The Volokh Conspiracy

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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


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!"