The Tyranny of the Speech Police

Come to Free Speech Gives Us Civil Rights, Censorship Gives Us Tyranny and Violence with David French

Wednesday, March 23rd at 6 PM | ARCH 108

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“I support free speech, but I don’t think hate speech should be tolerated.”

If you agree with the previous statement, you don’t believe in free speech. You believe in policed speech.

Unfortunately, this is the view of perhaps the majority of students enrolled in universities today. Of course, the most common leftist activist groups – groups such as Penn’s SOUL, different environmentalist groups, and many in the Black Lives Matter movement – have not helped to improve the free speech climate. Indeed, these powerful activist groups have focused not on putting forth a sound argument using evidence and logic, but rather on shutting down the speech of their opponents.

Many of these groups are, in essence, advocating for a totalitarian view of public life, where only those with acceptable viewpoints are allowed to speak.

This suppression of free speech is crippling to the only type of diversity that ultimately matters: intellectual diversity. Unlike diversity of skin color or the concept of fluid, self-referential identity, which is held in high esteem among all without the slightest speck of evidence for its long-term benefits, diversity of thought is demonstrably valuable – especially at places based on knowledge, such as universities. To shut down this intellectual diversity is to overthrow the very thing the American university was intended to be.

A common misconception is that those who support free speech are somehow cruel or uncaring toward minorities. Nothing could be further from the truth. To advocate free speech is not to be a cruel person. In fact, it is just the opposite. Those who want to shut down free speech are the ones contravening basic human rights and dignity. If each person is accountable to someone else for the things they say – namely, the government and its powerful interest groups – then how does that respect individual rights and sovereignty?

Of all the controversial forms of speech, “hate speech” is perhaps the most hotly debated. But “hate speech” is a misnomer. How is “hate speech” any more intrinsically dangerous than any other type of speech? And who defines “hate speech”? Indeed, a convenient way to police any speech is to label it “hateful” and outlaw it. In Europe, the legacy of hate speech laws has created a society that debates the form of one’s argument rather than the substance, as in the case of a 2010 attempt by the Danish parliament to bring criminal charges against MP Jesper Langballe for writing about the subjugated status of Islamic women. In many Western societies, supporters of hate speech codes have claimed that they “aren’t draconian laws” – but when a misguided outburst gets a man fined $31,000 in France, or the German government forces its way into social media conversations to limit what it perceives as undesirable communications, one has to wonder what the word “draconian” actually means these days.

None of this all-too-dominant reality for our European counterparts should be replicated on campus. Sadly, Penn has been ground zero for a whole host of inconsistencies when it comes to addressing controversial speech (despite the administration’s ranking as one of the biggest promoters of free speech in the country, which shows a disconnect between school leadership and its student body). Infamously, Penn students and faculty caused a minor diplomatic row between the United States and India when, in 2013, protesters against future Prime Minister Narendra Modi forced his event’s Wharton sponsors to back out of a scheduled speaking event. His supposed crimes varied – from not taking action to help an Indian minority group to openly advocating for policies that would only advantage a Hindu majority – but event attendees didn’t get to hear his side of the story, since a subset of the school wanted to police what an honorary guest could say.

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Protesters react to Wharton’s decision to drop Narendra Modi from a scheduled event.

Contrast this blowup with a more recent scandal: Professor Anthea Butler’s declaration that then-presidential candidate Ben Carson deserved a “coon of the year” award for his views on the Confederate flag. The failure of Penn students and faculty to counter a blatant example of antagonistic speech shows that not only is the concept of hate speech intellectually bankrupt, but that it is subjectively practiced by individuals with distinct political and social viewpoints instead of those who truly have the best interests of society at heart. At the end of the day, if you think hate speech should be eliminated, by law if necessary, chances are you’re either falling into someone else’s power play or constructing one for yourself.

It’s the raw power dynamics of policed speech that have motivated thinkers like the National Review’s David French to fight back against limitations that encroach on our natural rights. The former President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Mr. French is an avid proponent of the type of intellectual freedom that doesn’t end where feelings begin. Tomorrow, the 23rd of March, he will be coming to Penn to deliver a rousing defense of free expression on campus, appropriately titled “Free Speech Gives Us Civil Rights, Censorship Gives Us Tyranny and Violence.”

If you agree or disagree with our stance on free speech, we recommend you come to the event for a full presentation and debate. Mr. French’s talk will be held at 6 PM in Room 108 of the ARCH Building. We look forward to seeing you there.

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