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Harvard University was in the news this month because it rescinded the acceptances of 10 students who posted offensive memes on a Class of 2021 Facebook chat site called “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.”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.