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Speech and sophistry

In reaction to a mob that violently disrupted a meeting of abolitionists, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech titled “A Plea for free speech in Boston” — a masterful exposition of why there is no right “more sacred than the right of speech” and a condemnation of the citizens of Boston who allowed the mob to act with impunity. In his speech, Douglass reminds us that “to suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money.” This message is worth repeating because recently a number of students and student groups signed statements seeking to rob other students — and themselves — of the right to hear an invited speaker.

The statements condemning Robert Spencer’s talk may be symptomatic of our present epoch of triumphant reaction on college campuses during which, to misquote Trotsky, our moralists and ideological philistines “exude double their usual amount of moral effluvia.” Yet, in reading the letters, I’m unable to square their authoritarian demands with any liberal values I hold and which they claim. The university is where orthodoxies are challenged and dangerous ideas evaluated. Consequently, the level of ignorance about free expression revealed in the letters and opinion pieces (even among some law students and faculty) is disheartening. For all the noise, no new arguments were raised. Indeed, many of the arguments were asked and answered in the earliest literature on free expression.

Our moralists mainly justify their authoritarianism by gesturing toward safety. We’re all too familiar with government attempts to justify abuses of power by invoking safety. The formula is simple: emphasize the dire necessity of acting while dramatizing our vulnerability to some threat — often crime or terrorism. Advocates for Japanese Internment, mass surveillance, and Trump’s immigration policies all use variations of this formula. Invoking safety in the name of vulnerable groups is no less transparent. Nor are the arguments for censorship strengthened by conflating speech and violence. Labelling speech platforming, endorsing, legitimizing and otherwise characterizing disfavored speech as non-speech is an old trope. Indeed, totalitarians rarely admit to censoring speech. Rather, they protect citizens from dangerous, immoral and harmful ideas. It takes little imagination to see how the same rationalization can and has been used to silence liberals and civil rights activists.

We can agree, I hope, that there is nothing progressive about reviving these tired arguments. The great number of abolitionists, academics and civil rights leaders who have fought for free expression ought to give our moralists cause to reconsider their anti-intellectual fervor. For example, Noam Chomsky, who has faced his share of campus mobs, has been unequivocal that universities must have open platforms, saying, “If students don’t like something that’s being said, they can stay away.” President Obama too criticized student efforts to silence speakers they feel threatened by, calling the behavior a “recipe for dogmatism.”

The compulsion to suppress dissent is antithetical to liberalism’s values of equality and liberty, especially when combined with tribal notions of “allyship”. When Frederick Douglass was criticized by other abolitionists for his willingness to dialogue with slave owners, he replied: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” This is the mindset of a principled approach to social justice. We defend liberal values on behalf of others, not because of some blind sense of group loyalty, but because the nature of our values requires it.

In 1978, the ACLU defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, and, just this month, the ACLU filed a habeas petition on behalf of a US citizen detained as a suspected member of ISIS. Only the cynical and simple could infer the ACLU is allied with or endorses the views of neo-Nazis and ISIS.

I recognize the impulse to silence comes from a place of compassion. We live in a complicated and, at times, terrible world. But our ability to make a difference will be stunted if we transform Stanford into a sanctuary of self-affirmation. It may be comfortable, but it’s a cowardly way to live.

— James Banker J.D. ’17


Contact James Banker at jbanker ‘at’

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