For years, the most unpleasant characters on the internet have been using the cry of “free speech!” as an unrestricted, unquestioned privilege that must be respected over all others. It’s magic. No compromise is allowed; all you have to do is invoke “free speech”, and you can bulldoze all over other people’s expectations of privacy, or safety, or even of their right of free speech. I think free speech is a good thing, and we shouldn’t tolerate government dictating what we’re allowed to say, and people should be able to freely discuss their opinions and ideas in a participatory democracy, but that needs to be balanced with other rights as well (“what other rights?”, I can imagine the basement-dwelling trolls of the internet asking, “there are no other rights but my right to spew the sewage floating in my brain everywhere.”)
So we should appreciate the free speech that allows someone to say, “I believe I have the right to own an M16,” even though I personally disagree with that and I think there ought to be a heck of a lot more gun control, but that right to free speech ends when they add, “and I think I have the right to track down your address and blow your brains out if you disagree.” That changes everything from a good if annoying discussion to a threat and a danger. Likewise if they try a lesser threat, “and I think I have the right to force you to argue with me and I’m going to harass you until you agree.”
There is an argument going on right now between fascist white nationalists and universities in which administrators and centrists are caving in before the magical mantra of “free speech!” This is what happens when you lose perspective and decide that one right trumps all the others. In the name of Free Speech, people who believe millions of other people should lose all of their rights and be deported, deprived of recourse to legal redress, be kicked out of school, or even imprisoned or murdered, get to further incite these gross violations of liberty on college campuses.
In a grotesque parody of the Berkeley students who stood up for civil rights on Sproul Plaza in 1964, the far right has made free speech on campus a shield for hate groups as it recruits and organizes. College administrators’ knee-jerk defenses for free speech avoid addressing legitimate concerns regarding safety and academic freedom for faculty and students.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ quoted John Stuart Mill in defense of free speech, but conspicuously left out the context. Mill firmly believed speech that advocated harm to others is an abuse of the right to speak. In 1969 the Supreme Court agreed, ruling in Brandenburg v. Ohio that there is no free speech right to advocate violence when violence is likely to occur. There are, in fact, solid legal reasons, particularly after Charlottesville, why campuses can and should deny a platform to far-right speakers, precisely because they encourage violence against specific groups and enable situations of imminent danger.
“Free speech” is an all-purpose slogan disingenuously used to mask violent threats and an outright take-over of, ironically enough, the right of free speech. You don’t really believe that Ann Coulter, Steve Bannon, and Milo Yiannopoulos are making a principled defense of socialists, communists, academics, artists, and progressives to discuss their ideas, do you? They hate those guys! They want to intimidate and suppress liberals, and have found that mouthing the words “free speech” are a great way to do it, since moderates tend to cave before it.
The threat of white-supremacist violence is real. Leaked threads from an alt-right message board reveal the sadistic aspirations of self-identified Freikorps who gathered online in hopes that their “Day of the Rope”—referring to a Kristallnacht-inspired mass lynching and genocide depicted in the white-nationalist novel The Turner Diaries—would kick off at Berkeley on April 27 when Ann Coulter had been scheduled to speak.
No altercations materialized that day, but determination to provoke violence and justify a state crackdown on antifascist resistance motivates far-right groups to keep coming back to Berkeley. Breaking this iconic “commie” stronghold, in their eyes, would achieve a major milestone on their path to power.
Right-wing speaking events—including the “Free Speech Week” scheduled for late September at Berkeley, featuring the odious trifecta of Yiannopoulos, Coulter, and Steve Bannon—are part of an increasingly coordinated nationwide effort among far-right groups to recruit on college campuses. Using free speech as a wedge to silence dissent and discredit opposition, they intend to radicalize white youth by waging psychological warfare on academic leftists, social-justice organizations, and minorities. It should be no surprise that Jeremy Christian, white-supremacist murderer of two men in Portland, cried out “Free speech or die!” during his day in court. For white supremacists, the push for free speech is directly connected to their campaigns of terror.
We also mustn’t forget that these “free speech” advocates are using it as a tool to do harm to minorities and women — and behind their strategy is an appeal to the comfortably privileged to sit back and let them do the dirty work of securing their sheltered nice ideals at the expense of the life and liberty of the underclasses.
Tone-deaf campus administrators continue to ignore the warnings of students and faculty, and prioritize making campuses “safe for free speech” by militarizing university spaces with a heavy police presence—unsurprisingly, with disproportionately detrimental effects on students of color. Violent confrontations can be avoided entirely if responsible decision-makers acknowledge that fascist gatherings by their very presence pose a threat to our spaces of work and learning. Trump’s repeal of DACA this week makes this imperative even more urgent; we must not forget that what is being contested at Berkeley is not just “free speech” for racists but the enforcement of sanctuary-campus policies against ICE.
It cannot be the sole responsibility of communities facing white-supremacist violence to be suitably respectable victims for public consumption. Commentators, politicians, and campus administrators must reject the alt-right’s framing of this as a battle over free speech. Regardless of the far right’s strategies to divide us, we must prioritize the safety of students and amplify the voices of the vulnerable—not promote narratives that serve racist ideologies.
Laurie Penny has some vigorous words for the Nazis — and that’s free speech, too. When all you’re fighting for is the right to be a shitlord, you don’t get to claim the mantle of Hero of Free Speech. There is a whole interlinked network of sometimes conflicting rights, and picking the easiest one to defend because it doesn’t compromise your lifestyle of blaming the less privileged for your failings isn’t heroic.
So let’s be clear: getting fired because you hate women is not an equivalent hardship to getting fired because you happen to be one. People who have been disowned by their parents for being gay or transgender aren’t going to have sympathy when your mum and dad find your stash of homophobic murder fantasies and change the locks. Getting attacked for being a racist is not the same as getting attacked because you are black. The definition of oppression is not “failure to see your disgusting opinions about the relative human value of other living breathing people reflected in society at large.” Being shamed, including in public, for holding intolerant, bigoted opinions is not an infringement of your free speech. You are not fighting oppression. You are, at best, fighting criticism. If that’s the hill you really want to die on, fine, but don’t kid yourself it’s the moral high ground. I repeat: You cannot be a rebel for the status quo. It would be physically easier to go and fuck yourself, and I suggest you try.
The fact that some people—the women, people of color, immigrants and queer people you want put back in their proper place—disapprove of you does not make you edgy. A bag of cotton wool is edgier than you lot. Fighting for things to go back to the way they were twenty or thirty or fifty years ago does not constitute a bold resistance movement. It constitutes the militant arm of the Daily Mail comments section. Fighting real oppression involves risk, and before you start, I’m talking about real risk, not some girl on the internet calling you a cowardly subliterate waste of human skin, like I just did.
I’ll support your call for free speech when you stop using it to marginalize the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone else, and when it stops being a proxy for defending the status quo and your privileged status rather than the right that allows the oppressed to have a voice.