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tommy curry needs free speech. keeanga-yamahtta taylor needs free speech. alice goffman needs free speech. charles murray needs free speech. they all need free speech.

Last week, Johnny Williams, a professor at Trinity College triggered a nation wide controversy when his statements about White supremacy made national news. The issue isn’t the statement itself, but how it fit into a wider pattern of outrage and threat. Trinity shut down in response to death threats. And it is not the first college to have problems related to campus speech. Charles Murray’s opponents injured a faculty member at Middlebury during a protest. Princeton Professor Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor had to cancel talks in response to death threats after she lambasted Donald Trump.

These events have shown that the culture around faculty speech has devolved. College professors have always been lightning rods of controversy as their job is to explore ideas, even if they are unpopular. The history book books frequently recount how controversial professors have lost jobs over their ideas, such as when the  eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell lost an appointment at the City College of New York in 1940 or, when DePaul University denied tenure for Norman Finklestein in 2007. If you push unpopular ideas, be prepared.

But things may be getting worse for two reasons. First, the campus left is now in a place where there is a visceral and automatic push back against some speakers. It may be opposition to the trash talkers of the right, like Anne Coulter, or the right’s public intellectuals, like Charles Murray. But it even extends to people who might granted a stay, such as sociologist Alice Goffman, whose appointment as a visiting scholar at Pomona was protested.  In some cases, the campus left is so reflexive and angry that it targets people who are clearly on their side, such as the confrontation between enraged activists at Yale and sociologist Nicholar Christakis over a relatively mild email about how to handle racially insensitive Halloween costumes.

Second, the Fox News Right has made a hobby of taking statements, some innocent and some not, made by faculty and manufacturing national outrage. This includes the outrage over Johnny Williams at Trinity, the dust up over philosopher Tommy Curry’s discussion of nationalist politics and the 2015 rancor over Saida Grundy’s tweets.

Together, the campus left and the Fox News Rights have created a situation where we have a constant stream of outrage and anger, which has all kinds of negative consequences. Individual faculty members must disentangle themselves from nasty waves of publicity. Talks are cancelled and, in some cases, people are injured. This puts a price on free speech.

What to do? First, if you are an academic, express your disagreement in civilized ways. If Charles Murray comes to campus, offer your own talk. Write a blog post. Do not immediately jump to the conclusion that the talk must be stopped. Let it happen. Second, if you are an administrator, show tolerance and protection of speech. Assert that professors deserve the right to pursue unpopular ideas. If threats come in, go through with the talk. Find a way to do things safely. If a professor says something that is genuinely hateful and offensive, slow down and think carefully about what to do. People have a right to bad ideas and that applies to professors. Third, if you are a member of the public, switch emotions. Don’t let third parties, on the left or right, score cheap political points. Just say, “Ok, some professor said something dumb” and then watch sports instead. Do not waste your attention on cheap campus controversy.

Free speech is one of the most precious things in the world. People died to make it happen. Let’s not cheapen it. If you’re a professor, it’s your job to save it.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 26, 2017 at 2:51 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. I fully agree with your last two paragraphs, but they seem to ignore the alt-left idea that certain types of speech are, ontologically, a form of violence, justifying the use of violence in return. In this view, antifa-style beatings and looting are simply self-defense. Don’t you need to address this idea directly?

    Liked by 1 person

    Peter G. Klein

    June 26, 2017 at 3:27 am

  2. Yes, it does need to addressed. All in good time. It really deserves a specific post.

    Liked by 1 person

    fabiorojas

    June 26, 2017 at 3:28 am

  3. Shoot. I like to binge-read all your posts. My bad for reading this one in real time.

    Like

    Peter G. Klein

    June 26, 2017 at 3:51 am

  4. Does the Goffman case really fit in the argument? As far as I can tell, it was not a freedom of speech issue, but more of a positionality issue.

    I should also mention there is a difference between freedom of speech and tolerance of hate speech. So no, I don’t think hate-mongers such as Ann Coulter should be given a podium on the campus of a prestigious university (I know you are making a much wider argument here, but some of your examples are frankly not very good).

    Like

    Guillermo

    June 26, 2017 at 9:40 pm


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