Flagging Free Speech: Washington University Student Triggers Free Speech Debate by Removing 9/11 Memorial

As we discussed yesterday, there are different views of what occurred on 9/11 that are expressed (appropriately) on our campuses. Indeed, while some have criticized the holding of critical forums on the anniversary, it is precisely the type of diversity of viewpoints that sustains higher education. However, a student senator at Washington University in St. Louis has triggered a free speech debate after he allegedly removed American flags from a 9/11 memorial display and threw them into the trash. While condemning the action, the school has taken no action against Fadel Alkilani, vice president of finance for the student union. A common argument on campuses today is that shutting down the speech of others is itself an exercise of free speech — something I have long contested.

In a video posted by Young Americans for Freedom, a student identified as Alkilani can  be seen stuffing the 2,977 small American flags into bags and attempting to carry them away.  He reportedly attempted earlier to destroy the memorial but was stopped by campus police.

Alkilani reportedly told YAF, “I did not violate any university or legal policy. Now go away.”

Julie Flory, the university’s vice chancellor for marketing and communications, issued a statement that notably did not include any statement of intent to sanction or expel Alkilani.

“We were disappointed to learn about the disruption to the 9/11 display on Mudd Field,” the statement read. “We condemn the interference with the expression of support by the College Republicans for the victims of the national tragedy that took place 20 years ago today.”

The incident raises an ongoing debate over whether such destruction or obstruction of speech is itself protected speech. We discussed this issue recently with regard to a lawsuit against SUNY. It is also discussed in my forthcoming law review article, Jonathan Turley, Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States, 45 Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (2021).

This has been an issue of contention with some academics who believe that free speech includes the right to silence others.  Berkeley has been the focus of much concern over the use of a heckler’s veto on our campuses as violent protesters have succeeded in silencing speakers, even including a few speakers like an ACLU official.  Both students and some faculty have maintained the position that they have a right to silence those with whom they disagree and even student newspapers have declared opposing speech to be outside of the protections of free speech.  At another University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display.  In the meantime, academics and deans have said that there is no free speech protection for offensive or “disingenuous” speech.  CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,”  Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned after she made a single analogy to acting like a “slaveholder” as a self-criticism for failing to achieve equity and reparations for black faculty and students).

We previously discussed the case of Fresno State University Public Health Professor Dr. Gregory Thatcher who recruited students to destroy pro-life messages written on the sidewalks and wrongly told the pro-life students that they had no free speech rights in the matter.  A district court has now ordered Thatcher to pay $17,000 and undergo First Amendment training.  However, Thatcher remained defiant and the university appeared complicit in his actions by the lack of disciplinary action.

The pro-life students had written messages on the sidewalk like “You CAN be pregnant & successful” and “Unborn lives matter” to “Women need love, NOT abortion.”  Thatcher got students from his 8 a.m. class to help remove the anti-abortion messages and their chalk was taken away to write pro-choice slogans on the sidewalk. The students seem entirely unconcerned that they are censoring speech and engaging in a grossly intolerant act.  Instead, they refer to their teacher as telling them that they should do so.  Thatcher then walked up.    Thatcher invoked the controversial restriction of free speech to “zones” and says that there is no free speech right for this type of writing outside of that zone.  When the students explain that they have permission, he then proceeds to rub out their messages and declared “you have permission to put it down — I have permission to get rid of it.”

Thatcher is arguing that same Orwellian “Stopping free speech is free speech” position.

A few years ago, I debated NYU Professor Jeremy Waldron who is a leading voice for speech codes. Waldron insisted that shutting down speakers through heckling is a form of free speech. I disagree. It is the antithesis of free speech and the failure of schools to protect the exercise of free speech is the antithesis of higher education.

I would support Alkilani in putting up a counter display advancing his own view of 9/11. I would also support his demonstrating against the demonstration. Unlike a speaker, he can demonstrate around the flags without destroying or obstructing the original display. When students destroy displays or enter speaking venues to prevent people from hearing opposing views, they are not engaging in free speech. They are engaging in acts of censorship, intimidation, and obstruction. I have long recommended that such students be disciplined, including expulsion for those who refuse to comply with prior warnings.

Yet, students like Alkilani believe that they have license to silence others — a view reenforced by schools which do not even fire professors who physically assault people on campus.

Update: You can read Alkilani’s statement on the incident here.

78 thoughts on “Flagging Free Speech: Washington University Student Triggers Free Speech Debate by Removing 9/11 Memorial”

  1. The fault lies with the professors and administrators who established the environment in which ghastly acts like the destruction of a 9/11 memorial are reasonable, and even encouraged. It is the inevitable outgrowth of an elite progressive culture that celebrates widespread rioting (but only for a ‘good’ cause), the destruction of monuments (careful though, because if you even look sideways at a ‘good’ monument you will be cancelled with prejudice), rank racial hatred and division among Americans, and the oppression of one’s political opponents. The way to right the ship is to hold the professors and university administrators who create these conditions personally liable for the cost of restoring the memorial to its original condition and the loss of their privileged positions in academia.

    1. “[W]e can’t go bankrupt because . . .”

      Buy a wheelbarrow. You’ll need it to carry all of that fiat money to the store, to buy a loaf of bread.

  2. “Who are you addressing? Yourself? It certainly isn’t me.”

    You say that because you are a generic anonymous, and feel that provides you anonymity. It proves you are Anonymous the Stupid.

  3. I’m liberal. I generally agree with Justice Brandeis that when it comes to 1st Amendment speech rights, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” To be clear: he is talking about government restrictions on speech. He would not claim that private companies must be forced to carry speech that conflicts with their terms; indeed, he would note that such a requirement would abridge the companies own 1st Amendment rights. One of the challenges these days is that technology makes it increasingly easy to privately block speech one doesn’t want to hear, even when it’s “the processes of education” that can counter “falsehood and fallacies.” Seems to me that the only counter to such private choices is for parents, educators, employers, … to emphasize the importance of good faith exchanges with those who have different ideas than we do.

    I’m concerned about the extent to which people on the left, right, and middle try to shut down speech they object to, especially when they turn to threats and violence to do so. I’m concerned that this sometimes occurs at places like universities, which should be devoted to helping students learn to (1) develop good arguments to counter falsehood and fallacies, and (2) refrain from responding to provocation with threats or violence.

    I see that JT has updated his column with a link to Alkani’s statement. This article also has a more complete discussion than the College Fix article Turley linked to: https://www.studlife.com/news/2021/09/11/fadel-alkilani-september-11-washu-flags/

    1. I don’t object to your sentiments, though I do object to one not taking note that most of the violence has been from the left. I also object when government quietly uses SM to do what government itself is not permitted to do.

    2. Someone says:

      “importance of good faith exchanges with those who have different ideas than we do.”

      Good faith. That’s the rub. Turley thinks that all Conservative speech is made in good faith. Of course, that is not true. When speech is unmistakably made in *bad faith” as in outright “lying,” then it should be ignored- not repeated by being recklessly broadcast on a cable program. As the Fox defamation lawsuits prove, a broadcaster can be held liable for publishing lies which damage a party’s reputation. And if a broadcaster should not publish lies which harm reputations, why should it not take the same precautions not to publish lies- though not damaging a reputation- but are lies nonetheless?

      1. I posted the 4:17pm comment, and I highly doubt that “Turley thinks that all Conservative speech is made in good faith.”

        Left, right, and center, some people argue in good faith all/most of the time, and other people don’t. I bet Turley recognizes that.

        I agree that people who argue in good faith don’t lie. People who argue in good faith sometimes make false statements by mistake, but we try to avoid it, and if someone else correctly points out that we nonetheless said something false, we correct it.

        I also think that media should likewise avoid lying, should do its best to avoid mistakes, and should correct its mistakes.

        1. Anonymous,

          Are the someone who refuses to scribble your initials?

          I was exaggerating that Turley believes that all Conservative speech is made in good faith. He has acknowledged that Trump has lied though he has not declared the “Big Lie” a blatant lie, likely because his network is being sued for defamation for publishing it for months. He does not want to make an admission against his network’s interest.

          I am hard pressed to recall where Turley has acknowledged the difference between an unpopular good faith opinion, an honest misstatement of fact and a flat-out lie. The latter should be treated differently than the 2 former, but he does not explore these distinctions. I have no reason to believe that Turley would approve of Little Brother refusing to publish an obvious lie. Admittedly, not all dubious statements are obvious lies, but some undeniably are.

          Turley would counsel against publishing known lies or defamatory statements recklessly against a public or a private party. But a false statement which goes not defame a person’s or company’s reputation is not to be banned because, he would argue, the ONLY acceptable recourse against bad speech- of any kind- is good speech.

          Despite being a law professor, Turley NEVER publicly explores whether good speech is sufficient to remedy blatant lies. We know that telling the liar that his statement is false is a fools errand, for the liar is acting in bad faith. The only people willing to entertain the good speech are those that have heard the lie. Fox is accused of broadcasting the Big Lie. How does one reach Fox’s audience to debunk the lie when Fox does not give anyone an opportunity to rebut it? Appearing on Fox’s cable competitors to voice a rebuttal is to no avail, for Fox has drummed into its viewers that MSNBC and CNN are “Fake news” not to be trusted.

          Under these conditions, truth cannot neutralize lies or honest misinformation. Is it any wonder then that this country cannot agree on what is the truth? When opinion shows dominate cable networks, there is no incentive to air voices opposing the opinion makers. Turley’s model of good speech vs bad speech works in a setting where both voices are fairly and evenly presented simultaneously to an audience willing to hear both sides. These conditions do not obtain on cable tv.

          But Turley simply repeats- the solution for bad speech is good speech. However, if Turley would certainly advise Fox that it is ill-advised to risk broadcasting defamatory statements recklessly because it may damage someone’s reputation, why should Fox not undertake the same precautions to avoid broadcasting lies and misstatements of facts even if they don’t?

    3. Dear Liberal Anonymous, I am buoyed by your standing up for free speech. I have only one request. Please provide a link to conservatives using violence to curb your freedom of speech. As Professor Turley points out on a daily basis there are many examples of cancellations and violence by those on the left. Any corresponding examples of these cancellations and violence by the right would be appreciated and if found to be true would be duly noted. I await your studied response.

      1. This is not a “studied response,” but it is a good faith response.

        As a start, you could consider the hundreds of people charged with violence here: https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/capitol-breach-cases
        Many of them are conservative, and they seemed intent on shutting down the speech of members of Congress discussing whether to certify the Electoral College vote.

        Another example is white nationalist James Alex Fields Jr., who ran his car into counterprotesters at the Unite the Right rally, killing Heather Heyer.

        I await your good faith response.

  4. Does freedom of speech trump trespass?

    The rioters couldn’t engage in freedom of speech in the Capitol on January 6th.

    The property owners/organization must designate free speech areas whereon protestors are not trespassing…me thinks.

    1. “Does freedom of speech trump trespass?”

      No.

      “The rioters couldn’t engage in freedom of speech in the Capitol on January 6th.”

      Breaking windows, hitting cops with batons, spraying cops with bear spray, stealing things, … are not protected speech.

      1. Are you talking about one of the BLM riots? Burning buildings, taking over part of a city, killing people, looting etc. Somewhere a long the line you have had a brain freeze, and it hasn’t thawed out yet.

  5. “You’ll almost certainly get your wish. He is already facing some backlash.”

    Likely the punishment will be slight. There is a two tier system of justice in our present world. I already know you will disagree.

    1. And perhaps has violated (at least) federal law in desecrating the USA flags. With video evidence, this despicable person needs to suffer the consequences of his terrible misconduct.

    1. The Weatheman warns:

      “There’s a Civil War coming.
      Marxists have NEVER been voted out.”

      Hey, Eb, after Turley reads threats from his followers like “The Weatherman,” do you think that he ever lies awake at night and wonders to himself, “What did I ever say to draw such people to my blog who desire a Civil War? Perhaps I should denounce them though at the risk of alienating many of my followers…..hmmmm”

  6. It’s really time to stop all this BS. By playing the nice guy these Marxist bullies are going to keep pushing. Start demanding that this guy be removed from the school, there’s plenty of people who want his brand of BS in Venezuela. If he’s defied a court order why is he still on campus? Their whole plan is wipe out history, wipe out any thoughts they don’t agree, wipe out the constitution and this will be their “new beginning”.

    1. Margot Ballhere says:

      “Start demanding that this guy be removed from the school, there’s plenty of people who want his brand of BS in Venezuela.”

      Another example of TCC- Trumpist Cancel Culture

  7. I actually do think that if there is protection to say the most tough things to hear then the pushback it gets is also free speech. Short of that, it’s basically free speech for me but not for thee…, basically a free speech caste system.

    Agreed with Jeff’s observation about your leaning almost exclusively, if not completely exclusively, on free speech examples from the right, Turley. A great example to cite this past week along free speech lines would’ve been the guy in Colorado who got up in those girls faces at the beach about their bathing suits being inappropriate for his young male children to have to see. It was borderline Taliban behavior as he justified his fundamentalist views with a twisted view of the bible. And also hilarious when one of the girls started spitting bible back at him by telling him to go ‘gouge his eyes out’…

    An awesome American cultural collision moment.

    eb

    1. Also the trumpist who stalked a woman and her kid around in a grocery store coughing at them because they were wearing masks. Sort of a magat karen. She ended up losing a decent job as a result. We need to discuss that hag at length, Turley.

      eb

      1. And, need I forget, trumpy bear’s especially orange moment when he basically gave a public reach around to Robert E. Lee’s prospects in the Afghanistan war when he for all intents and purposes said the south should’ve won the Civil War. Let’s discuss…

        eb

        1. Perhaps Anonymous doesn’t recognize that fact this his posts on this website demonstrate that, 8 months after President Trump’s term of offices ended, Anonymous still needs medical help to deal with his serious mental illness (a/k/a Trump Derangement Syndrome). such a sad and ill person is Anony.

        1. Thetennants1970 demands:

          “Go off and read a good book or weed your yard. Stop posting on this website!!”

          Typical Trumpist Cancel Culture (TCC)….

          1. Jeff, he didn’t cancel anyone even though you, with your law degree, didn’t recognize that. He made a suggestion based on your complaints that demonstrate a person who can’t control his emotions.

            SM

            1. Jeff spends most of his/her/they time posting aggrieved comments about she/her/his not having any him/her/its Marxist friends to play her/his/shiser talking points

              this is what happens when a civilization cancels natural law and is replaced with whatever floats his/her/shis feelin’s

    2. I am concerned about what some people seem to think “Taliban behavior” is like. I think about the woman who was beheaded in a football stadium and the young woman who was shot by her husband urged on by a mulla while men stood and watched. No trial. Her crime was trying to escape a torturous marriage. Taliban just take woman and rape them. If they determine a group of people are apostate, they can do anything without punishment.

      1. Taliban like behavior would include your examples but also the thought processes that would justify in one’s mind the rationale for undertaking such acts, some of them lesser on the continuum but still cut from the same cloth. Using religious extremism to dominate women (and others). On that level, it is the same thing to perform an overtly violent act or just to rail on in public about how someone thinks women should dress.

        eb

    3. And also hilarious when one of the girls started spitting bible back at him by telling him to go ‘gouge his eyes out’…

      “Spitting” would be about right. A crude, disgusting public display. Of course she is ignorant of what she thought she was quoting. Another leftist, mindlessly repeating what someone else has gotten wrong.

  8. Civil Disobedience requires more than mere acceptance of punishment. John Rawls, last century’s most influential ethicist and political philosopher, called for civil diobedience to be constained by other factors. First the disobedience must harm no one (even blocking streets harms other’s freedom) , it must be a last resort when all other forms of dissent have been exhausted, it must concern only laws that harm basic human rights (Rawls makes a special point that mere economic inequality is too hard to pin down ,especially since in many cases it actually is better for the poor than absolute equal outcomes. Finally, since there are many reasons for criticizing others, the particular act must not be piling on all the other reasons for disobedience. Imagine if every single instance of unfairness is met with civil disobedience simultaneuosly. Think of the problem areas such as mistreatment of elderly, low pay for certain workers, not allowing 19 year old people to drink alcohol, no smoking in public areas, overweight people objecting to systemic bias against them. You could imagine thousands of sore points that could be excuses for diobedience ultimately shutting down the country since it isnt perfect. Some philosophers believe that civil disobedience is almost never acceptable, you must just try to vote out unfair laws and resort to disobedience if human rights are so devastated that revolution is necessary.
    Another point, about the purpose of college: while debate on controversial issues is nice, the foundations for reasonable debate needs to be taken into consideration. Basic history, economics, and an introduction to politcal issues either in political science or philosophy are helpful. For example it would be helpful if people knew about the meaning of the term socialism and/or capitalism and had a good understanding of the history of both would be helpful. Helpful not just for picking a side but also for understanding the other side and not taking criminal actions just because you have read a book on one side. Think and learn before you take drastic action mand hopefully don’t even take the drastic action just argue in a civil manner.

    1. I just read about a hospital in NY that had to shut down it maternity ward after a number of their nurses quit over the vaccine mandates.

      If 100 million Americans, from truck drivers, to warehouse workers, to nurses, to LEOs and EMS etc. all quit, would that be a form of civil disobedience you are looking for?
      No snark implied, serious question as why does these debates have to take place in a college setting or those in that setting? What about those outside of academia?

      1. If 100 million Americans, from truck drivers, to warehouse workers, to nurses, to LEOs and EMS etc. all quit
        Consequences for those that are intent on killing others.
        Except congress citters AND their staffs, and the US Postal Service. Biden cut out specific exemptions for them.

        All for mandates that have been shown to be worthless.

  9. It’s NOT free speech to steal and destroy someone else’s free speech. Alkalani should IMMEDIATELY be removed from any official Wash U position (head of council, RA-ship, etc) and put on disciplinary probation. He slunked away like the coward he is stealing other’s property and defacing the American flag. Wash U should be embarrassed they admitted him.

  10. Said this many times; if the Left wants social anarchy, they can probably get their way.

    They just won’t like it when they have that anarchy.

    1. Every time I hear trumpists toss out this line of logic I’m reminded of the exuberance in the South about the oncoming Civil War. People going out in the street to proclaim “WE GOT OUR WAR!!!”

      Safe to say the actual playing out of that scenario didn’t work out as planned from their perspective.

      eb

      1. EB, why for once can’t you agree that what the kid was doing is wrong? HE didn’t just disagree, he took property and trashed it. Just once try saying, “Turley, you are right, this kid needs to be disciplined”. Man, why can’t you stop being a darn partisan for a minute? Wrong is wrong, you are the worst whatabout person I have seen in quite some time.

        1. Well, for one, I was commenting about someone’s statement. Signified by my commenting to the person’s statement. Rest is in your head, hullbobby.

          eb

      2. It was Democrats who owned slaves, and caused the Civil War. It was Democrats who passed racist legislation to prevent blacks from voting, and having equal access to society. Democrats have always taken advantage of minority citizen populations and discriminated against them. Even today they use blacks as a political weapon, but do nothing to raise the black standard of living or standard of education. Democrats actually fight against programs that help educate blacks, frequently closing them down.Instead, Democrats promote abortion of black babies, and have created conditions so that in major Democratic cities young blacks and other minorities kill one another in high numbers.

        Get your facts straight.

        1. Your ‘facts’ obviously don’t include the change that took place between the democratic and republican parties in the 50’s and 60’s. So, as usual, you’re clueless and unapologetic about proving it in public.

          And you’re also insane.

          eb

          1. The Democrats have changed the way they handle the minorities, but it is using them, not helping them. You can most clearly see that in the NYC public schools where Democrats go after some minorities and try to stop the development of schools that have proven so successful for poor blacks and hispanics. NYC is one of the largest population centers for these groups.

            You deal in fiction and generalities because you don’t know very much. I’ll debate you on the topic of education where plenty of information is available. You on the other hand have an empty hand so you won’t debate. Instead you will insult, telling people they are insane. That is the highest level you have yet achieved remaining somewhere below in the subbasement.

    2. “if the Left wants social anarchy, they can probably get their way.
      They just won’t like it when they have that anarchy.”

      When the left gets enough of their way they won’t have such a problem. They will keep it their way using force backed by guns and spies. Remember, this is part of their history. Under President Wilson children were asked to report what their parents were saying that was ‘banned’.

      1. When you say you are a liberal, what type of liberal are you? There is the classical liberal and the Liberal that emerged when the name progressive became tainted. They are two different types of liberals. The true liberal can lean right and left, but he believes in freedom of speech, individualism, etc.

  11. Bravo Turley,

    You have criticized a Rightwing outlet for applauding the banning of Leftist speech:

    https://www.campusreform.org/article?id=18147

    In spite of your criticism, however, I notice that YOU no longer invite Leftist opinion onto your blog which is so essential, as you claim, “to sustain higher education.” For example, here is viewpoint which you had invited before:

    https://jonathanturley.org/2014/04/26/gods-messenger-cliven-bundy-his-wacko-disciples-and-uncivil-disobedience/

    As a free speech advocate, why have you decided to no longer feature such diversity of opinion on your blog for the edification of your readers? Are you concerned that they may not be as open-minded as you and your law students?

    1. Speech is not destruction or suppression of others’ free speech. This student is a common criminal as well as an anti-American hate-monger. Just like much of the left.

    2. Jeff, you say you are well educated and a lawyer. You have your own opinions. You can be one of the voices of the left. Stop asking people to be your servant. Go ahead and present the side of the story you wish to be seen.

      SM

      1. You can be one of the voices of the left. Stop asking people to be your servant

        But his only goal is to stand on his front porch an hurl invective at Turley. It’s nothing but envy that drives him. He has no opinion, other than opposite of Turely. He believes by taking Turley down a notch, he has somehow elevated himself. But no, is still at or near the bottom.

        1. There are those who are willing to work hard to climb the ladder of success. Then, there are those that will pull others down while standing in place. They are under the delusion that by pulling others down from the ladder, they are advancing.

          Jeff is the second type.

        2. Iowan2 claims:

          “He has no opinion, other than opposite of Turely.”

          That is a lie. I praise Turley for not being a Trumpist like you. I give him credit for not embracing the Trumpist mindset of calling Leftist speech “Fake News” or “Hoax.” And I applaud him for never engaging in the conspiracy theory of the “Deep State.”

          Trumpists are my opposite not Turley, because he is on my side, not yours.

          1. ” I praise Turley for not being a…”

            Jeff praises G. Floyd, because Floyd was never convicted of murder. Wow!

  12. You could argue that such actions represent civil disobedience. IIRC, however, the actor must be willing to accept the punishment for disobedience, showing some deference to the Rule of Law. Something that many of these actors refuse to do. One wonders what would happen if M. Alkilani was actually punished or prosecuted for his actions

    1. What are my options to confront this “civil disobedience”? Am allowed to forcibly stop this jerk? Am I allowed to take back what is not his? How is it that this jerk is able to pull 2,977 flags out of the ground and put them in bags without anyone seeing or stopping him?

  13. Again, why is the right backing down? How about instead of holding a camera, why isn’t the camera holder taking the flags back? WE need to start confronting the bullies.

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