Campus Free Speech

Vox Wants Progressives To Support Free Speech for the Wrong Reasons

Eric Levitz argues that the left should take a stand against censorship—for practical rather than principled reasons.


Across the nation, college administrators are cracking down on pro-Palestenian speech. In Texas, police violently broke up peaceful protests, and one college even reportedly told students that they couldn't use the phrases "Israel," "Zionism," or chant in Arabic. At Brandeis University, police shut down a pro-Palestine protest because its president said it had "devolved into the invocation of hate speech."

While progressives have tended to support campus censorship efforts in recent years, an article in Vox by writer Eric Levitz argues that the left should embrace free speech—and that its push to censor speech in the name of inclusion and social justice was misguided. 

"Should students concerned with social justice rethink their previous skepticism of free speech norms, for the sake of better protecting radical dissent? I think the answer is yes." wrote Levitz. "There is reason to believe that progressives would be better equipped to resist the present crackdown on pro-Palestinian advocacy had social justice activists not previously popularized an expansive conception of harmful speech."

Levitz's article also argues that rejecting censorship could lead the left to find more allies when their ideas are on the chopping block.

"In a world where right-of-center intellectuals had more cause for believing that their defense of leftists' free expression would be reciprocated," Levitz wrote, "it seems plausible that opposition to the Antisemitism Awareness Act might be a bit more widespread and its prospects for clearing the Senate somewhat dimmer."

While Levitz's piece is refreshing, its support for free speech isn't about adopting a new appreciation for the principles of free expression, regardless of political viewpoint. It's about adopting the best policies to protect left-wing ideas.

Save several paragraphs reminding progressives that debate is necessary for finding the truth and that "the more insulated any ideological orthodoxy is from critique, the more vulnerable it will be to persistent errors," Levitz's argument is pragmatic in nature. He spends most of the piece—correctly—arguing that if progressives had been willing to take a stand against censorship of right-wing beliefs, the current norms allowing for the censorship of pro-Palestine activists would not have been set in place. 

However, if your reason to defend speech is purely practical and self-interested, it becomes much easier to indulge in exceptions to your free speech principles. Surely, allowing the censorship of the most offensive, unproductive viewpoints couldn't be used to justify the suppression of your own, much better, ideas, right?

Levitz even hints at such exceptions. "If adopting a permissive attitude toward campus speech entailed significant costs to progressive causes, then doing so might be unwise," he wrote, later adding, "Defending free speech and standing up for the disempowered may sometimes be competing objectives."

When your defense of free speech comes from a core, universal principle, calls for censorship are unthinkable. This is why, for example, it's so frustrating to see Levitz group the First Amendment nonprofit the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) with a long list of "conservatives" who have spoken out against censorship of pro-Palestinian activism. 

FIRE—and everyone else smeared as "conservative" for standing up against censorship—doesn't begrudgingly defend left-wing speech so that right-wing speech will stay protected—they're a nonpartisan organization that defends First Amendment rights because they believe fiercely in the importance of free speech.

Perhaps the biggest flaw is that Levitz's piece still doesn't make the core realization that there can be true, principled, defenders of free speech—those who truly think a nation with more ideas and more voices, even offensive ones, is better than one with fewer. Instead, he sees speech protections as a kind of truce, a decision from both the left and right to leave each other alone so they can both best further their political goals.

We would have a better, more functional world if more people—left or right—were willing to passionately defend the free speech rights of those with whom they disagree. However, getting to that world requires that people let go of the idea that censorship is ever a good idea, not merely that it's impractical.