The practitioners of the heckler’s veto on college campuses, i.e. those who seek to shout down or shut down speech they disagree with, have plenty of defenders. It’s fairly common these days to see these defenders writing truly awful hot takes on the topic of free speech in major publications. Yesterday, Jesse Singal at New York magazine offered a round-up and rebuttal of some of these left-wing hot takes, starting with one that was published by Vox:
Unfortunately, there has emerged a subgenre of left-of-center punditry which, rather than grapple with the complicated ramifications of this reality, instead pretends difficult free-speech questions can be “resolved” by simply swapping them out for a set of different, much less interesting questions. This commentary focuses on questions like “Is Richard Spencer a bigot?” (yes) or “Is bigotry morally acceptable?” (no), and “Does Richard Spencer engage in what could be considered ‘hate speech’?” (yes). But what you never learn from reading these pieces is that none of these questions has any bearing on what a real-life public university should do when real-life Richard Spencer is scheduled to give a real-life talk. Distressingly, even academics who should know better are playing this game.
An article that recently ran in Vox headlined “There is no 1st Amendment right to speak on a college campus” is a stunning example. Written by Robert C. Post, a legal scholar (!) at and former dean (!!!) of Yale Law School, the article simply doesn’t acknowledge the very real legal landscape that dictates the terms of this debate, and instead, in a woolly and morally righteous way, takes the reader on a meandering tour of various non sequiturs pertaining to Robert C. Post’s personal values and philosophy and opinions on what universities are — none of these thoughts and opinions having much to do with what a public university in the crosshairs of Spencer and his ilk might actually be able to do…
What good does it do anyone to write a column in a major publication saying, in effect, “I wish ‘free speech’ meant a thing different from what it really does” — especially when you don’t go on to actually lay out that view with any complexity, or to grapple with how you would square it with the law as it stands?…
There’s much more in the story, including detailed responses to the story at Vox and dissection of two more poorly thought out hot takes. As Singal concludes, underlying all of these pieces is a desire to substitute one’s own views for reality as it exists.
All of these bad takes arise from the same place: At root, people deeply want it to be the case that Richard Spencer doesn’t have a right to speak in public, let alone on public university campuses, so they contrive really silly reasons why, in their imaginary world, actually he can’t. Nor do some left-leaning pundits and academics want it to be the case that sometimes a protest put on by a sympathetic group like BLM really does violate someone else’s free-speech rights. So these pundits and academics just make something up about how “No, no, no, you see this isn’t really about free speech” — when it very clearly is!
It’s important to have someone like Singal responding to these left-wing hot takes for a fairly simple reason. The far-left groups committed to the “no platform” approach on campus already assume that anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders is a closet Nazi. Plus, accusing people of hidden racism is a significant part of what these far-left groups already do. That makes it risky for people on the right to argue that the First Amendment protects the rights of odious racists like Richard Spencer. Anyone who says so, no matter how carefully, is immediately suspected of having hidden motives, i.e. maybe he (or she) secretly supports Spencer’s views. And with little or no justification we’re off to the intersectionality races.
The potential risk of responding to these arguments is significantly lower on the left. People may differ with Singal (or Jonathan Chait) but it’s significantly less likely that they will immediately be denounced as alt-right racists the moment they mention Richard Spencer and free speech in the same paragraph.