WASHINGTON, June 14, 2016 — Around world, free speech is under attack. The assault takes different forms. The Economist observes,
“First, repression by governments has increased. Several countries have reimposed cold-war controls or introduced new ones. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia enjoyed a free-for-all of vigorous debate. Under Vladimir Putin, the muzzle has tightened again. All the main television news outlets are now controlled by the state or Mr. Putin’s cronies. Journalists who ask awkward questions are no longer likely to be sent to labor camps, but several have been murdered. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, ordered a crackdown after he took over in 2012, toughening up censorship of social media , arresting hundreds of dissidents and replacing liberal debate in universities with extra Marxism.”
Assaults on free speech take place in countries like Mexico, where reporters who investigate crime or corruption are often tortured, then murdered. It is rampant in the Muslim world and beyond, when Muslim extremists slaughter those they think have insulted their faith. Secular bloggers in Bangladesh have been hacked to death in the street, French cartoonists slaughtered in their offices.
In America, the idea has grown that we have a right not to be offended. “Identity politics” warriors argue that men have no right to speak about feminism, nor whites about slavery.
At Oberlin College, a group of black students wrote a 14-page letter to the school’s board and president outlining 50 nonnegotiable demands for changes in Oberlin’s admissions and personnel policies and academic offerings. They wrote, “You include Black and other students of color in the institution and mark them with the words ‘equity, inclusion and diversity,’ when in fact this institution functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and … a heteropatriarchy.”
At Wesleyan University, when the school newspaper, the Argus, published an opinion piece questioning the integrity of the Black Lives Matter movement, some 170 people signed a petition demanding that the paper be defunded. At Emory University, students complained of being “traumatized” after finding “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks around campus. The Trump-averse protesters chanted, “Come speak to us, we’re in pain.”
Emory’s president wrote a letter promising to “honor the concerns of those students.”
Writing in the New Yorker, Nathan Heller notes that reports such as these
“… flummoxed many people who thought of themselves as devout liberals. Wasn’t free self-expression the whole point of social progressivism? Wasn’t liberal academe a way for ideas, good and bad, to be subjected to enlightened reason? Generations of professors and students imagined the university to be a temple for productive challenge and perpetually questioned certainties. Now, some feared, schools were being reimagined as safe spaces for coddled youths and the self-defined, untested truths that they held dear. Disorientingly, too, none of the disputes followed normal ideological divides: both the activists and their opponents were multicultural, educated and true of heart. At some point, it seemed, the American left on campus stopped being able to hear itself think.
Commentator Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote “The Coddling of the American Mind” for the Atlantic, arguing that young people taught to embrace “vindictive protectiveness” were being poorly educated for the challenges of the real world. Shielding students from unwelcome ideas is unhealthy for the workforce and the democratic commonwealth.
In Western Europe, the idea of free speech is contracting. The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will tolerate no insults to his person, faith or policies at home, and now demands the same in Germany.
In March, a German comedian recited a satirical poem about Erdogan “shagging goats and oppressing minorities.” Erdogan invoked an old, neglected German law about insulting foreign heads of state. Surprisingly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has let the prosecution proceed. Nine other European countries still have similar laws, and 13 bar insults against their own heads of state.
Many countries have laws against “hate speech” that are broad and vague. In France, actress Brigitte Bardot has been convicted five times of incitement to racial hatred because, as an advocate for animals, she complains about halal slaughter methods.
In India, section 153A of the criminal code, which was introduced under British rule, punishes those who promote disharmony “on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever” with up to three years in jail.
Early in June, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered government agencies to divest themselves of companies and organizations aligned with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, a nonviolent political protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian Territories. In his executive order there is a provision that requires the state to create a list of companies that participate in the BDS movement.
Daniel Sieradeski, founder of Progressive Jews PAC, writes in the New York Times,
“In 1985, Gov. Mario Cuomo proposed that New York divest of its billions of dollars of investments in companies that did business with South Africa ‘to demonstrate,’ he declared ‘the abhorrence of our residents of the pernicious system of apartheid.’ … How times have changed … Mario Cuomo’s son, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, signed an executive order essentially creating a blacklist of entities that divest, boycott or divest from Israel or encourage others to do so. … I believe that economic boycott is a legitimate form of political expression, one that the government has no business restricting by withholding state business.”
Professor Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law suggests that Cuomo’s executive order could violate the First Amendment; its language penalizes advocacy of boycott or divestment, aiming not just at those engaged in such pursuit but also those who simply “promote others to engage” in it—which, he argues, is “a bridge too far.”
Sieradski writes, “This is also personal. As a Jew who has lived in Israel and has many relatives there, I feel that the government should not be dictating how I relate to the Jewish state and in what ways I voice my objection to its policies. Regardless of how one feels about the Israeli occupation and the B.D.S. movement, Mr. Cuomo’s decision should be an unsettling precedent.”
Free speech is not viewed by many young people, both in the U.S. and other Western countries, as an essential ingredient of a free society. A recent survey found that two thirds of British students endorsed the National Union of Students’ “no-platform” policy. Speakers “no-platformed” in Britain include Peter Tatchell, a gay rights activist who was a hero on campuses in the 1990s but has upset some of today’s students by favoring free speech even for those who are critical of gay rights.
According to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center, 47 percent of British 18-to-29-year-olds think the government should be able to stop people from saying things that offend other people’s religious beliefs. Fifty five percent of French young people think that the government should intervene to prevent people from saying offensive things about minority groups.
Richard Dawkins, the Oxford University biologist responded, “A university is not a ‘safe space.’ If you need a safe space, leave, go home, hug your teddy and suck your thumb until ready for university.”
Many prominent figures have been prevented from speaking recently at American universities, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim; and Jason Riley, an African-American journalist who wrote a book called “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder For Blacks To Succeed.”
In a column entitled “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance,” Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times, “We progressives believe in diversity, and we want women, blacks, Latinos, gays and Muslims at the table—er, so long as they aren’t conservatives. Universities are the bedrock of progressive values, but the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious. We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.”
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, notes, “Universities are unlike other institutions in that they absolutely require that people challenge each other so that the truth can emerge from limited, biased, flawed individuals. If they lose intellectual diversity, or if they develop norms of ‘safety’ that trump challenge, they die. And this is what has happened since the 1990s.”
Without free speech, other freedoms can hardly exist for very long. Many have not yet become aware of how threatened free speech now is, in our own country and throughout the world. It is high time that this growing problem be confronted. And we must ask ourselves why we have not transmitted to the next generation a respect for the values upon which free societies depend.
Those whose job it is to educate young people for the future have, it seems, failed when it comes to free speech.