Is “Free Speech” Becoming the New “All Lives Matter”?

If so, the right wing couldn’t be more delighted.

Mario Savio Free Speech Movement Berkeley in 1966.
Mario Savio on Sproul Hall steps at U.C.–Berkeley in 1966. The university had banned the distribution of political material on campus; the rally protested this ban.

Photo by Mjolvas/Creative Commons

Last week, Amherst Uprising, the social justice protest movement at Amherst College, issued a list of demands in hopes of addressing what it calls “the negative social climate created towards our peers of color and other marginalized groups.” The demands came in the wake of—and presumably, solidarity with—recent protests at the University of Missouri, Yale, and other schools. No. 5 on Amherst Uprising’s list called on President Biddy Martin to proclaim that the school would “not tolerate the action of student(s)” who had put up posters saying “All Lives Matter” and “In Memoriam of the True Victim of the Missouri Protests: Free Speech.” Martin, the Amherst Uprising document said, should tell the offending students that they might be subject to a disciplinary process and “required to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”

Essentially, the Amherst protesters want their administration to punish their peers for expressing normative conservative views about political correctness. Even in this season of standoffs over speech and sensitivity, the demands betrayed a striking authoritarianism. Of course, there’s nothing new in college students making unreasonable demands. (As a teenager, I’m pretty sure I could have outdone today’s most obnoxious social justice warrior.) The problem is that the broader left is encouraging this dismissive attitude toward free speech. Indeed, the phrase free speech risks being freighted with the same risible implications as “all lives matter,” which has become shorthand for a refusal to acknowledge the particular depredations of racism.

“Today, the rhetoric of free speech is being abused in order to shut down dissent and facilitate bigotry,” Laurie Penny writes in a New Statesman piece titled “The Free Speech Delusion.” At the New Yorker, in “Race and the Free-Speech Diversion,” Jelani Cobb writes, “The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered.” The Guardian’s Lindy West: “Teaching marginalised people that their concerns will always be imperiously dismissed, always subordinated to some decontextualised free-speech absolutism is a silencing tactic.” Kate Manne and Jason Stanley in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “All too often, when people depict others as threats to freedom of speech, what they really mean is, ‘Quiet!’ ”

There is some rhetorical slippage in the left-liberal arguments over free speech, so it’s not always clear what speech any of us are talking about. Take, for example, the situation at Yale, where the Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out an email cautioning against “culturally unaware or insensitive” Halloween costumes. Students of color and their allies, well aware of annual examples of Halloween blackface, saw this email as a common-sense request for minimal courtesy and respect. Liberal white critics of political correctness—who generally take it for granted that blackface is unacceptable—read it through a different lens. They focused not on the warnings against overt racism, but on more all-encompassing language that, for example, frowned on costumes “based on ‘making fun’ of real people, human traits or cultures.” From this admittedly privileged position, the email seemed like yet another example of PC sanctimony, the kind that gives us lists of politically inappropriate Halloween costumes that include the dentist who killed Cecil the lion (“perhaps take a pass when it comes to costumes inspired by recent painful events”) and sexy nurse (“let’s not objectify a serious career”).

My guess is that Erika Christakis, the associate master at Yale’s Silliman College, was thinking of the more outlandish strictures when she wrote her infamous email wondering if college kids could still be provocative or offensive on Halloween. Clearly, however, plenty of very smart people read her message as implying that blackface is all in good fun. To the Guardian’s West, for example, the Yale clash was “over whether or not discouraging kids from wearing blackface on Halloween was an authoritarian silencing manoeuvre.”

This suggests to me that we’re talking past one another. Certainly, there are substantive differences in how various camps on the left weigh the right to free expression versus the right to be free from discrimination. I believe very strongly that free speech must protect bigots and bullies as well as victims. (A paradigmatic case was the Skokie affair, in which the American Civil Liberties Union, in defending the right of neo-Nazis to march through an Illinois village full of Holocaust survivors, stood up for the First Amendment in the face of fierce moral condemnation.) I imagine that today’s campus activists would take a different view. The divide, however, seems to go well beyond questions of where to draw the line in extreme cases.

It could be that when campus activists and their allies hear cocooned white liberals talk about free speech, they think we’re saying, “Stop complaining about bigotry.” As a result, a dynamic is emerging in which being contemptuous of free speech arguments becomes a way to prove one’s radical bona fides.

Conservatives are elated by this. Right-wing news outlets have been covering each new development in the campus speech wars with salacious glee and are clearly enjoying the chance to publish headlines such as “Amherst Students Protest ‘Free Speech.’ ” Republicans relish the opportunity to rail against political correctness on the campaign trail. When Martin, Amherst’s president, issued a statement that was broadly sympathetic to the protesters but also protective of free speech, a parody Twitter account, @AmherstUprising, tweeted, “President Martin statement is another sign that ze doesnt get it. Any mention of defending free speech is a bow to racism.”

The right is, unfortunately, right to be delighted. Their movement thrives on a sense of victimization, so having left-wing students actually come out and say that they want to ban conservative ideas confirms all their lurid suspicions about what Jonah Goldberg idiotically called Liberal Fascism.

Further, the modern right has repeatedly benefited from backlashes against college radicals. Consider, for example, the mayhem outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where police brutalized raucous young demonstrators. Blind to the extent to which the country had turned on them, campus activists thought the spectacle would engender sympathy. They were wrong. “To our innocent eyes, it defied common sense that people could watch even the sliver of the onslaught that got onto television and side with the cops—which in fact was precisely what the polls showed,” Todd Gitlin, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society, wrote in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. “As unpopular as the war had become, the antiwar movement was detested still more—the most hated political group in America, disliked even by most of the people who supported immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.” You cannot understand that year’s election of Richard Nixon without understanding that hatred.

Ronald Reagan, too, rode to gubernatorial victory in California in 1966 on widespread antipathy toward the student protesters of what was known as the Free Speech Movement. (At the time, free speech was very clearly a cause of the left.) On the campaign trail, Reagan compared campus demonstrators with Nazis and denounced them as “beatniks, radicals, and filthy speech advocates.” The first sign of California’s “leadership gap,” he said, was “when the so-called free speech advocates, who in truth have no appreciation for freedom, were allowed to assault and humiliate the symbol of law and order, a policemen, on the campus.”

The crowds loved it. In The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, historian Rick Perlstein credits Reagan’s anti-student perorations—even more than his attacks on welfare or his promise to lower taxes—for his upset victory in California.

Twenty-five years later, the right was still trying to capitalize on anti-university sentiment, but by the early 1990s, the role of free speech had changed. Political correctness had emerged, allowing conservatives to pretend to be champions of the unfettered exchange of ideas. Rush Limbaugh made his name railing against political correctness, which he called “the greatest threat to the First Amendment in our history.” Then–President George H.W. Bush inveighed against political correctness in a 1991 commencement speech at the University of Michigan: “What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship.”*

The extent of left-wing illiberalism was often exaggerated, but the resentments stirred up by the phrase political correctness were powerful and redounded overwhelmingly to the right’s benefit. “Within the span of a few months, PC went from an obscure phrase spoken by campus conservatives to a nationally recognized sound bite used to attack political dissenters on the left,” writes John K. Wilson in The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack On Higher Education.

It’s possible that this time will be different. American demographics are changing; white people make up a declining share of the electorate, so backlash politics have fewer voters to draw on. Today’s student protest movements are milder than their predecessors, which spawned violent cults like the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Besides, the right is going to attack student demonstrators no matter what they do, so perhaps they shouldn’t worry too much about how they are perceived. To protesters today, this whole discussion may seem like so much tone-policing and respectability politics. I cringe at what looks like an enormous gift of ammunition to the right, but I can see why brash, audacious young adults don’t care.

Maybe demands for speech codes and trigger warnings and re-education for offenders are attractive precisely because they scandalize middle-aged white liberals like myself. If that’s the case, anything I write will only contribute to a hardening of positions. Nevertheless, it’s my job to write what I think, and what I think is that this ends badly. There’s a contradiction built into the position of those who minimize free-speech concerns: If students really do believe that their campuses are bastions of structural oppression, how are they simultaneously convinced that new restraints on free speech won’t be used against the oppressed?

Consider what is already happening to pro-Palestinian activism. In September, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal put out a report titled “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S.” The overwhelming majority of incidents it documented involved the suppression of pro-Palestinian speech or activism on college campuses. The tactics of pro-Israel advocates, it seems, are not noticeably different from those of left-wing activists who disdain free speech. “Activists and their protected speech are routinely maligned as uncivil, divisive, antisemitic, or supportive of terrorism,” the report said. Sometimes speakers or events are canceled after they come under harsh public criticism. Occasionally jobs are lost. Just this month, Steven Salaita, an American professor of Palestinian descent, settled his lawsuit against the University of Illinois, which withdrew an employment offer over his anti-Israel tweets.

Elsewhere, Christian conservatives are appropriating social justice language to demand their own safe spaces in classrooms and on campuses nationwide. At Crafton Hills College, a student protested the absence of a trigger warning in a course on graphic novels that included sexually explicit books such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. “I didn’t expect to open the book and see that graphic material within,” the student said. Christian students at Duke also refused to read Fun Home, which had been assigned to all first-year students. “Cultural pluralism will lose its value if students aren’t allowed to follow their beliefs, even if they are conservative,” one of the students wrote in the Washington Post. “Without genuine diversity, intellectual dialogue and growth are stifled.”

Those who are now willing to weaken free speech protections in the name of sensitivity seem awfully sure that their version of sensitivity will prevail. I don’t share their confidence. During the George W. Bush administration, the civil rights apparatus of the Department of Justice was redirected from fighting discrimination against racial minorities toward fighting discrimination against religious groups, in particular conservative Christians. If a Republican wins in 2016, it’s easy to picture the Department of Education making a similar move. I think free speech should be a first principle, and it saddens me immeasurably that that’s increasingly seen as passé. But for anyone left-of-center, it’s not just principle that’s at stake. It’s self-interest, too.

*Correction, Nov. 17, 2015: This article originally misattributed a 1991 speech to “then–Vice President George H.W. Bush.” Bush was president at the time. (Return.)

See more of Slate’s coverage of campus protests.