Belief that we have the moral high ground has always been the motivation for suppressing alternative views. But what we may be on is not the high ground but our high horse.
Restricting free speech is unconstitutional in the United States under the First Amendment to the Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights inherited in a chain that starts with the Magna Carta, whose 800th birthday we celebrated last year. Among Magna Carta’s more important provisions are its requirement that proceedings and prosecutions be according to “the law of the land”–the forerunner of “due process of law”–Article 39 of the Magna Carta–and a ban on the sale or delay of justice. Cromwell's Parliament in 1628 adopted the Petition of Right in response to some of Charles I's actions, condemning unlawful imprisonments and taxation “without common consent of parliament.” The year after William III of Orange was brought in to rule Britain in 1688, Parliament adopted the Bill of Rights, which includes some of the American Amendments such as the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive bail and fines and on cruel and unusual punishment.
There is no law restricting free speech because Congress is forbidden in the First Amendment from passing one:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.It may be more convincing to activists when someone who has long been on their side on the issues makes the free speech case. Here is an appeal from Nat Hentoff and his son Nick a few months ago (November 17, 2015), calling for a cooling off of U.S. campus activists. Nat Hentoff is an authority on the American Constitution's Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment. U.S. laws seem more permissive of free speech than British laws, for example on the boundaries of libel, but the same moral philosophy underlies both.
Public shaming on campus: Out of control, Nat and Nick HentoffPostscript on the Yale Halloween Incident
Hostility to the exercise of free speech on American college campuses is nothing new. But what happened at Yale University, the University of Missouri and other colleges over the past two weeks is something new and frightening. The suppression of speech in academia has begun to spiral out of control.
Nicholas Christakis is a professor at Yale who lives with his wife in a student residence hall on campus. An internationally renowned physician and sociologist, Dr. Christakis was surrounded by dozens of angry students who showered him with curses and threats. Dr. Christakis’ offense? He refused to publicly apologize for his wife’s email that defended free speech and urged tolerance of offensive Halloween costumes. [See Postscript below.]
Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), was on the Yale campus to attend a free-speech symposium and witnessed the incident. In the video Lukianoff posted on FIRE’s website, Christakis appears on the verge of being physically assaulted.
“Nicholas addressed the crowd for more than an hour, even after it became clear that nothing short of begging for forgiveness would satisfy them,” Lukianoff wrote in the Washington Post. “I’ve witnessed some intense campus disputes during my 14 years fighting for free speech, but nothing like this.”
The next evening – at a William F. Buckley Jr. Program conference on free speech that had been planned months in advance – Greg Lukianoff’s speech was interrupted by a student who rushed the podium, shouting, before he was dragged out of the building by campus police. Attendees then braved a gauntlet of angry Yale students who cursed and ridiculed them. The Yale Daily News reported that “several attendees were spat on as they left.”
At the University of Missouri, a student photographer freelancing for ESPN was confronted by a mob of angry anti-racism protesters who tried to eject him from the public commons area where they had gathered. After he refused to leave, the students begin a coordinated effort to both psychologically and physically intimidate the reporter into leaving.
The protesters subjected him to intense ridicule, sometimes chanting in unison, as they gradually forced him backwards. They then began to falsely accuse the reporter of the very conduct they themselves were directing against him.
MU’s student body vice president later tried to justify the students’ self-imposed restrictions on the press during an interview on MSNBC. She suggested that the First Amendment “creates a hostile and unsafe learning environment.”
Later that same week, a Christian street preacher, speaking within the campus “free speech circle,” was physically assaulted and had his microphone appropriated by an anti-racism protester.
At Amherst College, a student group called Amherst Uprising issued a list of demands to administrators that included individual public apologies for what they claimed was a hostile environment of ethnocentric racism on campus. The list also included a demand for a written statement from administrators acknowledging that students who distribute leaflets defending free-speech rights are subject to disciplinary action for being “racially insensitive,” and that any students disciplined for such an offense must “attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”
At Cornell, a well-meaning white student was forced to issue a public apology after he scheduled his own anti-racism protest without first getting the approval of the Black Student Union. He was accused, in multiple social media posts, of mocking the efforts of the BSU.
One commentator put him on notice that “if you are to be in (sic) ally, you have to acknowledge what you’ve done to hurt us.” Within hours of scheduling the event, the offending student canceled the protest and issued a public apology thanking his critics “for calling me out on my ignorance.”
These are not isolated incidents, but represent the organized adoption of mass public shaming tactics. Mass public shaming – traditionally used by autocratic regimes to silence their critics – is a particularly insidious form of censorship. It is designed to chill future speech by humiliating the speaker. Psychological manipulation and intimidation are used to impose forced speech as a means of social control.
Universities in the United States should not tolerate or appease such public shaming techniques. In his March 20, 2015, New York Times op-ed, “China’s Tradition of Public Shaming Thrives,” author Murong Xuecun writes that “cases of public shaming show us how in the name of some great cause, individual rights, dignity and privacy can all be sacrificed.”
President Obama recently offered some advice to students and faculty who feel that the First Amendment creates a hostile and unsafe learning environment.
“You don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas.” Obama said during an interview last Sunday on ABC News. “Just out-argue them. Beat ’em. Make the case as to why they’re wrong. Win over adherents. That’s how things work in a democracy."
Feb. 7, 2016–I posted the above yesterday. This morning The New York Times has a story on the Yale Halloween incident. It is described as a turning point–since then, public shaming has being redirected at student activists who in the interest of their causes are violating the higher value of free speech. In the new world where alumni are being asked to make up the shortfall in government funding of higher education, they may also have some influence on campus priorities.