My column in the USA Today concerns the growing movement among Democrats in seeking to limit free speech and embrace censorship. This trend was vividly on display this week when University of California-Berkeley sought to feature a speaker on free speech. The choice was a reporter who seeks to limit free speech and opposes those of us who advocate for the right as “absolutists.” New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz is actively seeking to convincing free citizens to give up this core freedom in the name of controlling extremism. Of course, all of the examples of extremism cited by Marantz seem to be found on the right.
Marantz’s book ANTISOCIAL: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians and the Hijacking of the American Conversation repeats the siren’s call for censorship being heard around the country, particularly on our campuses. Berkeley has been repeatedly accused of curtailing or blocking conservative speakers. Thus, it seems only fitting that its free speech speaker should be someone opposed to free speech. Berkeley Assistant Vice Chancellor of Executive Communications Dan Mogulof said that Marantz’s anti-free speech message “covered issues related to Free Speech of interest to the members of the campus community.” It makes as much sense as inviting a vegan writer to hold forth on the joys of beef.
Marantz insists that our model of free speech is fundamentally flawed and analogized the traditional view of free speech to holding a party where a couch was burned:
“You might strongly disapprove of the person lighting the couch on fire and feel very concerned and have a deeply furrowed brow on your face. But you set the conditions that made that possible. You did or didn’t have a policy at the door of who was going to get carded. You made the lighting choices, you made the music choices, you chose not to have a functional PA system at the party so that if somebody does start lighting a couch on fire, there’s some way to quickly alert everyone, ‘Hey, guys, there’s a couch on fire. We need to do something about this.’ You just opened the doors and said, ‘The marketplace will figure it out.’” And if you’re wrong, which in the case of our current real timeline, they were wrong. It’s not really clear what you can do once it’s too late. And you have authoritarians installed in 10 major democracies and all the rest of it.”
It is a uniquely poor argument since the only choice made in a free country is to guarantee free speech. We certainly do not know who will engage in bad or hateful speech. However, we are more concerned with people like Marantz deciding who will attend “the party.”
Marantz indicated who he would exclude from the party. He speaks of “white supremacy” which he declares “has always been used by what has been called the political right.” He also railed against Fox News and “specious, Dinesh D’Souza arguments about how Democrats are the real racists.” He added a complaint that “apparently Rupert Murdoch just will never die.”
By the end of the remarks, Marantz made a far better argument for my “absolutist” ideas than I could. For Marantz, free speech has to be curtailed to stop conservatives and the forces of “white supremacy.” The problem is found on the right and not in such anti-free speech movements like Antifa. Indeed, Marantz’s arguments seem right out of the Antifa handbook.
I have previously discussed how Antifa and other college protesters are increasingly denouncing free speech and the foundations for liberal democracies. Some protesters reject classic liberalism and the belief in free speech as part of the oppression on campus. The movement threatens both academic freedom and free speech — a threat that is growing due to the failure of administrators and faculty to remain true to core academic principles. Dartmouth Professor Mark Bray, the author of a book entitled “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” is one of the chief enablers of these protesters. Bray speaks positively of the effort to supplant traditional views of free speech: “At the heart of the anti-fascist outlook is a rejection of the classical liberal phrase that says I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” He defines anti-fascists as “illiberal” who reject the notion that far right views deserve to “coexist” with opposing views.
Marantz expresses the same intolerance for the free speech of those who hold opposing views. It was no doubt empowering for the faculty and students at Berkeley who have actively opposed events featuring those with differing views. Yet, Marantz could be heard as a free speech speaker who opposes free speech.
I actually think it is great to have speakers like Marantz as part of differing views on this and other subjects. However, his message is one of exclusion, regulation, and censorship of others. As such, he certainly found his audience at Berkeley.