Those of us who care about free speech and are concerned about the mindset of those who want to crush it in this country seldom get the opportunity to read the actual arguments put forward by would-be free speech suppressers. That is because so much anti-free speech activity takes place behind closed doors, such as in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) offices in academia and workplaces.
But today we have a prime specimen of the anti-free-speech attitudes that are metastasizing in elite academic institutions. This time, Princeton.
Now, I know that this is just an essay in a campus newspaper by a college sophomore. But examining the attitudes of college students, particularly those in the Ivy League, helps to illuminate the values that these future movers and shakers will take with them into the powerful sectors that they will eventually populate: law, media, academia, government, philanthropy and so forth.
The piece in question is dated February 23, 2022 and appeared in Princeton’s campus publication, The Daily Princetonian. It is entitled, Free speech rules cannot be written without marginalized voices at the table.
Let’s start with the use of the word “marginalized.” The lack of self-awareness and insistence on victimhood stands out, as does the curious attitude that free speech needs to be encumbered by rules in the first place.
On the matter of marginalization—no matter what someone’s background is, the very fact that he or she is now a student at one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the world and is publishing something in its fairly famous college newspaper means that that person is not “marginalized.” That person is in fact living and studying among the elite. Whining about being marginalized is not something he or she has any business doing.
The writer then goes on to demonstrate his lack of enthusiasm for a vibrant free speech culture by undermining the idea of one almost immediately:
The necessity for academic freedom has been justified with the argument that faculty members need to be free to develop and discuss their ideas without fear of retribution. However…
He goes on to say:
…free speech always has limits; the question is where those limits are and where they ought to be.
Here we have a young man who is privileged to be dwelling in the midst of some of the greatest minds of our day and his default position is to consider how best to throttle, on the basis of race it appears, many of the voices he is being exposed to—and to try to limit in a very controlling, presumptuous fashion the ability of his peers to take full advantage of this doorway to a life of the mind. Why he wanted to come to Princeton or attend college at all is baffling.
As noted, the writer tends to hedge anything remotely pro-free speech with the word, “however,” as here:
However, what the law defines as constituting “a genuine threat or harassment” may be different from the reality of threat or harassment that groups of people actually feel.
Hmm. He seems to regard “the law” (like, say, the Constitution) as being an inconvenience and that what “groups of people actually feel” should take precedence. Well, so much for basic constitutional protections and academic freedom. It is all about what people “actually feel.” How one determines that seems to be left to language police like the writer, the Princeton student who claims to have an unerring sense of what “marginalized” people need—freedom of speech and unfettered access to ideas and opinions and views new to them not being what they need, apparently.
And note the turn towards the punitive here:
So where should we draw the line on what is protected speech and what deserves retribution?
Note, again, that the default position is about drawing lines around speech and, much more frighteningly, indicating that retribution should definitely be in the picture. Gosh, what an ideal way to run a university. Always a good idea to make sure that staff and students live in constant fear of losing their jobs or having their futures destroyed by the thought police. I guess students whose educations and civil liberties would be crippled by such policies would not be at all “marginalized.”
The writer goes on to use one of the buzzwords of the left, “systemic,” in this passage:
Legal decisions often hinge on the opinions of those sitting on the Supreme Court — opinions that do not always adequately represent the American population, largely because of the systemic factors that have made it difficult for marginalized groups to get into positions of judicial power.
Yeah, I guess Clarence Thomas is a total creature of privilege, as were Earl Warren and William O. Douglas. Nothing in their childhoods or young adulthoods suggests poverty or struggle.
Let us hope that the writer will, while at Princeton, do a little reading about the Ku Klux Klan. He writes of cross burning here:
These acts of violence may have never affected the communities of these justices, leading them to dismiss the underlying implications of these symbols. Their inability to empathize with those who felt threatened illustrates the continual discrediting of the voices of people of color.
Let’s see now. Who were two major targets of the Klan? Oh, yes. Jews and Catholics. Several of the current Supreme Court justices are either Catholic or have some grounding in the faith, such as being raised Catholic: Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett. (Gorsuch grew up in the Catholic faith, but later affiliated with Protestant churches.) The other two justices—Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan—are Jewish.
Guess they don’t know anything about the Klan’s persecution of their faith communities and are afflicted with a supposed “inability to empathize.” Let us hope that when the writer does take some history classes, he does not get triggered if the words “Catholic” or “Jewish” come up.
The writer seems to equate rulings in favor of free speech (even speech we hate) with an inability to empathize (how one measures “empathy” is never explained) and seems to hold that that highly subjective measure leads to the “the continual discrediting of the voices of people of color” as if all people of color are on board with stifling speech—even though it is the marginalized who have the most to lose when ideas are suppressed, given that so many new ideas are on the progressive side (e.g., defunding the police).
The writer seems to see the Klan lurking in all corners of the leafy precincts of Princeton and other areas of the Ivy League and only grudgingly admits that okay, maybe cross burnings are not a daily occurrence there:
Granted, the recent comments from professors and academics are not the same as the threats of violence associated with burning a cross. Yet, this should serve as a valuable example for when we need to reevaluate our understanding of academic freedom.
Note the word, “reevaluate.” This young man seems dead set on sniffing out and eliminating any ideas that he disapproves of. Do you think professors and students should be free to express themselves? You clearly need to reevaluate your understanding. I wonder if the writer, upon learning that he had been admitted to Princeton, exclaimed, “Oh, boy! I can’t wait to get there and interfere with free expression to my heart’s content!”
The writer seems unaware of the fact that people on the left (like Eugene V. Debs and Emma Goldman) for centuries have fought for free speech and chillingly writes:
The antiquated rules on protected speech were written by a group of people who do not reflect the changing academic community and political landscape in general.
Yeah, I guess a jurisprudence that has shielded people across the spectrum from oppression should be tossed aside to suit the “changing academic community” which, by the way, is increasingly woke and, therefore, intolerant and parochial in outlook.
The writer, like so many progressives, instinctively uses the language of division and not unity:
Affected groups on campus should have a stake in clarifying what counts as hate speech.
Are we not all affected by vile ideas? And the term “hate speech” is increasingly applied to anything that is judged to be insufficiently woke.
The writer concludes by making the rather racist assumption that people of color would universally benefit by making discourse on college campuses as devoid of thought-provoking content as possible:
…when we elevate more people to positions where they can contribute to the conversation on what constitutes a real threat and harassment, we may have a more fulsome and nuanced understanding of what speech should and should not be protected
At least the writer is thinking about these ideas. Let us hope that he takes the opportunity to continue to express himself fully and to listen to others who might (think of that!) have views that differ from his.
Luckily, there is a brand-new initiative right there at Princeton overseen by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, called the Initiative on Freedom of Thought, Inquiry, and Expression that will enable him to do both. Maybe the writer of the opinion piece we have been discussing today will avail himself of some of its offerings and thereby equip himself with knowledge instead of spending his time trying to deprive others of it.