Culture War

Liberals Are Amazed That Campus Free Speech Outrage Gets So Much Attention. Here's Why It Matters.

"You'd think liberal arts undergrads had the nuclear codes," writes Chris Hayes.


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MSNBC's Chris Hayes is frequently amazed; today he is amazed that free speech controversies on college campuses receive so much attention from conservative media.

The reason for this, he explains, is that the right wing holds tremendous power—control of the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and state and local government—but its "emotional fuel is grievance and persecution," and so conservatives must draw attention to the one place where they can play the victim: Berkeley.

"You'd think liberal arts undergrads had the nuclear codes," Hayes tweeted Tuesday night.

Is the right's obsession with the campus culture wars partly explained by the conservative media's continued interest in feeding an outrage-hungry base? Of course.

At the same time, it's wrong to say that this fixation on the current state of higher education in America is unwarranted. Liberal arts undergrads may not have the nuclear codes, but they are spending lots of money and years of their lives in pursuit of the most prestigious credentials in the world—the college diploma—and the power it buys. The graduates of Berkeley, and Middlebury, and Michigan, and Mizzou, and a hundred other institutions enduring similar moments of illiberalism, will go on to become business leaders and political leaders and activists and inventors and doctors and lawyers and artists and writers. They don't have their fingers on a button that could destroy the world all at once, but their ideas do matter, and will shape society in the long run.

The question is this: do we want the society of the future—the one built by Berkeley graduates—to reflect a sustained commitment to free speech and other liberal, Enlightenment norms, or not? If the answer is yes, then what happens at Berkeley should matter, for liberals like Chris Hayes as well as for conservatives.

The saddest thing about what's happening at Berkeley is that a lot of people currently invested in the project of higher education have come to believe the answer is no. Take Ulrich Baer, a vice provost and professor of comparative literature at New York University, who recently penned an article, "What 'Snowflakes' Get Right About Free Speech," for The New York Times. They are right, Baer argues, to regard offensive speech as an invalidation of their own humanity, and as such, beyond the pale of acceptable discourse:

The recent student demonstrations at Auburn against Spencer's visit — as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others — should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship. Liberal free-speech advocates rush to point out that the views of these individuals must be heard first to be rejected. But this is not the case. Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.

This view is wrong and dangerous. Free speech isn't a public good: it's an individual right. Expressing views that "invalidate the humanity of some people" does precisely that: it invalidates the humanity of some people. That may be wrong and legitimately hurtful for those people, but it does not restrict their speech. Baer, in fact, is turning the definition of free speech inside out. He is claiming that free speech is merely the right to not feel invalidated—a right that implies censorship is justified if done in order to safeguard the feelings of others. This isn't a "right," and it certainly isn't free speech.

Baer continues, "in politics, the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn to accommodate those who previously had no standing… Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone's humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned."

But the purpose of the First Amendment, and norms of free speech more generally, is to prevent the authorities from re-drawing the parameters relating to speech, since they cannot be trusted to do so fairly. Indeed, Baer's own remarks demonstrate how the people who wish to re-draw speech parameters will always be tempted to do so in a manner that disadvantages their enemies. For instance, Baer writes that "free speech protections… should not mean that someone's [] right to participate in political speech and political agents, can be freely attacked." And yet, in his article, he is attempting to craft a definition of free speech that obligates attacks on certain people's right to participate in political speech: Charles Murray, Ann Coulter, etc. This is the hypocrisy of those who would damage the concept of free speech in order to protect what they describe as the "humanity" of offended people. Invariably, the humanity of the disfavored people—like Coulter—doesn't seem to matter to them.

Nor does it seem to matter that there are students who want to hear from Coulter and Murray. A private organization that makes no guarantees about free speech to its members should have the right to discriminate against conservative students and conservative speakers. But Berkeley is a public institution, and if it refuses to defend speech and opportunity on an equal basis for all the members of its community, it is unworthy of the taxpayer's generous support.

As for "snowflakes," there's no question that the term is overused—often by people who are at least as easily offended as the students they're mocking. But some critics of these students spend a great deal of time writing about what's happening on campus because they actually take snowflakes seriously. The ideas of liberal arts undergrads matter. They wield tremendous power on campus, and they will continue to wield tremendous power after they graduate.