The Low-Hanging Fruit Of Free Speech

I posed the question of which Michelle Goldberg would appear on the op-ed page of the New York Times. The question is answered in her apologia for the budding student radicals, testing the boundaries of their youthful good intentions. It’s the Goldberg with Slate-level intellectual depth, trying to pull off the sort of spin that Mark Joseph Stern gets away with* when accuracy is secondary to clicks and feelz.

The confrontation began just as the A.C.L.U.’s Claire Gastañaga started talking about “knowing your rights during protests and demonstrations.” A multiracial group of around a dozen black-clad students marched to the front of the auditorium, arrayed themselves before the stage and began chanting things like “A.C.L.U.! You’d protect Hitler too!” They’d been moved to protest because the A.C.L.U. had defended the rights of white supremacists to rally in Charlottesville, Va. At one point they intoned “Shame! Shame! Shame!” in a cadence that recalled a disturbing scene of public humiliation from “Game of Thrones.” Gastañaga was not able to continue speaking.

I likened this to burning the heretic at the stake. Goldberg was more generous toward the “multiracial…black-clad students.”

It can be hard to know what to make of reports of a free speech crisis on college campuses. Some progressives claim that concerns about left-wing student authoritarianism are overblown, and occasionally I’m tempted to believe them.

And you know who doesn’t believe? Wingnuts.

Still, if the average college campus is not quite the Maoist re-education camp of right-wing fantasy, there are enough embarrassing incidents like the one at William and Mary to suggest that parts of the left disdain the First Amendment.

Curiously, Goldberg’s “still” is a non-sequitur. How that got past editing is a mystery. But then she explains how these “embarrassing events” gave rise to this mistaken understanding of the slightly misguided darlings.

At times, I can understand why young radicals might roll their eyes when they hear “free speech.” They’ve grown up at a time when the people proclaiming the phrase the loudest are reactionaries like Yiannopoulos or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who lectured about campus free speech at Georgetown’s law school last month.

So something that happened a couple weeks ago contributed to riots at Berkeley a year before? And Milo’s mouth explains giving Middlebury professor Allison Stanger a concussion, or Eric Clanton’s skull-crushing bike lock attack? And completely missing from Goldberg’s apologia is the word “Antifa.” Oddly enough, they too prefer to be “black-clad.” Probably just a coincidence, since everybody knows black is slimming.

The alt-right, which often targets college campuses, wants to open up our basic social consensus about human equality to debate, to make it possible to freely ponder whether women and people of color are inferior to white men. Those who care about civil rights are correct to hold the line, to say that there are certain ideas that deserve broad contempt rather than a fair hearing.

So there are the teams in Goldberg’s view, the alt-right who wants to exercise free speech to argue that blacks are inferior to whites on one side, and those who care about civil rights on the other. This is all a lead-in to Goldberg’s (who seizes the mantel of “Gen X liberal”) real point:

The problem is that we have no agreement about which ideas are beyond the pale, and the people least willing to draw necessary distinctions are the most strident. Student activists are naturally going to test boundaries and make maximalist demands. Yet while I’m under no illusion that they’re interested in the opinions of Gen X liberals like myself, someone should tell them that if the principle of free speech is curtailed, those with the least power are most likely to feel the chill.

Don’t hate the ACLU, darling black-clad, well-intended, passionate students. Because Trump.

I understand that for a lot of young leftists, it doesn’t make sense to equate what they see as hate speech with the speech of the oppressed. It’s harder for me to understand why they think that if First Amendment protections are weakened, the left — and not, say, the Trump administration — will be allowed to define what is hateful and what is not. After all, it is extremely common to hear people on the right describe Black Lives Matter as a hate group.

Goldberg even invokes the ACLU’s Lee Rowland to prove her point.

Though we often hear about pro-Israel students who feel intimidated by the campus left, pro-Palestine students regularly face censorship as well. When I asked Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney with the A.C.L.U.’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, about where she saw the biggest threat to campus free speech, she didn’t hesitate: “I think the most pernicious pattern of censorship on college campuses might relate to Palestinian activists.”

Certainly, the budding intellectuals of the future don’t want BDS silenced, right?

It’s certainly true that it’s easier to enjoy free speech when you’re privileged. It doesn’t follow from that, however, that eroding free speech protections helps the vulnerable.

Aside from the nasty strawman Goldberg creates, the tummy rubs to the downtrodden before and after, her grasp is directed toward the low-hanging fruit. There is no defense of free speech as a principle, but only in self-interest. It’s the easiest sell, and Trump as censor-in-chief seals the deal. There is no suggestion that it might be, you know, wrong to violently attack people who don’t share your ideals. After all, kids will be kids, you know, and as they grope their way to maturity, you have to break a few heads with bike locks in the hands of black-clad professors (who aren’t kids at all, but let’s not get hung up in details).

Except this isn’t just the alt-right frog lovers’ fantasy. This isn’t just Milo. This didn’t happen a week ago. And there just may be a possibility that some of the things being said that fail to comport with the most passionate beliefs of the most sensitive minds, Goldberg’s included, are correct. That’s why free speech matters, because you, little darlings, may not be nearly as right about the world as you believe you are.

But if you can silence any voice, any idea, that conflicts with your child’s grasp of right and wrong, then you will never hear painful words that challenge you to think that maybe you aren’t right about everything, and maybe everyone who disagrees with you isn’t wrong.

The only way you can find out is to hear them. Not that Goldberg would say so, when her only reason to not hate the ACLU is because of what they can do for you. But that’s what a Boomer liberal might argue, that free speech is its own virtue, even if it’s not all about you.

*This is gratuitously thrown in because, as noted by David Hiersekorn, of all people, in the comments, the characterizations in Stern’s post are wildly at odds with oral argument before the Second Circuit. Somebody needed to note this.

15 thoughts on “The Low-Hanging Fruit Of Free Speech

  1. Richard Kopf


    If there ever was a statement that revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of, and lack of appreciation for, the First Amendment, it is this one from Ms. Goldberg’s opinion piece: “The problem is that we have no agreement about which ideas are beyond the pale . . . .”

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      It does, indeed, reveal her foundational thinking, that the world of ideas are split into good and evil, and the only problem is figuring out which to outlaw. It’s almost as if she has no faith the good ideas can’t prevail over evil ideas on their own merits.

      1. Jeff Gamso

        Ah, the good winning out in the ol’ marketplace of ideas thing. I never bought it. I’m more with Twain’s idea that a lie will get halfway around the world before truth has time to put its britches on. (I’m paraphrasing, and Twain’s not the only one to whom originating the line’s been attributed.)

        Free speech seems to me a virtue in itself, necessary for free thought (also a virtue, even when the thoughts suck – as they so often do).

  2. Curtis

    The fascists, AKA the Republican Party, control 33 state legislatures, the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Presidency. The head fascist, Trump, will soon appoint another Supreme Court justice or two.

    The progressives’ solution is to give the government more power to regulate free speech and have the ACLU shut up. Brilliant.

    1. Elpey P.

      At least they’re punching up.

      “First they came for the liberals, and I said ‘hey guys, let’s go get those liberals.'”

  3. Lucas Beauchamp

    When your client discloses plans to discuss with the state’s witnesses whether they should testify, do you tell the client that doing so would (a) injure the legal system’s integrity or (b) extend his stay in the penitentiary? Does choosing (b) mean that you don’t care about the legal system’s integrity?

    Goldberg’s defense of free speech on practical grounds does not mean that she sees only its instrumental value. People who self-righteously place social justice above everything else care no more about the possibility of being wrong than your client does about the damage that witness tampering causes the legal system. The only way to appeal to people who put feelz above everything is to appeal to their feelz.

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