The Universal Notebook: Freedom of speech is just an expression

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One of the battle lines in America’s culture wars runs straight through the First Amendment.

Cultural conservatives seem to think liberals don’t really believe in free speech because we are all too willing to silence what we see as hate speech and what conservatives seem to see as expressions of their core values – banning Muslims, closing the southern border to Hispanics, preventing the LGBTQ community from gaining their rights, defending police violence against black people, etc.

While conservatives such as Milo Yiannapolis, a British agitator who got banned from Twitter for his racist tweets, have felt the sword of the censor fall upon them, so has liberal comedian Kathy Griffin, who lost her job as CNN New Year’s Eve co-host for displaying a picture of Donald Trump’s severed head. Trump makes people on both sides crazy.

If you thought things were tense between right and left, conservative and progressive before, Trump’s ascension has made things much worse, emboldening bigots and incensing liberals. Comedian Bill Maher, champion of all things politically incorrect, caused a recent controversy when Sen. Ben Sasse jokingly invited him to come to Nebraska to work in the fields.

“Work in the fields?” Maher replied. “Senator, I’m a house (N-word).”

Maher apologized for using the N-word and invited a pair of prominent African-Americans – rapper/actor Ice Cube and Georgetown University sociologist Michael Eric Dyson – on his show to gently flog him for his verbal sin.

For the record, Yiannopolis, Griffin and Maher were all way out of line.

The volatility of the free speech issue is greatest on college campuses, not only because academia is seen as inherently liberal, but also because colleges and universities are laboratories that test social norms and advance culture. Sometimes they get it right and sometimes not.

Harvard University was in the news this month because it rescinded the acceptances of 10 students who posted offensive memes on a Class of 2021 Facebook chat site called “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.” Being horny and bougie were the least of these teens’ troubles; they got kicked out of Harvard before they even got there for being just plain stupid.

Why would any intelligent, college-bound student post things that make fun of the Holocaust, sexual assault and the deaths of children? Insensitivity? Shock value? Peer pressure? Who cares? Harvard could fill every class with valedictorians with 800 SAT scores, so it doesn’t need to coddle creeps who think it’s cool to be crass. Harvard got it right.

Out at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, that redoubt of hippie academics and anarchists turned itself inside out over one professor’s objection to the college’s Day of Absence, an annual exercise in racial awareness inspired by Douglas Turner Ward’s play of the same name, in which all the people of color disappear from a small Southern town.

In the past, the Day of Absence had been a voluntary affair where students of color met off-campus to discuss issues of race. This year, the college asked white students to leave campus for a day because students of color felt unwelcome in the wake of the 2016 election.

“There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles,” wrote Bret Weinstein, a professor of evolutionary biology who describes himself as “deeply progressive,” “and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.”

In response, 65 Evergreen State faculty and 34 staff members signed a “solidarity statement,” not in support of Weinstein, but calling on him to be punished because he “endangered faculty, staff, and students, making them targets of white supremacist backlash by promulgating misinformation in public emails, on national television, in news outlets, and on social media.”

It did not help Weinstein’s “deeply progressive” cause that he wrote a guest editorial in the conservative Wall Street Journal and appeared on Fox News with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson. A group of 50 students confronted Weinstein and shouted him down as a racist because he objected to the authoritarian way college President George Bridges had re-ordered a Day of Absence.

Evergreen State got it wrong. Professor Mike Paros, the one Evergreen State faculty member who stood up for Weinstein, got it right.

“When one is confronted with truths that contradict closely held beliefs,” wrote Paros to his colleagues, “the mind begins to make outlandish rationalizations. The faculty email response will someday be used in psychology textbooks as a case study in group thinking.”

The First Amendment only prohibits the government from infringing on your free speech. It does not prevent your employers, your opponents or even your colleagues from doing so.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

  • Queenie42

    Last sentence, shouldn’t the “does” be “doesn’t”? Or am I reading it wrong?

    • EdBeem

      The First Amendment does not protect you at work. Your employer can fire you for verbal and written offenses.

  • Steve Dolan

    I have the Westbrook class of 1967 yearbook. My Dad was a teacher/coach there for many years. Edgar is in there – National Honor Society – obviously quite a brilliant guy. Not really the sports type was he but – Westbrook 67 had some hotties like Teresa Boyle and Jane Pratt.I played sports with and against some of the Westbrook kids back then.

    • EdBeem

      I wrote sports for the Westbrook American and Portland Press Herald though. Dated both Terry and Jane. Our 50th reunion is this summer. Mickey Dolan was a Westbrook classic.

  • Max Millard

    hen I was attending Windham public schools in the 1950s and 1960s, every single member of my class was white, and everyone spoke only English. In junior high, “N-word” jokes were very popular, perhaps because no one ever saw a black person. Since moving to San Francisco in 1980, I have become much more aware of the need to be sensitive and respectful of other racial and ethnic groups. However, I think for a college to ban its white students from attending the campus for a day is extremely racially divisive. Instead, it should be encouraging them to attend the meetings on nonwhite students as silent guests, to hear the viewpoints of others. I have been married to a woman from the Philippines for 30 years, and I cannot imagine being excluded from any gathering of Filipinos because of my race.

    I think there’s a great deal of misunderstanding between ethnic groups because of lack of personal contact. For example, I have a friend who works at L.L. Bean and says that the Somali workers keep to themselves and have very different work habits from the native Mainers, which causes workplace tension. Perhaps L.L. Bean should be proactive in encouraging everyone to mix.

    • Moishe the Beadle

      Quran (5:51) – “O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.” See also 5:80, 3:28, 3:18, 9:23, 53:29, 3:85, 3:10 and so on.

  • Moishe the Beadle

    So, we should not object to Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross’s invocation using the Surah a-Fatiha prayer at the House od Reps on 6/13? See:

    Here are the words to a prayer we’re supposed to believe is innocuous:
    1. In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.

    2. All the praises and thanks be to Allah, the Lord of the ‘Alamin (mankind,
    jinns and all that exists).

    3. The Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.

    4. The Only Owner (and the Only Ruling Judge) of the Day of Recompense (i.e. the
    Day of Resurrection)

    5. You (Alone) we worship, and You (Alone) we ask for help (for each and

    6. Guide us to the Straight Way

    ***7. The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians). [It’s is agreed by most Islamic scholars that this line specifically refers to Jews and Christians.]

    This is creeping Sharia even if the Left tries in vain to put a happy face on Islamic doctrine. “Tolerance at the expense of the truth is total stupidity”.

  • Moishe the Beadle

    Here’s the perfect counter-argument to Beem’s column…but likely won’t be read:

    • danmaine


    • EdBeem

      Read it. It’s B.S. No one thinks that D.C. shooter was justified in any way.