“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic” was written in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s opinion in Schenck v. United States in 1919. While the decision was overturned in Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969, it is still heard on college campuses today by students of the political right and the left in response to being exposed to their cultural bugbears.
Holmes used this justification to imprison those who distributed flyers protesting the draft during WWI because it presented a “clear and present danger” to the government’s recruitment efforts during the war. While many today would disagree with the application of the ruling, many would agree with the sentiment. Nonetheless, the situation is analogous to free speech conflicts today in that denying someone a platform and normalizing ‘hate speech’ as a reason to shut down speaker events will lead to poor consequences. Trying to deny platforms to undesirable ideas alongside creating broad speech codes weaken the credibility of academia, lead to preference falsification, actively worsens dialogue on college campuses and undermines critical thinking.
Many wannabe free speech critics point out that there is a difference between giving someone a platform and denying them free speech, thus allowing colleges to remove flat earthers, Nazis, racists and other undesirables. They may point to the exposure effect and claim that simply interacting with hate speech is likely to result in hateful attitudes.
Even if both these arguments are true, they are not compelling reasons to deny any speech on college campuses. For the first argument, speakers are invited by students. If students are unable to bring speech on campus, it would seem apparent that their speech is being denied. For the second argument, not providing students reasons why their views are wrong, and instead punishing them for hateful beliefs may push them to further extremes. The only way to beat bad speech is with good speech.
When a college prevents certain viewpoints or ideas from being brought on campus, their comparative credibility is weakened. First, people with toxic ideas can claim that ‘college can’t handle the truth’ or similar slogans. With no corrective action, there’s no reason to believe that students will change their minds. Colleges lose to their arch-nemeses when they create a climate where people feel as if the truth is being obscured. Steven Pinker, in “Political Correctness is Redpilling America” argues that denying obvious facts like capitalist societies are better than communist societies and men and women are not identical in life priorities and goals, lead to a lack of credibility to the outside world. Furthermore, a series of hoaxes in the social sciences have led to many people’s distrust in academia. One way to regain some of the credibility is free-for-all dialogue where the best ideas rise to the top.
Furthermore, academia creates martyrs from morons when it punishes those who have hateful ideas. Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU explains how “During the Nazi’s rise to power, there were very strict anti-hate speech laws. Many leading Nazis actually served time in prison … they loved it.” By pointing out how they went to jail for their beliefs, they received more attention than if they had not been punished. If these impediments to their speech make them desirable, taking away their ‘barriers’ instead of amplifying, would weaken their message.
Secondly, college leads to preference falsification when it becomes inhospitable to unpopular viewpoints. By banning speakers of certain perspectives and not others, it sends that message clearly. By punishing students of some ideological persuasion for disagreement about the nature of global warming, incentive structures are created that discourage dissident speech. If one gains little from challenging a teacher’s point of view when they disagree with it yet carry dire consequences if the teacher does not tolerate opposition, then students falsify their preferences to do well both academically and socially. This leads to incentives where work of little merit is accelerated to acclaim because students and other faculty fear criticizing professors of certain ethnic backgrounds, sexualities, disability status, etc. This allows ideas that were very fringe to immediately become mainstream and teaches college students to go with the flow rather than express their own opinions.
Preference falsification results in ideas that were fringe immediately becoming mainstream, significantly less good-faith argument, relative uncertainty about what ideas are accepted and potentially undesirable institutions, like the campus sexual bureaucracy. Since today’s norms are about sensitivity, comedians do not want to perform on campuses, people are unwilling to criticize others and people do not know how to engage with people who do not share the popular belief.
As a result of preference falsification, dialogue becomes worse. If people simply parrot the politically correct view, without believing it, maybe what may be politically correct may not be agreed upon. This might make many political conversations not political but rather about obtaining social validation. While arguably not bad, the illusory consensus is sustained by Manichean rhetoric, where iconoclasts are not just incorrect, but also immoral. Conversations about welfare reform become about hating the poor. Conversations about immigration become about xenophobia, and everyone is worse off knowing that if they stray from the consensus, they completely lose their social status. In a culture where free expression is not valued, dialogue becomes harder.
Furthermore, broad deference to sensitivity makes it harder to make meaningful social change and commentary. It is unthinkable that “Jojo Rabbit,” a Hitler satire mocking hatred and pleading for tolerance, would be produced in areas like Germany because of restrictions on speech. Meaningful art is rightfully critical of the world around it, and preventing uncomfortable imagery does not normalize, but rather mocks it. By teaching students that the correct approach to social change is throwing opponents off campus, the small liberal perspective becomes weak in the face of adversity and fails to impact the world around them.
Finally, pretending as if there is a consensus on academia actively discourages people to remain engaged. If all the answers are already there, there is not a point of thinking further. If people disagree with the norms, there’s ‘scholarly consensus’ meaning that critics are either ignorant, or some variant of evil, or both. They are either blissfully ignorant, evil or both.
More importantly, bringing speakers of all ideological stripes teaches critical thinking in ways that activism does not. Seeing competing ideas being presented in their most compelling and radicalizing form allows one to fairly compare the benefits of different perspectives, and can give compelling reasons to accept or reject ideas. The current system of “there were Nazis, and they were bad” does little to stop us from being manipulated. Instead, allowing ideas to joust will bring an end, or at least a partial conversion to better ideas.
Finally, there’s this unspoken idea that maybe the real reason for avoiding Nazism on the college campus is because there might be something deeply appealing to it. If this is the case, college is a total waste of time and money and should promptly be defunded. If college cannot teach us critical thinking skills, and our professors are no more convincing than Nazis, my degree is worth no more than toilet paper.
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Isadore Johnson is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.