In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, many were quick to affirm the sanctity of free speech rights. Je suis Charlie campaigners online and in the streets of Paris promoted the idea that people should be free to say whatever they wish. Without legal sanction and without violent reprisals.
Not everyone signed on. Conservative Muslims tempered the view that speech should be unfettered. They cautioned that some speech is too offensive to be protected.
Americans by and large have sided with freedom. While some have doubted where our president stands, most in our society have steadfastly disparaged the violent furor over cartoons that upset Muslim sensibilities.
But is the Western world intellectually consistent in its defense of free speech? Do we walk the walk when it comes to speech that offends our sensibilities? We’re all for “ridicule rights” so long as the target is a traditional religious point of view. (I certainly haven’t noticed anyone among our political and cultural elite wagging a finger at the producers of the The Book of Mormon, the Broadway musical which mocks The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.)
How about something that counters liberal norms about race, gender, or sexual orientation? Or sacred historical memory of epic injustice, such as black slavery or the Holocaust?
In Europe there are laws forbidding denial of the Holocaust. Europeans are in a particularly tough spot about resurgent antisemitism, and the more responsible political leaders among them understandably want to tamp it down. It is certainly upsetting to observe neo-Nazi sentiments surfacing amidst radical political and Islamist movements. As with so many other social and economic maladies, however, the Europeans rely too heavily on government solutions. Constraints on speech in France eliminate discredited ideas about as well as constraints on commerce reduce their high levels of youth unemployment.
You’d be mistaken if you hoped to find relief in the sanctuary of a college campus. The Free Speech Movement may have originated at UC Berkeley 50 years ago, but that university long ago sacrificed its integrity on the altar of political correctness. Nationally recognized speakers at Cal who fail to toe the politically correct line have been “disinvited” to speak or shouted off the podium when they do. Just last fall the student committee organizing graduation ceremonies withdrew its offer to HBO comedian Bill Maher (until the university overturned its decision).
It would be comforting to write off this pattern as another example of “Bezerkley” politics. Unfortunately, Cal is not exceptional in its treatment of speakers who stray from orthodox positions. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has tracked dozens of similar incidents taking place at public and private universities across the nation. Victims span the political spectrum.
Anti-Israel dogma has particular resonance in the academy as an excuse to suppress the free exchange of ideas. The most recent and perhaps the most egregious Israel bashing emerged last month at The Durban University of Technology in South Africa, where student leaders demanded that Jews, especially those who decline to “support the Palestinian struggle,” be kicked out of the university.
Although we may disagree on the specifics, many ideas are genuinely offensive. We have phrases like “the n-word” which are so inflammatory they can only be uttered without opprobrium by foul-mouthed black comics. If a position is so fundamentally objectionable, however, it should not require the force of law or the threats of violent mobs to suppress it. Any idea that is beyond the pale of civilized society we can and should refute with reasoned discourse. To do otherwise is to undermine what should be the purpose of opposition: to persuade.