The Value of Fighting Attacks on Free Speech Early and Often

skeptic society The Value of Fighting Attacks on Free Speech Early and Often

There’s no sense in waiting for the problem to become endemic before moving to arrest it.

Professor Keith Humphreys of Stanford University does not believe that speech is threatened on America’s campuses. He’s never perceived a meaningful threat himself. And he is very antagonistic toward several of us who believe that important values and vulnerable people will suffer unless more is done to protect free expression.

His posture is not unusual. Across issues and ideologies, on matters big and small, harms that disproportionately affect a vulnerable group or class of people attract skeptics who feel impelled to minimize the importance of documented injustices, especially when they manifest in what appear to be atypical circumstances. A skeptic may grant that there are bad apples in police departments, hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims, abusive teachers who exploit union job protections, or men who catcall women on the street. But perhaps they’ve never been affected, or known anyone who has suffered the relevant harm, so they are predisposed to concluding that the problem isn’t really that bad. Baffled by those who think otherwise, they come to regard them as discreditable agitators.

This type of skeptic is a scourge of civil libertarians. Though they may value the same goods in the abstract, they have a bankrupt understanding of how civil rights, liberties, and key norms must be defended in the particular if they are to endure.

Last year, while reviewing the case that free speech rights and norms are threatened from the top down and the bottom up on college campuses, I detailed evidence as varied as official codes of conduct that explicitly restrict speech at scores of campuses; a lobbying campaign to ban some criticism of Israel at the University of California; many efforts to disinvite speakers from colleges; a government program that sent undercover cops to spy on Muslim college students; an administrative action at UCLA that brazenly violated the First Amendment; student activists at numerous institutions formally demanding that speech be punished; and widespread attempts to restrict the content of college newspapers. The rundown was highly incomplete, but I thought it sufficient to make the case.

Humphreys was so unpersuaded by “The Glaring Evidence That Free Speech Is Threatened on Campus” that he cited it this week in a contemptuously dismissive rebuttal posted at Reality Based Community and The Washington Monthly. He began with an anecdote.

On a brisk autumn evening at Stanford University, he chanced upon two acquaintances, a retired Eastern European diplomat and a female graduate student. Humphreys shook hands with the diplomat, who was wearing leather gloves, then introduced the diplomat to the grad student. The diplomat removed his gloves to shake her hand—and the graduate student did not take offense that he did so.

“After he departed, I said I had never seen a man take off a glove before shaking a woman’s hand and asked the student if she had or if she knew whence the custom came,” Humphreys wrote. “She smiled and responded ‘I really don’t know; maybe they do that where he’s from. But he’s a sweet old man and I could tell it was his way of being gallant.’”

For Humphreys, that anecdote is a useful corrective.

“If you have been reading Conor Friedersdorf’s or Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s writings about campus culture in The Atlantic,” he wrote, you’d have thought that “the women recoiled from the gendered micro-aggression and lambasted the diplomat.” But the encounter as it really unfolded represents “what I have seen over and over again from students for decades,” he wrote. “A spirit of common humanity and a tolerance for different ways of acting and thinking. People come to my university from all countries and all backgrounds with a huge range of beliefs and customs. Yet I have never (and I do mean never) witnessed anything on campus suggesting that the atmosphere of widespread intolerance, suspicion and emotional fragility that I keep reading about in The Atlantic actually exists.”

Sure, he added, “some students now and then have goofy ideas or act in rude ways,” but he recalls that “being just as much the case when I was a student 30 years ago.”(For what it’s worth, free speech on campus was certainly threatened then, too.)


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