The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Free Speech

Our Right to Criticize Governments and Countries,

whether the U.S., China, Israel, or anyone else.


I wanted to step back a bit from the University of San Diego / Tom Smith / China controversy to make a broader point:

We must always have the right—not just as a legal matter, but as a matter of academic freedom and social mores—to criticize governments: American, Chinese, Israeli, Russian, Saudi, or whatever else.

Such freedom of criticism is necessary so that we can help influence our own governments' internal behavior. It's necessary so that we can help influence our own governments' behavior towards other governments. It's necessary so that we can figure out the perils that these governments might be posing, to us, to their own citizens, or to their neighbors.

Governments are powerful, important institutions. They need to be constantly subject to discussion, evaluation, and criticism. (The same is also often true as to other powerful institutions within countries, and as to the broad current of public opinion in countries, especially democracies.) Even if it ultimately turns out that the governments are being mistakenly accused, or their misconduct is exaggerated, we can only figure out if we're free to discuss it.

Of course, governments are also associated with people: their employees (e.g., individual police officers or other officials), their citizens, and often people who share an ethnic background with the country involved.

Because of this, criticism of the government will sometimes lead a small fraction of listeners to act violently against those individuals. Criticism of police departments could lead to some people shooting individual police officers. Criticism of Israel could lead to some people attacking Israelis, Israeli-Americans, and Jews. Criticism of China could lead to some people attacking people of Chinese extraction (or for that matter other East Asians).

But while of course we should condemn such crimes, that isn't a basis for suppressing or even condemning criticism of the governments. Much important speech may have a tendency to lead a few people in the audience to act violently. (Consider impassioned speech about animal rights, the environment, abortion, union member solidarity, and more.) Yet the speech must remain protected, both against legal retaliation and against retaliation by universities; and I think it also needs to be tolerated as a matter of social convention.

In particular, it's wrong to casually assume that all criticism of China must stem from racism towards the Chinese, all criticism of Israel (even harsh criticism) must stem from anti-Semitism (see this post and this one for my past statements about that), and the like. It is especially wrong to treat the use of the adjective "Chinese" (or "Russian" or "French" or what have you) as necessarily referring to the ethnicity, when in context it seems much more likely to refer to the government (as in the University of San Diego incident) or to the country. Debate about governments can't remain free if such references are simply assumed to be ethnically bigoted, in the absence of any concrete evidence.

Naturally, when the speech is mistaken, it should be substantively responded to. When there is specific evidence that a particular criticism of a government or country is actually based on racial or ethnic hostility, that should be pointed out. Likewise, if there is evidence that a government is being faulted for behavior that is commonly engaged in by other governments, that may be worth pointing out as well.

But that's not what I'm seeing in the criticism of the University of San Diego incident, or in other similar situations. Rather, it seems to me that the concern about the indubitable actual incidents of ethnic bigotry (and especially bigoted violence) is wrongly endangering eminently legitimate criticisms of governments—just as so many other worthy concerns (e.g., about Communism, about winning wars, and the like) have in the past wrongly endangered eminently legitimate criticisms of our and other governments.