Whose Speech Is Free? And at What Social Cost?

Some “free speech” proponents only support perspectives that have advantaged them -- at the expense of social progress, argues Christina Berchini.

July 14, 2017
 
 
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It is clear that lawmakers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are attempting to achieve politically neutral college campuses in the name of “protecting” free speech -- campuses where all speech is considered equally valuable, no matter how morally repugnant, intellectually empty and psychologically dangerous.

See, for example, Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, which argues that race and class significantly influence intelligence. I highlight it here, as it is one of the more recent examples out of Wisconsin -- and is a form of speech that gloms on to the belief that white men are morally, intellectually and psychologically superior to anyone not white and male.

Yet The Bell Curve is certainly not the only example of the kind of speech that our white male-dominated Wisconsin Legislature wishes to see protected by way of illegalizing even the mildest of opposition (as though there are not already mechanisms in place to deal with activities that are actually considered illegal, such as violent protest). Such speech is now closer to protection from opposition, as Assembly Bill 299 sits before the State Senate, having achieved a 61-36 vote in favor of its passage.

That being said, what if The Bell Curve argued the exact opposite: that white men are scientifically proven to be morally, intellectually and psychologically inferior to their nonwhite, nonmale counterparts? Moreover, would those in favor of the measures proposed in the bill stand quite as determinedly behind campus speech that wishes to highlight the radicalization of young white men? What about speech equating whites and white supremacy with terrorism? To what extent would proponents of such measures sit idly by as their identity is marginalized, minoritized, threatened and called into question by people who claim to know better, as has historically been the case for people of color and marginalized populations?

In sum, whose speech is free? Whose speech does Assembly Bill 299 protect?

There is no such thing as a politically neutral campus. No speech is neutral, no message free of ideology and power relations. To speak at a college campus or educational institution is to encourage thought in one direction or another. To illegalize protest and campus activism in the name of neutrality is also a political stance -- a politics of silencing. Moreover, it is to delude the public into believing that a depoliticized campus is possible when “forced” to become one by law: an exercise deeply dependent upon civic illiteracy.

That fact is that when you have values -- whether as a lawmaker, campus visitor, student, faculty member or administrator -- you have politics.

Consider the irony embedded in the stance held by proponents who wish to see opposition to culturally toxic and damaging speech illegalized. They support Wisconsin’s attempts to “protect” free speech at the same time lawmakers have eliminated tenure protections for educators and researchers across the state, thereby threatening intellectual and academic freedoms -- again, the same sorts of freedoms I presume they wish to see “protected.”

If lawmakers and their constituents want so badly to see speech “protected,” can I count on them to stand beside me when my academic and public articles about white privilege and white supremacy fall into the wrong hands, thereby resulting in threats to my livelihood and well-being -- in much the way Sarah Bond received threats of violence for daring to suggest that classical statues and their symbolic whiteness were not actually conceived that way by their artisans? Have these same proponents of free speech stood behind Bond? Or have they stood behind Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the Princeton University professor who dared to comment on the state of affairs surrounding this nation’s current presidency? Is such speech not deserving of the same protections that legislators in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Virginia and elsewhere envision? If not, why not?

Moreover, will proponents stand with me should Wisconsin’s Board of Regents make decisions about my future -- decisions not in my favor -- if and when they disagree with my research and teaching about whiteness and white supremacy, an objectively large and growing field of study dating as far back as the beginning of the 20th century? Will they pull for me when groups like Professor Watchlist and The College Fix publish something critical about me and my work?

Am I being cynical as I presume to know the answers to these questions?

Make absolutely no mistake: to claim neutrality is a political act; to develop and enforce laws in pursuit of the myth of neutrality is a political act; to illegalize protest is a political act. To silence opposition is a political act. To support campus speech while railing against tenure protections is a political act and also a blatant exercise in hypocrisy.

I am not sure that it’s “free speech” proponents of Assembly Bill 299 purport to want to protect as much as they wish to support perspectives that have only ever advantaged them and the bill’s beneficiaries at the expense of social progress. Rather than hide behind a thinly veiled commitment to free speech, they might ask themselves: Which speech do I want protected on college campuses, and at whose expense? Whose speech do I want protected, and at what social cost?

Those running the show in Wisconsin have presented to us, practically on a silver platter, one of the starkest cases of hypocrisy embedded in the politics of free speech across the country. One cannot support free speech and debate on campuses while unraveling tenure protections and intellectual freedoms for faculty. Unless, of course, it is a particular brand of speech that proponents are after -- and that represents a devastating social commentary about those who deserve protection and those who simply do not.

Bio

Christina Berchini is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire.

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