feel that’s useful.”

Even the Hollywood bible, Variety magazine, adds to the general alarm:

A brutal attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo over cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed has jolted Hollywood, escalating concerns by artists and producers that major studios and networks may avoid greenlighting movies and TV shows with potentially inflammatory content….

Freedom of speech is under attack, but, given Sony’s initial decision to pull the release of The Interview and its subsequent about-face, it’s not clear how rousing a defense the entertainment business is willing to mount in the midst of financial pressures, political dangers, and the threat of violence.

Making matters incalculably worse is the fact that the most immediate threats to free speech in this country don’t come from abroad, but from here at home.  As described three years ago by Jonathan Turley in the Washington Post, we are witnessing the censoring of speech under one of four rationales: Speech is blasphemous; Speech is hateful; Speech is discriminatory; Speech is deceitful.

Shortly after the Sony affair broke open, Ross Douthat, the loneliest and bravest journalist at the New York Times, wrote one of the most powerful paragraphs about that, and related, matters:

Of course it had to escalate this way.  We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of canceled commencement invitations and CEOs defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs, trigger warnings and cringing public apologies.  A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.

So why should anyone be remotely surprised when Kim Jong-un decided to get in on the “don’t offend me” act?

So what to do?  Enforcement of the First Amendment won’t suffice because it only proscribes governmental abridgement of free speech, and only, of course, in the United States.

Here are a couple suggestions.  The next time you read or hear something that you think is truly awful, moronic, hateful, or false, send a comment by email, text, or social media stating your objections but also saying that you respect the right of the offending party to speak his or her piece.

And when you hear of some group or individual threatening advertisers with boycotts for advertising on programs they don’t like, contact those same advertisers yourself and let them know that you have a different view.

In the end, free speech can be guaranteed, if at all, not by the press or government, but only by the people.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  This article was originally published here in the online edition of USA Today on Jan. 15, 2015.