Against Free Speech

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been over a year now since I’ve set foot on a college campus. And feeling a bit removed from academia, when the matter comes up I feel somewhat reluctant to share my views with my colleagues about the present debates surrounding campus politics.

But the latest wave of headlines, those that have centered on events at the University of Missouri and Yale University, have orbited to varying degrees around the idea of free speech. And having thought quite a lot, and published just a little, about civil liberties, I do feel qualified to throw in my two cents.

Critics of vociferous college students are charging them with being hostile to free speech. (Such charges have occurred in other recent instances, for example, when Condoleezza Rice was set to give a talk last year.) They wrap a number of arguably distinct issues under an umbrella rubric of “politically correctness” and lament the chilling effect that such students have on academic freedom and critical discourse.

What I find most ridiculous about these charges is their historical ignorance. In comparison to the degree that we’ve seen a resurgence in the use of the term, few voices are pointing to the ways in which the term “politically correct” was part of a targeted program of the right in the 1990s. The invention of the phrase and the idea of “politically correctness” was done with one purpose in mind: to discount those who would seek to upset the normative power structure of society. Yes, just like you, I’m guilty of having enjoyed the movie PCU when I was young. And before I was even politically conscious, I bought into its premises: that the underprivileged are bullies, and annoying ones at that. They need to chill out and have a beer.

If “politically correct” is the greatest discursive victory that the right has ever won, “free speech” is the greatest trick that both right and left — and everyone in between — has played on one another. The arguments of writers at the New York Times and the Atlantic presume the existence of what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the marketplace of ideas,” a well-meaning but utopian notion that if everyone were allowed to say what they wanted to say, the best ideas would win out. We know that things don’t work that way. In Holmes’s time, ideas were discounted simply because they were held by immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, people that didn’t fit the day’s standard of “100 percent Americanism.” Today, ideas hold the most weight when they have the force of mass media behind them, when funds can be marshaled such that they are audience tested, honed, and repeated ad nauseum. Then of course there’s Citizen United. And as Steven Salaita argues in his new book, ideas triumph when they are able to capitalize on regimes of civility, embedded in established discursive networks that privilege normative conceptions of decorum over social justice. In other words, unpopular ideas need to be shouted to be heard, but its this very process of shouting that makes them subject to charges that they are outside the bounds of acceptable discourse.[1]

We should remember that even the ACLU, at its founding, did not understand free speech as an end, but rather as a means.[2] In an era when the Post Office could steal your mail if it bore the stamp of the IWW, the ACLU sought to employ civil liberties–free speech–as a means towards civil rights–labor and racial justice. When Nick Kristof et al. lament the lack of free speech on campus, they’re performing a rather odd kind of prioritization, in which holding on to a principle is more important than righting material injustice. What good is free speech, if it is not a means towards the very things for which those voices that appear to be so offensive are arguing for: safety, security, and equality? A rejection of the fetishization of free speech and civil liberties doesn’t mean getting rid of academic freedom, it means wholly reconceptualizing the very idea of such a thing, understanding that freedom itself is a vestige of the modern enlightenment conception of the self, and is poorly suited to addressing the problems that the university faces in the neoliberal age. Freedom in such an age would require humility on the part of those who find it so easy to utilize readily available platforms to argue for the silencing of those who are desperate for others to listen to them speak.


[1] Steven Salaita, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), 106.

[2] American Civil Liberties Union Microfilm, Reel 16, Vol. 120, 11-12, Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University.