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.