Free Speech 101

Wartime censorship is alive and well and living on campus.

Following Sept. 11, many of us feared that the war on terror would result in massive government restrictions on free speech. And almost immediately after the attacks, a fistful of public critics of the war (Bill Maher and two small-town journalists) were indeed fired, boycotted, or suspended. Most of that hysteria died down soon enough—but not at our universities. A year later, on college campuses, we are still suspending professors and beating up students with unpopular viewpoints. And what’s more, we do all this under the pretext of fostering openness and free expression. Wartime censorship is alive and well, but it’s happening only in our colleges, our “laboratories of democracy.”

These firings and suspensions were not initiated by the government, and consequently they don’t implicate the First Amendment. They threaten a broader democratic ideal of free speech: the long-cherished belief that words don’t hurt but censorship does. Call it patriotism or call it “academic sensitivity,” but censorship is still censorship, even when it’s invoked to shore up some gauzy dream that universities are a Technicolor rainbow of love and tolerance.

Long before Sept. 11, there was a growing perversion of what both freedom and speech mean in our universities. The university as a bastion of unfettered political dialogue morphed over the last two decades into the university as quasi-parental hug-factory that must ensure that students don’t feel harassed by words they don’t want to hear. Universities have become the arbiters of which words are threatening, hateful, or offensive, a game the courts wisely got out of years ago.

Virtually every stupid speech-related decision made at a university in the year since Sept. 11 was intended to “protect” fragile student sensibilities. Thus, the student newspaper at Berkeley was disciplined by the student Senate for running a cartoon immediately after the hijackings showing the World Trade Center terrorists arriving in hell rather than paradise. [Correction, Sept 20. 2002: The paper was not disciplined but rather condemned in a nonbinding resolution.] Condemned for having fostered anti-Muslim “intolerance,” the editors were ordered to apologize on the front page of their paper and attend “diversity training” (the second-worst invention of the last century; the worst being speech codes). A professor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., received a letter of reprimand for offending students by claiming in class that Muslims who fail to condemn terrorism are effectively condoning it.

Perhaps the most famous example of overzealous academic censorship is the decision of the University of South Florida to fire, then un-fire, and then ask a court whether they may constitutionally re-fire a computer engineering professor, Sami Al-Arian. His ever-changing list of offenses includes: an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor after Sept.11; saying, “Death to Israel” at a conference in 1991; and affiliation with a think tank associated with terrorist activities. Although the school itself found no evidence to support the latter charges, the university president contends that death threats against Al-Arian put the entire campus at a safety risk. No one talks about firing Alan Dershowitz, and he likely receives more death threats in a day than Al-Arian will in his lifetime. Fraternities and beer bongs also put campuses at a safety risk but no one has tossed them onto the streets.

Perhaps the most distressing new form of campus censorship has come with the increasingly generous academic definition of what constitutes protected student protest. Last week, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to speak at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. When hundreds of anti-Israel protesters staged what turned into a riot, the speech was canceled. Never mind that protesters punched and kicked prospective listeners who were lined up to hear the speech or that the protesters shattered windows, upended newspaper boxes, and hurled furniture. Less than a handful were arrested; instead, the university responded with censorship, declaring a temporary moratorium on “all Middle East-related student activity on campus.”

Ahmed Abdirahman, a spokesman for one of the groups that organized the protest, was quoted in the Montreal Gazette saying, “As responsible citizens, we have to be here to say physically to Netanyahu that his hatemongering isn’t permitted in Montreal.” Apparently to “say physically” is not the same as “assault” in his book. It is in mine.

The idea that physical brutality can be used effectively to interfere with political discourse should terrify any believer in democracy. Canadians—who don’t have a First Amendment but do have a long and impressive history of protecting speech—mostly recognize what happened last week for what it is: Violence dressed up as a politically correct protest.

In a similarly disturbing incident last May, anti-Israel demonstrators at San Francisco State University staged a counterdemonstration to a Jewish peace rally. A group of Jewish students were surrounded by at least twice as many pro-Palestinian students screaming, “Hitler didn’t finish the job,” “Fuck the Jews,” and “Die, racist pigs.” When the faculty on hand failed to intercede, campus police had to form a barrier, and the Jewish students were escorted from the area. This protest was not speech. It was violence.

Free speech does not encompass the right to fire, suspend, or riot your way into a universe in which everyone agrees with your views, even if you have legitimate grievances. The courts are well aware of this, but it seems that universities, both here and in Canada, are not. On campus, you may “speak” freely—with fists, chairs, and broken glass—so long as you are a member of an aggrieved minority with delicate sensibilities and a narrative of oppression.

This leaves the state to take on a new role in protecting free speech. The state must be responsible for busting up the monopoly that has taken over the marketplace of ideas: a monopoly of suffering, political correctness, and sympathy without limits. In the firing cases, the state will be represented by the courts, which will reinstate faculty fired for no reason other than unpopular views. And in the campus protest cases, the state must acknowledge that people who use force to suppress the opinions of others are not performing some sacred protected speech act. They are committing assault, not merely on other humans and on the basic promise of free speech, but on democracy itself.