A professor at the University of North Carolina recently sent me an article on a “free speech event” held at the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy as part of the University’s 13th First Amendment Day celebration. What was striking about the free speech panel was not just that it was decidedly opposed to core free speech principles but it lacked a single panelist who spoke primarily in favor of free speech and against censorship. The panel, “Weaponizing First Amendment Rhetoric,” was clearly designed to offer the opposing view to traditional free speech and First Amendment values, but the lack of a dissenting voices allowed these views to go unchallenged. The panel could have served a more valuable purpose if they had allowed a single panelist to voice opposing views.Overall, the North Carolina “First Amendment Day” celebration seemed more like a condemnation event on the threat posed by free speech. Indeed, it often seemed like a collection of vegans assembled to “celebrate” meat-based diets. One professor even chaffed at the very purpose of the event in celebrating the First Amendment: “what about a Reconstruction Amendment Day? … Why is it that this particular amendment is what takes on outsize concern, both in our imagination on our campuses and in our rhetoric?”
Notably, the other panels included one on “how best to regulate social media,” exploring new efforts to regulate speech in Europe and the United States. As shown by the recent call of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for a global censorship system, many on the left have embraced private and state censorship to silence opposing voices on issues ranging from climate change to gender identification to election fraud.
In an article entitled “Whose freedom of speech deserves protecting,” The Well reported on the “panel of Carolina experts discussed how political extremists use the First Amendment to justify spreading misinformation.” All of the panelists were associated with the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life and held forth on the abuse of free speech and “alternative ways of thinking about expression.” Not a single voice was heard on the other side in opposition to such censorship or in favor of social media as a forum for open and free speech.
I would welcome such opposing views in any celebration of the First Amendment if the panel also included just one professor who would allow for balance and even a real debate over such issues. Instead, the event was pile-on panel on how free speech can be harmful and the need to redefine the right to stop some from voicing harmful thoughts.
Here is a sampling of the panelist comments:
Tressie McMillan Cottom, associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science and CITAP senior faculty researcher
“In a democratic process, you would be able to hold a pundit, but especially a politician, to account for their truth claims, for example. Who do I approach? … We now no longer know if the people who are spreading the rhetoric on Facebook or Twitter are actually in the United States of America. Misinformation and disinformation campaigns come from across the globe. …
It has never been so cheap to do it; it has never been so easy to do it; and there’s never been so little accountability for doing it. I think in modern political history, what has happened in this moment is a hollowing out of the performative center.”
Not Professor Cottom’s objection appears to be to anonymity, long viewed as a critical component to free speech. Of course, anonymity does not prevent you from combatting bad speech with good speech; responding to the underlying arguments with your own arguments. Moreover, if there is defamation, the courts allow for stripping away anonymity in many cases. Finally, even if arguments or ideas are coming from outside of the country, the power of such ideas can be tested and refuted in the exercise of free speech.
Daniel Kreiss, Edgar Thomas Cato Distinguished Professor at Hussman and CITAP principal researcher
“Weaponization is ultimately about power. It’s about power between different social groups that are contending for political, economic (and) cultural power, social status, et cetera. Telling lies … is lucrative. You make a lot of money. We know that from the 2016 election…
When you have a layer of commercial and technological mediation underneath the public sphere, it’s going to incentivize and create returns for actors of certain forms of very extreme performance that’s fueled by emotion and sentiment and that can also be corrosive to democratic life. … Weaponization of the First Amendment can also be the crowding out of other discourse. So we’re here celebrating First Amendment Day. But what about a Reconstruction Amendment Day? … Why is it that this particular amendment is what takes on outsize concern, both in our imagination on our campuses and in our rhetoric?”
Professor Kreiss rails against those who he views as engaging in “extreme performance that’s fueled by emotion and sentiment.” In his view, such free expression is actually “corrosive to democratic life” because it can result in “the crowding out of other discourse.” So the democratic solution is presumably to prevent others from engaging in such speech to make way for speech that Professor Kreiss considers more worthy of expression.
Shannon McGregor, assistant professor at Hussman and CITAP senior faculty researcher.
“[After discussing why social media should be able to silence figures like Donald Trump] There’s no real mechanism for public voice in these decisions (by social media platforms) … There needs to be some mechanism for public voice in these decisions.
I also want to push back on the idea that we had a public square and it was great and everyone could talk and everyone was heard. We have never had a public square … that was accessible by everyone and where everyone felt heard. … And I also want to say it’s not always bad to not be in public. That, in fact, it can be very beneficial for people who have historically been marginalized from our so-called public sphere to be able to have a space that is safe and beneficial for them to talk about politics and social problems.”
Professor McGregor seems to suggest that the public should be involved in decisions to ban other people. Rather than seek to protect all voices, she seems to favor a method for the public to collectively push for the silencing of unpopular voices or restoring popular voices. That would make free speech largely protected for majoritarian or popular viewpoints — an invitation for the very orthodoxy already evident on our college campuses.
Francesca Tripodi, assistant professor at SILS and CITAP senior faculty researcher.
“I think is really fascinating is how rhetoric concerning the First Amendment is used in a bizarre way to ban books … (that) are overwhelmingly books that deal with race, racial inequality, gender inequality, sexual identity. And so what’s fascinating is that what I see in my research is that political elites and pundits have an extremely sophisticated way of driving public attention toward these concepts but misrepresenting what these concepts are.”
Professor Tripodi is right to oppose the banning of books, though she focuses on the bans of books on the left as opposed to an array of books banned or limited due to alleged racism, sexism, or other objections. Indeed, we have discussed how many on the left have discovered the allure of book burning, book banning, and blacklisting of authors.
Once again, I think that such views are valuable as part of a day discussing the First Amendment. These professors clearly spoke of the value of free speech overall and their views are clearly more substantial that the snippets from a panel discussion. However, it is the exclusive presentation of views favoring censorship or speech limitations that is unnerving. Even on a panel designed to give voice to such sentiments, the students would have benefitted from a small degree of balance to challenge such viewpoints.
I recently discussed the growing anti-free speech movement on our campuses in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. The view of speech as harmful is now dominant on most faculties. The article is entitled “Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States.”
There is now a virtual echo chamber on faculties which have virtually purged their ranks of conservative and libertarian professors. For example, a survey conducted by The Harvard Crimson revealed that 82.46% of faculty surveyed identify as “liberal” or “very liberal.” Only 16.08% self-identified as “moderate” and a mere 1.46% identified as “conservative.” Not a single faculty member identified as “very conservative,” but the number of faculty identified as “very liberal” increased by another 8% in just one year. At the same time, conservatives have been virtually eliminated from the student body with only seven percent of incoming students identifying as conservative.
Frankly, I am not sure who on the faculty would offer a free speech perspective in opposition to these calls for speech control. However, it is ironic to hear academics complaining about opposing views “crowding out of other discourse” on a panel devoid any any alternative view of free speech or censorship.
This is hardly unique. Law schools routinely hold panels on cases like Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that lack a single faculty member defending the opinion or supporting the underlying interpretative approach. The same is often true on other cases this term on cases like religion clause decisions from Kennedy to Carson. The only diversity on such panels is often on the alternative views on why the Court is wrong or partisan. For conservative or libertarian students, the balance often seems to run from the left to the far left. The result is an echo chamber that reflects the lack of diversity on most faculties.
The threat is not simply to the erosion of free speech. The loss of diversity of viewpoints on our faculties represents an existential threat to higher education.