We have previously discussed the worrisome signs of a rising generation of censors in the country as leaders and writers embrace censorship and blacklisting. The latest chilling poll was released by 2021 College Free Speech Rankings after questioning a huge body of 37,000 students at 159 top-ranked U.S. colleges and universities. It found that sixty-six percent of college students think shouting down a speaker to stop them from speaking is a legitimate form of free speech. Another 23 percent believe violence can be used to cancel a speech. That is roughly one out of four supporting violence.
Faculty and editors are now actively supporting modern versions of book-burning with blacklists and bans for those with opposing political views. Others are supporting actual book burning. Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll has denounced the “weaponization” of free speech, which appears to be the use of free speech by those on the right. So the dean of one of the premier journalism schools now supports censorship. Free speech advocates are facing a generational shift that is now being reflected in our law schools, where free speech principles were once a touchstone of the rule of law. As millions of students are taught that free speech is a threat and that “China is right” about censorship, these figures are shaping a new society in their own intolerant images.
The most chilling aspect of this story is how many on the left applaud such censorship. A prior poll shows roughly half of the public supporting not just corporate censorship but government censorship of anything deemed “misinformation.”
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).
We have seen how in universities (including state schools) this can turn into a type of “heckler’s veto” where speeches are cancelled in advance or terminated suddenly due to the disruption of protesters. We recently discussed such an incident at State University of New York at Binghamton. The danger is not just that protesters can stop others from speaking but that school authorities can use that speech as a pretext for barring or shutting down events. The issue is not engaging in protest against such speakers, but to enter events for the purpose of preventing others from hearing such speakers. Universities create forums for the discussion of a diversity of opinions. Entering a classroom or event to prevent others from speaking is barring free speech. I would feel the same way about preventing such people from protests outside such events. However, the concern is not with outdoor events where all groups can be as loud and cantankerous as their voices will bear. Both sides have free speech rights to express. The issue on campus is the entrance into halls, or classrooms to prevent others from hearing speakers or opposing viewpoints by disputing events.
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 and confronted the pro-life students. 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.”
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. In most schools, people are not allowed to disrupt events. They are escorted out of such events and told that they can protest outside of the events since others have a right to listen to opposing views. These disruptions however are often planned to continually interrupt speakers until the school authorities step in to cancel the event. Some schools (as discussed in the SUNY lawsuit) do not wait in trying to cancel events in anticipation of such hecklers. At SUNY when the speaker insisted on trying to speak to the audience, a protester with a bullhorn was eventually led out of the room. However, he was allowed to simply hand the bullhorn to the next disrupter and eventually the hecklers prevailed as the officials shutdown the event.
Absent enforcement of school rules on such disruptions, there is little hope for the open exchange of ideas and a diversity of opinions on campus. It can unleash a type of tit-for-tat pattern of retaliation as speakers are prevented from speaking on controversial subjects. Our campuses then become little more than screaming matches. The rules of most schools properly draw the line between protests and disruptions. Everyone is allowed to be heard. However, if you enter an enter to disrupt it, you are disrupting free speech.
The added increase in embracing violence is particularly chilling. A quarter of those polled supported violence to prevent others from speaking. This is the core of the philosophy of the Antifa movement. It is at its base a movement at war with free speech, defining the right itself as a tool of oppression. That purpose is evident in what is called the “bible” of the Antifa movement: Rutgers Professor Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. Bray emphasizes the struggle of the movement against 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.’” Indeed, Bray admits that “most Americans in Antifa have been anarchists or antiauthoritarian communists… From that standpoint, ‘free speech’ as such is merely a bourgeois fantasy unworthy of consideration.” It is an illusion designed to promote what Antifa is resisting “white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, ultra-nationalism, authoritarianism, and genocide.” Thus, all of these opposing figures are deemed fascistic and thus unworthy of being heard.
Antifa has a long and well-documented history of such violence. Bray quotes one Antifa member as summing up their approach to free speech as a “nonargument . . . you have the right to speak but you also have the right to be shut up.”
Notably, when George Washington University student and self-professed Antifa member Jason Charter was charged as the alleged “ringleader” of efforts to take down statues in Washington, D.C., Charter declared the “movement is winning.” He is right and this poll shows the success.