Writing in the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh takes on Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson’s new book, End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun), which he describes as incoherent because it “both celebrates the power of the First Amendment and mourns the kind of 'free speech free-for-all' that they, suggest, the First Amendment is powerless to protect.” Sanneh also goes after liberal Fox News pundit Kirsten Powers' book, The Silencing: How The Left is Killing Free Speech, claiming that she also "struggles to find worthy sparring partners."*
Ironically, over more than 4,000 words, Sanneh is never able to present a coherent thesis of his own, though two sub-headlines hint at what he might be getting at:
The new battles over free speech are fierce but who is censoring whom?
Free speech really can be harmful, and its defenders should be willing to say so.
After noting that defending free speech was once the vanguard of the left, when it meant defending the rights of civil rights protesters to agitate and fighting back on obscenity charges leveled at comedians like Lenny Bruce or rappers like 2 Live Crew, Sanneh writes:
But as the nineteen-nineties progressed, fights over obscenity subsided and fights over so-called political correctness intensified; “free speech” became a different kind of rallying cry, especially on college campuses. Often, “free speech” meant not the right to protest a war but the right to push back against campus restrictions designed to shield marginalized groups from, say, “racial and ethnic harassment”—that was the term used by Central Michigan University, in its speech code, which banned “demeaning” expressions.
Note the use of quotation marks around the words free and speech, implying that the use of the phrase is inappropriate when used to defend the right to express unpopular ideas that lack the social merit of the writer's preference.
Amazingly, Sanneh goes on to make claims like "The campus speech wars have since grown broader but vaguer" and "restrictive campus speech codes have been widely repealed." Naturally, Sanneh backs this up with zero data, because it is demonstrably false.
Just last week, the University of New Hampshire's "Bias-Free Language Guide" made national news for its sweeping indictment of words like "American," "overweight," and "senior citizen" as "problematic." The guide reads like a parody of dystopian political correctness, and it took all of a day for UNH's president to disavow its use on campus and remove it from the school's website.
In 2013, the Department of Education mandated speech codes as a prerequisite for any college seeking federal funds. Modesto Junior College prevented a student from handing out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day. If Sanneh thinks blanket bans on "demeaning expressions" can't be misused, Brandeis University's guilty adjudication against one of its professors for deconstructing the word "wetback" for his class (while making it clear he is against the use of the derogatory term) provides a striking example of best intentions gone horribly wrong. Political activism on the left is not immune from speech codes, as the University of California is considering banning anti-Israel activism on the premise that such protests are "anti-Semitic."
These cases are not outliers. They are the norm, and Sanneh engages in willful ignorance to characterize efforts to repeal campus speech codes as "alarmist" and "absurd."
How could a journalist writing for one of the most respected publications in the English-speaking world not see how arbitrary limits on free speech could one day be used to suppress controversial or unpopular ideas he is sympathetic to? Simple. By conflating the American devotion to free expression with the broad American support of the right to gun ownership.
Lamenting the "unusually broad legal guarantees" of the First and Second Amendments, Sanneh writes:
Speech nuts, like gun nuts, have amassed plenty of arguments, but they—we—are driven, too, by a shared sensibility that can seem irrational by European standards.
In the case of online harassment, that instinctive preference for “free speech” may already be shaping the kinds of discussions we have, possibly by discouraging the participation of women, racial and sexual minorities, and anyone else likely to be singled out for ad-hominem abuse. Some kinds of free speech really can be harmful, and people who want to defend it anyway should be willing to say so.
It is true that the level of online discourse can test one's faith in humanity, and that misogynist, racist, and homophobic trolls are generally safe to express horrible things. But the same could be said of anyone's potential to be victimized by mean words. Look at how many people have taken to Twitter to express their wish for someone to "kill Donald Trump."
Sanneh approvingly notes, "In Britain, Twitter users have been jailed for sending abusive tweets; in France, Twitter was compelled to help a prosecutor identify pseudonymous users accused of sending anti-Semitic tweets," and laments that in America, where the government is corralled by the First Amendment, "important free speech decisions" fall to websites like Twitter, who can and have suspended abusive tweeters.
From there, Sanneh is left to wonder what might happen if the government passed a law preventing "controversial users—pastors dedicated to 'curing' gay people" to activists reproducing the Charlie Hebdo images of the Prophet Muhammad" from being suspended from social media.
While painting Americans as unsophisticated "nuts," clinging to their guns and free expression, Sanneh takes issue with Powers' assertion that, "Liberals are supposed to believe in diversity, which should include diversity of thought and belief."* Sanneh describes "diversity of thought and belief" as a paradoxical formulation. But such diversity is the very essence of pluralism, the idea that one's deeply held principles can and should coexist with others, and the free exchange of ideas can allow the worst ideas to be debated and defeated in public.
Writing in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch made "The Case for Hate Speech," using prominent homophobes as an example of how "bad speech" ultimately helped to advance the cause of gay rights. If expressing such speech were outlawed, the ideas themselves wouldn't go away, and the fight over the value of such ideas would never be had. In the name of sparing feelings, the unacceptable status quo is maintained, and no is forced to choose a side.
Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE), says Sanneh's article attempts to "paint proponents of free speech as unsophisticated, which is deeply ironic because he fails to do basic research into the complexity of First Amendment law, how much we still rely on the First Amendment in a very real legal sense, how poorly hate speech restrictions work in other countries, and how common campus speech codes are."
Lukianoff adds, "It fits into the same vein as (University of Chicago Law School Professor) Eric Posner calling people 'free speech fundamentalists.' It's much easier to be dismissive and name call if your arguments are not very strong. It's an attempt to make respectable an anti-free speech point of view that is really quite shallow and superficial, but that appealed to authors of campus speech codes, the defenders of orthodoxy, and both the old and modern Victorians alike."
Sanneh may roll his eyes at provincial Americans defending "free speech," but one has to wonder what he would make of Lenny Bruce. As he notes, Bruce was a free speech martyr in his time after being prosecuted for a provocative nightclub act. No small part of Bruce's act involved the use of racial epithets, which he deployed relentlessly to deprive them of their power to abuse. Were he alive and performing today, Bruce would have little to fear from the police, but the macroaggressions of his material would surely make him persona non grata on most college campuses.
Based on his support for European countries prosecuting "hurtful" speech, would Sanneh want Lenny Bruce locked up?
Watch below as Jonathan Rauch makes the moral case for defending free speech:
*(Text updated to directly reference Kirsten Powers' book)