Free Speech

Censor of Anti-China Speech Among Us

Two Illinois legislators meet with a high school principal complaining about an anti-China poster distributed by a student group, which promptly loses its faculty sponsor and has to

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A high school chapter of Turning Point USA has apparently lost its faculty sponsor, and has been disbanded, after distributing the anti-China poster reproduced above (which apparently alludes to a popular video game, Among Us). The Chicago-area publication Journal & Topics (Tom Robb) reports that Illinois state Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz & Sen. Laura Fine (the majority caucus whip), together with various community members, complained to the school principal about the poster:

"The clear intent was to stoke xenophobic anti-Asian (sentiment)," [Gong-Gershowitz] said.

Gong-Gershowitz said she and State Sen. Laura Fine (D-9th) were contacted by constituents and Asian organizations, not just from Glenview, but from across Illinois, upset and offended by the poster and following up to see what action was being taken locally.

The two state legislators released a letter to the community Saturday, May 1, detailing a meeting they had with Dist. 225 Supt. Charles Johns on April 30.

"We expressed our conviction that this racist, harmful sort of content must not be permitted," Gong-Gershowitz and Fine said. "At a time when anti-Asian racism and hate crimes are being committed at a disturbing frequency, we must come together as a community in support of the values outlined in Glenbrook South's mission statement."

That statement discusses creating an atmosphere of "acceptance and inclusion" and a culture "based on respect for all."

The letter said at the meeting, "Johns committed to taking several important steps toward healing from this incident, as well as preventing similar ones in the future."

The College Fix (Asher Notheis) reports that this led to the disbanding of the chapter:

"Upon learning of the context of the poster that Glenbrook South's chapter of Turning Point USA submitted it was taken down, recognizing that it wasn't in compliance with our policies and guidelines," District 225 administrators told The College Fix via email through a media representative when asked about the Glenbrook South High School situation.

"During the course of that investigation, the sponsor elected to discontinue his sponsorship and the District's policies require there be a sponsor for all active clubs," the school officials said.

My view about this is straightforward; as I mentioned in a March post prompted by a similar controversy, free people 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. Indeed, this includes the right to "stoke … sentiment" hostile to those governments.

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. And such freedom should also apply to minors, especially high school students, who will soon be voters (and some of whom may already be eligible to vote).

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.

And the poster's reference to China, coupled with the hammer and sickle—which is the symbol of the Chinese Communist Party—is clearly a reference to the government of China, not to Chinese-Americans or ethnic Chinese more broadly. (The Chinese hammer and sickle is very slightly different, in the sickle handle, from the Soviet hammer and sickle that appears in the TPUSA poster, but that difference is extremely unlikely to be noticed by anyone; and even if it is noticed, the message is still that this is a reference to the Communist regime in China, and not to Chinese as an ethnic group.) Indeed, many of the most vocal critics of Communist China are themselves East Asians, and many of those are themselves ethnically Chinese.

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. 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 news coverage of this incident. 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.

I have left messages asking for comment from the two legislators' offices, and will update the post if I get a response. Thanks to Prof. Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) for the pointer.

UPDATE: Rep. Gong-Gershowitz's media relations person got back to me with this:

Thank you for reaching out, but the Representative respectfully declines a follow-up statement for Reason.

Sen. Fine's media relations person responded, "Senator Fine is still on the Senate floor then will be in committee all afternoon, and it does not appear that she will have time to send you a statement before your deadline. This has been a tough week to find free time for our members with the adjournment deadline looming. Apologies!"

NEXT: Another Example of Why the New York Times is Not a Trustworthy Source

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  1. I keep hoping that the national organization will sue.

  2. I had never noticed subtle differences in hammer and sickle portrayals, always just assumed they were identical. But lookee here — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammer_and_sickle — it seems even communists want to be individuals!

  3. The same people who criticize this as being absolutely racist to all Chinese people (and worse anti-“Asian” in general, like China represents all of Asia… ignorant of their own racism), have no problem whatsoever allowing anti-Semitism because it’s “not really anti-Jewish, it’s anti-Israeli government.” Too bad they’re vampires and holding up a mirror to them won’t result in any self-reflection.

    1. The same people who criticize opposition to Israel as being absolutely antisemitic have no problem whatsoever with allowing racism because it’s “not really anti-Chinese, it’s anti-Chinese government”. Too bad they’re vampires and holding up a mirror to them won’t result in any self-reflection.

      (I agree with Professor Volokh that criticism of both regimes should be in-bounds, but do find it notable that partisans on both sides are patting themselves on the back for selectively understanding the difference between these concepts.)

      1. You might have a point when we find out that Tibet was lobbing thousands of missiles into China. and the Uyghurs were conducting suicide bombing campaigns against Chinese daycares.

      2. The rather obvious difference is that, for the reasons given in Prof. Volokh’s post, most criticism of the Chinese government is obviously talking about the country or the government rather than an ethnicity or race. An awful lot of anti-Semitic complaints and attacks are very explicitly about “Jews” (or “Zionists”, but that is very commonly just another name used by people who don’t make a distinction between “Jews” and “Zionists”) rather than about Israel.

  4. Tbh, who are the Asians who are offended by this? Like, I’m Asian American, 90% of my friends are Asian, and none of the people I know either give a shit or think this is racist, and most actively endorse such messages.

    My experience is a lot of deluded white people pretending to care about Asians engage in this sort of thing. Also, the sheer hypocrisy of universities and schools actively discriminating against Asians and put out endless nonsense about how racism against Asians bad … they can fuck off. Like seriously, its getting irritating.

    1. It’s all a smokescreen. They want no trouble from the CCP. But they cannot say that, so they say it’s racism.

    2. Conflating anti-CCP sentiment, (Which all respectable people should share!) with anti-Asian prejudice, has become something of a trope. I don’t think they even expect anybody to fall for it anymore, it’s just to provide the tiniest fig leaf for cracking down on criticism of the CCP in nominally free countries.

      As to why so many people in government and education are determined to crack down on such criticism? The CCP has a lot of money to spend buying influence.

      1. I think it’s just an opportunistic way to attack TPUSA. The people involved probably don’t care about China or CCP at all.

        1. In the case of academic institutions, a lot of them on the Chinese government payroll, thanks to those “Confucius Institutes”.

          And I think you’ll find more politicians on the take, secretly, than you might think. Though, of course, often using druggy sons as cutouts.

          1. In the case of academic institutions, a lot of them on the Chinese government payroll, thanks to those “Confucius Institutes”.

            “A lot”? There are several thousand universities in the U.S., and something like 40 Confucious Institutes.

            1. As if that were all of the CCP money….

          2. It’s a high school.

    3. The anti American-Asian bias in college admissions in the US, coupled with the rather generous allotment of university seats that seem to be reserved for Chinese “students” (they mostly cheat, and rather obviously) is maddening.

    4. Why should anyone care if someone is offended?

      Anti-Christian, anti-religious, anti-white, anti-American, anti-conservative, or anti-Republican speakers never face a strong official backlash and are almost never officially “investigated”, regardless of how offensive they are.

      Double standard days are over.

    5. What really shocks me is how the delicious irony of The Elect’s usage of “Asian” for a few billion odd rather diverse portion of humanity doesn’t blow up the whole anti-racist project. The fact that not only doesn’t it blow it up, but that so many people are blind to it, is utterly disheartening.

    6. Most likely explanation is that China knows everything Epstein did…

      1. More like who also did it with him.

        4-Chan may be paranoia, but paranoia is often built on a factual foundation.

    7. In many cases on university campuses, students who are Chinese nationals are the ones who lead protests, claiming racism whenever their government is criticized. In some cases it may be spontaneous; in other cases their conduct is orchestrated by Chinese government representatives. It seems that they have learned one thing at least from their American education: crying racism is an effective political tactic.

  5. Lathering the rubes with increasingly misleading, cherry-picked, partisan content may be about all some clingers have left, especially if nipping at betters’ ankles is not working.

    Carry on!

    1. The Chinese people are a race of unthinking yeast people who will expand until they occupy whatever entire petri dish they occupy. Best to contain them over in Asia than allow them to expand into Western civilization and overtake it with filth.

      1. No, let them continue to snap up large swaths of Africa and neo-colonize it.

        1. Exactly. They want to be a world superpower, let them blow trillions of dollars in shitholes like Africa and the Middle East. The few times, China has even attempted to gain a foothold in any of those places, their soldiers have abandoned their posts within 6 months.

          1. “Africa always wins” as they say.

    2. RAK, you re a pathetic bore. Stop whining to your betters

      1. I guess some or even most clingers will never like me.

        Fortunately, I don’t want your approval. But I will have your compliance.

        Choosing a side in the culture war has consequences.

  6. The hypocrisy of “anti-racists” asserting that Asians are not only a monolithic group, but a group that is somehow represented by the CCP would be hilarious were it not so tragic.

    1. Oh, and…bonus points for the defense of an oppressive, totalitarian regime by those who love to toss around epithets like “fascist”.

    2. That’s a very nice strawman that you’re beating up there. Shame it has basically no resemblance to the thinking of the people you’re trying to criticize.

      1. Shame it has basically no resemblance to the thinking of the people you’re trying to criticize.

        Yes, the assertion that a criticism of China (a political entity) is racist against Asians is totally different from asserting that Asians are some sort of monolithic block that is represented by the political entity named “China”.

        Do you actually read your own posts before hitting “Submit”?

      2. Objection — assumes facts not in evidence. There is no clear indication that the people WYOT is criticizing actually think.

  7. I wonder if the reaction would have been different if the poster referenced North Korea instead of China.

    Objectors would have looked kind of silly conflating criticism of N Korea’s communist regime with anti-Asian hate, so I doubt anyone would bother to voice outrage. But in objective terms, why is criticizing China more racist than criticizing N Korea?

    1. Multiple funny movies about North Korean regimes have been made by Hollywood, so they’re totally different.

    2. North Korea doesn’t buy American politicians or college faculty, nor does it send its nationals here to lead protests.

  8. “The clear intent was to stoke xenophobic anti-Asian (sentiment),” [Gong-Gershowitz] said.

    Only to a fascists; to everyone else it was to condemn communism and celebrate individual freedoms.

  9. Professor Volokh,

    Why does this freedom include a right for the state to pay for a faculty advisor and provife other subsidies and amenities that go with official sponsorship?

    The article doesn’t say that the school disciplined the students or otherwise interfered with their individual rights. It only said that it withdrew the faculty advisor and stopped official sponsorship.

    Don’t schools teaching minors get a great deal more control over sponsored student activities than a university would?

    The Supreme Court upheld a school censoring a stufent newspaper on grounds that official sponsorship and faculty leadership made the newspaper the school’s voice, not the students’.

    What makes this case any different?

    1. I don’t know what the courts would say, I know that some students in the 60s, with the Supreme Court’s blessing, were able to wear black armbands to protest their own government’s policy in Vietnam…so hopefully students today would have the same freedom to protest the policies of a government which is hostile to our own.

      1. I see that as a totally different case. In this case the school withdrew its own support – the official school activity with a paid faculty advisor – and didn’t discipline the students individually.

        In the Tibker case the students were individually disciplined.

        The right to free speech doesn’t include the right for government to pay for it, let alone provide you with an advisor at its expense. That’s not what “free” means.

    2. I wouldn’t say that there’s a right to official sponsorship. The issue is more one of a state actor (the school) selectively withdrawing such sponsorship of and disbanding groups because they engaged in political speech critical of a totalitarian communist regime. You think that just because the punishment was meted out against the group as a whole rather than on an individual basis that it’s not an example of using state power to stifle protected speech?

      1. What’s the problem? When the College Board abolished the AP French and Italian exams, many schools selectively withdrew their support for one language but not others. What’s the First Anendment problem?

        Schools routinely make choices about what materials to include in their curriculum that involve not offending others.

        Once we agree to classify this as part of the school curriculum – the school’s speech, not the students’ – the whole First Amendment argument vanishes. The school gets to control its speech and who speaks for it.

        Students don’t get to say what the curriculum is. It doesn’t matter if you think what they want is really valid. It’s not theirs to fecide.

        1. When the College Board abolished the AP French and Italian exams, many schools selectively withdrew their support for one language but not others. What’s the First Anendment problem?

          What in the hell does “withdrew their support” for a language mean, and what does it have to do with disbanding a local chapter of a non-profit because someone objected to a political comment made by one or more members of that chapter?

          Schools routinely make choices about what materials to include in their curriculum

          Once we agree to classify this as part of the school curriculum….

          Now you’re basing your argument on a baseless assumption about acceptance of your made-up nonsense. This had NOTHING to do with school curriculum materials. It was a poster put out by a school student club. The definition of “curriculum” is NOT “Anything and everything associated with/connected to a school”. And a student’s speech…even as part of a club that conducts is business on school grounds…does not constitute “speaking for the school”.

      2. “I wouldn’t say there’s a right to official sponsorship.”

        You’d be more wrong than right when it comes to the First Amendment. Government actors may not have to sponsor any student activities, but they may not choose among them based on the content of their speech. It’s as if the government granted a tax exemption to Christians but not Muslims, and defended it by saying that there’s no right to a tax exemption anyway.

        1. You’d be more wrong than right when it comes to the First Amendment.

          “I wouldn’t say” means I’m making no such assertion…so it’s pretty difficult for me to be wrong about something I’m not even saying.

    3. “Why does this freedom include a right for the state to pay for a faculty advisor and provide other subsidies and amenities that go with official sponsorship?”

      It’s called the Unconstitutional conditions doctrine. Government generally can’t condition the receipt of benefits on giving up first amendment rights.

      1. Alright then. Instead of the assigned paper on the Civil War, I want to write my own paper on my pet dog. And spell the words however I please. And the school must give it full credit. My writing a paper on my pet dog is fully protected by the First Amendment, right? So is my own choice of spelling. Require me to adhere to its choice of righting subject or spelling rules would clearly violates my First Amendment freedoms. And the state cannot condition benefits like being in the Honors Society or getting good grades or recommendations on my giving up my First Amendment rights, right?

        1. What the hell do class assignments have to do with speech by one or more members of a school club? You seem to be so utterly unaware of what the facts of the issue are that it isn’t even funny.

        2. “And the state cannot condition benefits like being in the Honors Society or getting good grades or recommendations on my giving up my First Amendment rights, right?”

          No. And I’m sure with a little work, one of us could figure out why that is.

    4. ReaderY: Public school programs that allow student clubs to function are generally seen as limited public fora for student speech, not (as with high school newspapers) places for the high school’s own speech. See, e.g., Prince v. Jacoby (9th Cir. 2002); cf. also Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001) (dealing with club access school facilities).

      1. Professor Volokh,

        The difference here is the faculty advisor. That’s what I see as making this a school finction rather than simply the school allowing its facilities to be used for a purely private student event. Both Prince and Good News Club involved the right of an essentially outside student group to use the school facilities where such facilities were generally provided to other groups. They didn’t involve the right to have a dedefocated teacher. I see the presence and cost of the dedicated teacher as making this case different, and the club part of the school curriculum, rather than the just the school letting the students use an empty room. In Prince, this distinction is explict. The rules challenged as discriminating against religion there explicitly excluded groups “sponsored by the school or its staff” and required students to control everything that happened.

        That’s why I see this case as more resembling Hazelwood than Prince or Good News Club. Hazelwood didn’t simply carce out aome aort of unique exception for student newspapers. It articulated a general test for when a group is school sponsered (so the First Amendment doesn’t apply) and when it is student sponsored (so it does). The Hazelwood standard is whether the activity “may fairly be characterized as prt of the school curriculum.” In my view, faculty leadership makes this activity more a part of the curriculum, and hence subject to Hazelwood, then a purely student activity not subject to Hazeleood.

        Neither of the two cases you brought up contradicts this interpretation. Both involved a purely student group which merely met on the school’s premises, not a faculty-led group.

        1. They didn’t involve the right to have a dedefocated teacher.

          FFS. First off, a faculty advisor is NOT a “dedicated teacher”. Secondly, the right to speak freely and not have your organization disbanded has nothing at all to do with the right to a faculty advisor. The latter could have been withdrawn without disbanding the club.

        2. “I see the presence and cost of the dedicated teacher as making this case different, and the club part of the school curriculum, rather than the just the school letting the students use an empty room.”
          You are probably mistaken as to how high school clubs like that work. You find a sponsor who’s willing to have you in their room during a dedicated club time; they don’t actually have to do anything. No extra cost and their presence isn’t anywhere besides where it’s supposed to be anyway. If a sponsor wants to go above and beyond they can but it’s not necessary. If their sponsor dropped them so quickly I doubt they were particularly involved.

        3. You are conflating a faculty sponsor with a faculty leader. These groups are not pedagogic in purpose and are not based on the prescribed curriculum. The school probably does not have to allow any groups or clubs like this, but once it allows one, the space for those groups becomes a limited public forum — and content-based discrimination in such a forum must satisfy strict scrutiny.

          If the students sue the school, discovery of exactly why the sponsor withdrew would be fascinating, and probably devastating for the school.

    5. Wrong analogy — the correct comparison is to other student clubs, e.g. a “gay/straight alliance”, etc.

  10. The Han leadership of China is actively engaged in mass repression of a religious minority, sends “settler colonizers” to Tibet and has ended liberty in Hong Kong.

    Are these legislators and “activists” complaining about that?

    Seems there will be a Red China fifth column in Cold War II like the Russian one in Cold War I.

    1. The leadership of China is actively engaged in mass repression of basically everybody there. It’s just that some minorities get an extra helping of genocide.

      And the Russians would have killed to have as big a fifth column during the Cold war as the Red Chinese have now.

    2. ” sends “settler colonizers” to Tibet ”

      I doubt Bob from Ohio has considered the wisdom of a right-winger objecting to “settler colonizers” these days.

      I’m not complaining — unforced errors by right-wingers make the liberal-libertarian mainstreamers’ work easier.

  11. I’ve come to believe that the CCP is behind a lot of these charges of racism toward critics of the Chinese Government.

  12. Gosh, I wonder of Chinese virologist, Dr. Li-Meng Yan, is safe on our streets. She surreptitiously snuck out of Hong Kong to the USA to warn us that the PLA bio-engineered the coronavirus, edited its genes for gain of function, in the Wuhan lab to enhance its ability to kill people.

    1. She surreptitiously snuck out? I’m glad she didn’t ostentatiously sneak out.

      And of course she has no idea what the PLA might have done in the Wuhan lab, as she didn’t work there and didn’t study coronavirus.

  13. I would like to know a bit about the Chinese government’s investment in Illinois, and in Illinois politicians, before I assume this is all sincere indignation about racism.

    1. I’d like to know the CCP’s investment in our current POTUS.

  14. I am curious as to what threat may have been leveled to get the sponsor to resign.

    1. I don’t know, but maybe he just spontaneously decided that things were getting too hot for him, with top Illinois politicians attacking the group he sponsored – he may have decided a timely exit would be a good way to protect himself.

      1. Or maybe her, I’m going to respect xir privacy so I won’t look it up.

    2. Sponsors don’t necessarily have much attachment to the club they sponsor; students are really in charge of everything unless it’s some sort of activity (debate, chess, etc). This is particularly true for political groups not on the left. While it was difficult to find any sponsor for our more right-wing club and impossible to find one who’d participate, the Young Democrats, Young Socialists, and LGBT club all had very involved (and politically connected) sponsors. I’d guess they signed on so long as they didn’t cause trouble for them.

  15. Two Democratic state senators and a public high school administration support the genocide of Uyghurs?

    Color me shocked. No wonder the kids aren’t learning anything. We need a serious overhaul of the educational system.

  16. Funny how history repeats itself. The Dems support the CCP. John Kerry admitted the CCP maintains forced labor camps. Once again Dems support slavery. Judging by past actions of Dems, Fort Sumter better up it’s defensive prep.

  17. Democrats defending Communists. Color me not surprised.

    1. Democrats defend Communists.

      Republicans are poorly educated, superstitious, authoritarian, backwaters-inhabiting, science-disdaining, delusional bigots.

      Problems in all directions.

  18. On a related note…does anyone remember when the left insisted that suggesting that Sars-COV-2 escaped from a Chinese virology lab was just racist, right-wing conspiracy nuttery? Good times.

    1. At least you’re now allowed to suggest it on Facebook again, though all the people who got demonetized or kicked off for saying so aren’t being invited back on.

    2. I remember when right-wingers claimed they knew the Chinese were culpable and did so mostly because Republicans tend to be disaffected, character-deprived bigots.

      Defeating those clingers in the culture war? Good times!

  19. I’m sure if this was about Germany or Italy it would have been fine…eh..Ms. Fine and Ms. Gersowitz…bolsheviks?

  20. Wait up, is this the kind of indoctrination in schools that conservatives complain about?
    I thought it was the conservatives that didn’t want schools to indoctrinate students politically, very confusing now that an actual conservative political organization is literally in the schools with the schools’ authorization, handing out flyers.

    1. I thought it was the conservatives that didn’t want schools to indoctrinate students

      Another genius who doesn’t understand the difference between curriculum being taught by faculty vs activities conducted by students in a club.

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