Marginalized Voices Need Free Speech More Than Anyone, Including on College Campuses

PEN America's recent report on the state of free speech on college campuses was a robust - yet nuanced - defense of free expression.


What, we need free speech?
Hongqi Zhang (aka Michael Zhang)/

When PEN America released its report on the state of free speech on college campuses last October, The New York Times framed it as a warning to staunch supporters of the First Amendment over "a growing perception among young people that cries of 'free speech' are too often used as a cudgel against them."

But that's a gross oversimplification of the report, as is The Times' fixation on one single line in the report's conclusion declaring the lack of a "pervasive 'crisis' for free speech on campus," despite the report's meticulous re-airing of scores of instances of legitimate expression running into official condemnation on campuses across the country.

As I write in a new column at Vox, "Freedom of speech is often misunderstood, frequently taken for granted, and always on the defensive against forces both within and outside of government." Of PEN America's report, I write that it "makes clear that colleges can acknowledge grievances, support reasonable efforts to protect the mental and physical well-being of its students, ensure students are protected from overt harassment — and also defend the right to free expression for all."

In the column, I also touch upon the report's assessment of "safe spaces," the distinctions between censorship and "disinvitations," and why comedians and other artisitc provocateurs must be allowed to fail — even if that failure means someone was offended.

On allowing comedians to experiement and sometimes miss the mark, I write:

This argument cannot be made enough. Iconic comedians such as Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin all deployed language and epithets that were edgy in their time and would be considered beyond-the-pale today. Yet each used the power to shock in service of fighting against war, bigotry, and the status quo. If today's sharpest comedic minds are constricted to the point they are unable to even attempt pushing boundaries, all we'll get (and deserve) is a generation of safe-as-milk karaoke comedians tussling the hair of the powerful instead of challenging them.

Of course, many attempts at subversive satire will fall flat, coming off as more tasteless than witty. But the punishment for a bad joke shouldn't be official disciplinary action or banishment from campus, which is a fate that has befallen a number of college campus comedy publications.

Read the whole column here.


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  1. Taken in its totality, PEN America’s report rejects the idea that free speech is a tool of oppression.

    Okay, what? How is this even a question in any objective way? Anyone who claims free speech is anything approaching an injustice is either disingenuous or an absolute moron or likely both.

    1. Dont underestimate the degree to which the proggie’s head is filled with scrambled shit. When you start with a preferred conclusion then start molding and rearranging premises to arrive at that conclusion the cognitive dissonance becomes deafening.

    2. You know, I get a little bit nervous when you post a rational comment.

      1. I was posting it ironically, dummy.

    3. Yes, oppressed minorities would be much better off if their speech were more restricted.

      1. There is power in victimhood. We’ve seen it. They are gambling that the censoring juice they get from crying oppression will outweigh any silencing they’ll endure.

  2. on the defensive against forces both within and outside of government

    One of these things is not like the other. Stems from the basic misunderstanding of positive/negative rights, right? The Constitution specifies what the government is prohibited from doing, not what the citizen is permitted. In a purely voluntary interaction, you only have as much “right” to speak as the other party in the interaction agrees to.

    Of course, once public funds enter the equation, and the campus accepting those funds starts prosecuting speech, then whether that force is coming from within or outside of gov’t is really just splitting hairs.

    1. I think by “outside of government” he means exactly what you mention in the second paragraph, as well as “private” organizations who pressure for coercion of speakers by government or a government funded entity.

      IMHO, though this is not accepted by Reason, even a purely private entity like Facebook or Twitter can be guilty of restricting freedom of speech once they attain sufficient dominance of a certain method of communication.

      1. ” even a purely private entity like Facebook or Twitter can be guilty of restricting freedom of speech once they attain sufficient dominance of a certain method of communication.”

        No, they can’t. It is impossible for Facebook, Google, Youtube, Twitter or any similar entity to censor or restrict speech on the internet in any way. You can get, for free, a website where you can post any content, videos included, and none of those entities have the power to stop you. Althought the government might.

        It is simply untrue, and ridiculous in the extreme to suggest that any private entity has ‘dominance’ over any means of communication on the internet. They simply don’t, and if people would look beyond their sheepish dependency on such platforms, and use some of the readily available alternatives, like VOAT they would see that.
        Honestly it’s like the picture of the donkey tied to the plastic lawn chair, that thinks it can’t go anywhere…


        1. Cont…

          From a utilitarian point of view, it would be a different argument if we were discussing physical resources where corporations have de-facto monopolies, oil etc. but as I have already stated, given the create-from-nothing-for-free nature of the internet, it’s simply a non issue.

          The editorial policy of private platforms constitutes the rightful excercise of private property, an inherent unalienable individual right. It also constitutes the exercise of speech, as ( non-comercial I might add, these sites charge you nothing…) individuals have the right to control the message of their platforms.

          This excercise of private property is being interpreted as ‘censorship’ which as we all know is a violation of individual rights. It’s not, censorship involves violence or the threat of violence, otherwise it’s not censorship.

          Thus, the call is for government to interfere with the excercise of actual individual rights, in order to preserve individual rights. Let’s restrict freedom to preserve it. An Orwellian-double-switch-double-think that I am convinced someone in a government think tank is rubbing their hands with glee over.

          Let’s go back to the picture of the donkey tied to the plastic chair, and the idea that anyone has a monopoly on anything on the internet. With such blatant, self imposed helplessness, is it any wonder the elites find it so easy to rule the human herd.

  3. As I write in a new column at Vox

    OMG! We have gone over this, Reason writers: you are only allowed to write for publications of which we commenters approve.

    Don’t let it happen again, Fisher.

    1. Maybe he’s establishing a salient at Vox with the intent of taking over and chasing us progressives away to, oh, American Conservative? He’s a devious little bastard, you know.

  4. Who to believe = PEN America, or FIRE?

    PEN =

    ?The increasing diversity of college populations requires a wider conscientiousness of how words are understood by different groups of listeners.
    ?The task of fostering a more inclusive environment?and calling out language that undercuts it?cannot be left only, or even primarily, to students who are members of marginalized groups.

    1 – destroy any notion of objectivity
    2 – empower speech police!

    FIRE =

    The person who invented the concept of “Microaggressions” thinks they’re being wildly misused as a means to control speech rather than expand it

    The difference between the NYT reading of PEN’s report and Anthony’s is mostly a matter of how generously you interpret their token gestures in the directions of both Social Justice and some broad notion of free speech. Most of what I read in their document is apologism for the encrochments by the left, while throwing some symbolic language at the ‘principle’ of free speech rather than its practice.

    1. The solution to this problem is very simple. Make a Title IX version for free speech. If they want to live high off the hog on tax dollars, they will be treated like the government property that they’ve become

      1. The solution to this problem is very simple. Make a Title IX version for free speech.

        uh, no

        1. Why not? You take government money you should accept limitations. They could always just decline government funds, as radical as that sounds.

          1. Why not?

            I’d think this wouldn’t need explaining if you’ve been reading Robby’s stuff for the last few years.

          2. Without belaboring the subject – one of the reasons universities are so contemptuous of free speech is exactly because of Title IX.

            Fear of federal reprisal (*for failure to create a ‘non-hostile and welcoming environment’) is exactly why they impose draconian controls in the first place.

            Get federal rule-making out of education. Get federal money out too, but tying money to behavior requires federal police to ensure compliance = and its the federal police-powers & oversight that invites political manipulation, and its fear of that oversight that causes so many to trip over themselves trying to exceed the expectations of the OCR.

            in short = your idea would be more of the same poison. If left to themselves *(and if forced to compete for student dollars rather than rake in federal subsidy) educational institutions would cater to market demands rather than federal strictures.

  5. New MLB collective bargaining agreement bans “hazing” and “bullying”, including dressing up rookies as women on their first day in the bigs. Angels pitcher Huston Street responds with a very eloquent opinion piece:

    There are a number of venues or situations where the act of dress up is understood, and offense is not intended to be serious but an act of humor.

    So while many will argue the fear of political correctness, I would say that the degree of embarrassment to the individual or public falls many levels below an actual comedy show and Halloween, but worse it deprives the individual athlete of a ceremony wherein they are the center of the team for a day, and everyone largely is celebrating their accomplishment as full-fledged major leaguers. It’s actually a ceremony of acceptance, and someone stupidly branded it as “hazing,” and that’s how we have arrived here.

    Yes, I remember my dress-up day. I remember it fondly. I was dressed as a female of some sort. We weren’t making fun of people that actually dress that way, we were dressed up in uncomfortable clothes, as a contrast of macho dudes dressed in too tight fitting or too revealing clothes for our body type. Anyone looking at the exercise from a lens of humor would see the contrast for what it is and wouldn’t be offended.

    1. Marvin Miller would have never allowed this to happen.

    2. I remember my dress-up day. I remember it fondly. I was dressed as a female of some sort.

      someone, somewhere, is going to be in their bunk now

      1. Rule 34 is some sort of bitch, aint it.

  6. You lost me at Vox (the young adult website, as James Taranto says)

  7. Lol, seriously, Vox twice in an hour?

    I’m not clicking on or reading anything at Vox if you guys link to them in every single blog posting here for the rest of time. Ever.

    1. What if they had a picture of Lobster Girl naked?

    2. NOOOOOOOOooooooooooo……………

    3. Well, you told them!

  8. Ya’ know where a real and legitimate safe space is? The women’s bathroom. The same people that want rooms where disagreement is not allowed filled with color books and puppies also want to allow adult men pissing next to your 12 yo daughter.

    1. To be fair, women’s bathrooms don’t have urinals.

      1. Those basins in front of the mirror with two water spouts over them aren’t urinals?

        1. Those are lady bidets. They’re made so they can dunk their entire… whatever… in there.

      2. women’s bathrooms don’t have urinals.

        Solution = pee in the sink

        1. I guess if you can’t stand up in a stall…

          WTF is up with you degenerates?

          1. You just want guys pissing all over the toilet seats, huh?

            1. I’ve been led to believe that it is in fact possible for a man to pee sitting down.

    2. Because that sign on the door is magic and prevents any man from entering and doing anything bad.

      1. Go ahead, try entering the ladies room now and see what happens. Ladies will scream, men will come running. No police are required. And if no one is around to help, any ladies in there will either run out or take action themselves to eject the man.

  9. Vox again?

    You all know tht particular ratchet only turns one way, right?

    Well, ‘left’, actually………………………..

    Four years. That’s it. In four years this place”ll be DU.

    I’m gonna miss this place when it goes full on fever swamp.

  10. Some students think their free speech right includes the right to shout down anything they don’t like, during a lecture or debate or presentation, even a scholarly one. You keep using that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means.

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