Sadly the NY Times is back to questioning the value of free speech

One month ago I wrote a post giving the NY Times credit for publishing a solid defense of free speech. “It’s good to see the paper publish something that defends free speech as a blessing rather than a problem that needs to be solved,” I said.


Today, I’m sorry to say, the NY Times has slipped back into quite literally questioning the value of free speech. An op-ed by Professor Aaron Hanlon suggests speeches by conservatives have become too costly to police and should probably be reconsidered on a cost-benefit basis. That would be bad enough but Hanlon also downplays and excuses the reasons for those excessive costs, i.e. violent, far left protesters like Antifa.

In a typical year, the University of California, Berkeley, allocates around $200,000 to pay for security at campus protests. But since this past February, the school has spent some $1.5 million. That enormous sum excludes the $1 million the administration expected to spend this week on Milo Yiannopoulos’s chaotic and disorganized “Free Speech Week.”…

And it raises a thorny question for those who believe that free speech should trump all else: Should public institutions be spending taxpayer money allocated for higher education on speakers who aren’t there for teaching and learning?

Hanlon is correct that an absurd amount of money is being spent on security, though it’s worth noting that a recent audit showed there were other financial problems within the UC system that go well beyond the money spent on protecting conservative speakers. In any case, I think most people on the right and left would agree this is not an ideal situation. The question is this: Why is so much spending necessary? And here, Hanlon completely whiffs on the answer:


Undoubtedly, left-wing “antifa” groups have contributed to the security risks and costs at Berkeley, taking the bait that speakers like Mr. Yiannopoulos lay out and battling far-right militia groups who show up looking for a fight. But we should keep in mind, as the historian Mark Bray points out, that antifa groups form specifically to counter white supremacist and Nazi violence, having done so from the days of Hitler and Mussolini. Antifa groups are a symptom, not a cause, of the threat of white supremacist violence.

To say that Antifa has “contributed” to costs at Berkeley could be the understatement of the year. When Antifa shut down a previous speech by Yiannopoulos in February members of the group beat several people and did $100,000 in property damage. That doesn’t include the damage done to the school’s reputation as the home of the free speech movement. And that’s a pittance compared to the $1 million in damage Antifa did in Portland this year. Political violence is costly.

When Ben Shapiro came to Berkeley earlier this month, the school felt it necessary to close the balcony of the theater where he was speaking (lest Antifa kill someone), shut down 7 nearby buildings, set up concrete barriers and spend $600,000 to keep the event safe. As I pointed out here, local banks closed early and boarded up windows. Does Professor Hanlon think they were worried about zealous capitalists trying to withdraw too much money?


The bland reference to “historian Mark Bray” suggests Hanlon isn’t being remotely honest with his audience. Bray isn’t just a historian – he’s a far left former Occupy spokesman who is now the single most prominent defender of Antifa’s violence in the public sphere. Maybe that’s worth mentioning when using him as an expert on Antifa.

But the most offensive thing here is the idea that Antifa is merely a “symptom.” This is an attempt to get violent kooks off the hook for their own inexcusable behavior. Hanlon does this by bringing up the historical reaction to the Nazis. But do Nazis explain the surge of Antifa violence that took place in Germany this summer or, for that matter, in Washington in January? You almost get the impression Antifa doesn’t need much of an excuse to get violent.

Getting back to Berkeley, the amount of money spent to keep speakers safe is a proportionate response to the threat of left-wing violence. How do we know? Because in its response to a lawsuit brought against the school by the college Republicans this is the exact argument Berkeley made [emphasis added]:

The email explained that UCPD had, based on a “comprehensive review of potential sites and security arrangements,” “determined that, given currently active security threats, it is not possible to assure that the event could be held successfully—or that the safety of Ms. Coulter, the event sponsors, audience, and bystanders could be adequately protected—at any of the campus venues available on April 27th.”…

Plaintiffs contend that Defendants enforced the “unwritten, High-Profile Speaker Policy against YAF and BCR,” while allowing Vicente Fox Quesada, the former president of Mexico, to
speak on campus at 4:00 p.m. on April 17, 2017, and Maria Echaveste to speak on campus from 6:45 to 8:00 p.m. “without incident or interference from Defendants.” (Id. ¶¶ 78-79, 91.) Plaintiffs do not allege any threats to security accompanying the speeches of Mr. Fox or Ms. Echaveste.


In other words, there weren’t any right-wing mobs looking to shut down or shout down left-wing speakers. There were credible threats (and recent history) of mob action by the left against right-wing speakers. This is what you call a clue! Professor Hanlon seems to have missed it.

Finally, the suggestion that Hanlon makes that Ben Shapiro is somehow a representative of the threat of white supremacist violence is absurd. He is a Jewish conservative who has been a frequent (in fact, the most frequent) target of alt-right anger over the past year. And yet, there were credible threats he would be shut down if not for the extensive preparations by law enforcement.

The cost of protecting conservative speakers on campus is far too high, while the cost of protecting progressive speakers is minimal. The solution to this problem is not to suggest schools should give up trying but to demand that the people making the threats stop making them. It’s a shame so many contributors to the NY Times can’t seem to get that.

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