Look Who Wants a Safe Space Now

Free speech makes all kinds of people uncomfortable.


Pity the poor snowflakes—so sensitive they must be shielded from speech that might hurt their tender feelings.

Campus liberals? Nope. We're talking about supposedly serious grown-ups, including some veterans and Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman (R).

Monday evening Wittman met with a group of tea party activists at American Legion Post 90 in conservative Hanover. Eugene Truitt—the post commander and an Air Force veteran—asked Wittman when Congress would act on a flag-desecration bill. Wittman said it could happen soon: "I continue to push the leadership to have it come to the House floor," he said. "I do think it's worthy of debate about what are the limits of freedom of expression under the First Amendment."

Of course he does. Why should he be any different?

Last year Donald Trump tweeted a suggestion that anyone who burns the flag should face "consequences—perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!" More than 213,000 people liked the tweet. Some veterans spoke favorably of the idea. (At other times, other veterans also have vigorously opposed it.)

In 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects desecration of the American flag, veterans groups supported a constitutional amendment, and polling showed broad support for the idea among the general public.

In 2012, the Republican Party Platform included language insisting, "By whatever legislative method is most feasible, Old Glory should be given legal protection against desecration." Heck, even Hillary Clinton once co-sponsored legislation that would have put flag-burners behind bars and fine them up to $100,000. Who says Democrats and Republicans can't agree on anything?

Flag-burning legislation is supported by many people who, in other circumstances, probably would ridicule the impulse behind it. Combat-hardened veterans likely have little sympathy for hypersensitive college students who need speech codes and "safe spaces" to protect them from politically incorrect thoughts, and even jokes, they don't like. Nor do those students merit sympathy. They merit a lecture on the need to grow up and stop behaving like crybabies.

And yet: What is a flag-burning amendment, but an attempt to turn the entire country into a safe space? It is, in fact, the epitome of political correctness: National flags designate political entities, and flag-burning expresses a particular opinion about the American polity.

Is it an odious opinion? Sure. But then there are many odious opinions. Some of them were on view Saturday night in Charlottesville, when white supremacists held a torchlit rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee. By what standard would supporters of a constitutional amendment define flag-burning as so odious it lies beyond the protection of the First Amendment, without concluding the same about assertions of white supremacy?

Speaking of which: When conservative scholar Charles Murray—whose work suggests racial differences might have a genetic component—showed up to speak at Middlebury College earlier this year, protesters shouted him down and set off fire alarms. When he and Middlebury professor Allison Stanger (who had been invited to push back against Murray in a civil dialogue) tried to leave, protesters assaulted her. She had to go to the hospital, and wound up in a neck brace—but not before protesters pounded on the car she and Murray rode away in, rocked it, and jumped on the hood.

Last month controversy erupted in Berkeley over a scheduled speech by conservative performance artist Ann Coulter. Campus police feared they could not adequately ensure public safety at the event, and Coulter's speech was canceled. "Free speech crushed by thugs," Coulter tweeted.

At nearly the same time, left-wing activists in Portland shut down an annual Avenue of Roses parade because they objected to participation by the Multnomah County Republican Party.

A flag-burning amendment takes a more formalistic approach to censorship than campus thugs do, but it still crushes free speech. And it does so through a mechanism—the government's police power—that is backed up by just as much violence as any campus mob can inflict, if not more.

People can always gin up clever arguments to disguise what they're really doing. The latest academic casuistry is the claim that censorship actually protects free speech by—better sit down for this one—relieving people who dislike a viewpoint of the obligation to refute it. To that, Mother Jones' Kevin Drum—a liberal who still gets it—provides the necessary refutation: "Once you concede the right to keep people from speaking, you concede the right of somebody to make that decision. And that somebody may eventually decide to shut down communists. Or anti-war protesters. Or gays. Or sociobiologists. Or Jews who defend Israel. Or Muslims. I don't want anyone to have that power."

He's right. Nobody should.

This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.