It's the season of free speech madness.
Republicans, as is their habit of late, have positioned themselves as the defenders of First Amendment freedoms in a time of runaway political correctness. This plays well on television: Footage of college students shouting down speakers they don't like, staging sit-ins, and brandishing protest placards runs on an endless loop at Fox News while chyrons blare, "Free Speech Under Fire on Campus."
And when a demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, spiraled out of control, it was primarily right-leaning lawmakers and pundits who stood up for the right of white supremacists and Nazis to express their vile opinions about race and Confederate statuary. Meanwhile, signs demanding "No Free Speech for Fascists" cropped up in the hands of lefties at post-Charlottesville rallies around the country.
But as the weather cooled, the GOP revealed its true colors. Led by an increasingly vehement and erratic President Donald Trump, the same party that was poised to die on the hill of free speech when it was being threatened by angry progressives was suddenly ready to eliminate First Amendment rights on the football field, revoke citizenship for flag burning, pull broadcast licenses over bad comedy sketches, and expand libel laws to take down annoying members of the media. There are greater threats to speech, it turns out, than a bunch of angry co-eds.
In the face of calls for censorship from the left and the right, meanwhile, one of the most important traditional defenders of speech has begun a slow but undeniable retreat. Dealing with internal dissension in the wake of Charlottesville, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tiptoed away from its proud legacy of free speech absolutism. And poll after poll revealed that Americans of both parties are ready and willing to see speech rights abridged in the service of partisan goals.
Nothing that has happened so far in 2017 is yet irreversible. But as the ACLU is undermined from within and the right once again sheds the mantle of free speech in favor of a cape made of the American flag, the sharp edges of our First Amendment rights are eroding. In an era of bipartisan agreement that speech should be limited (paired, of course, with violent disagreement about what speech should be limited), it will be all too easy to forget where the outer boundaries of our freedom of expression once were. And once lost, they won't be easy to reconstruct.
BACK TO SCHOOL
AS THE FALL semester began, campus activists were primed for action. The previous academic year had begun with Yale students surrounding residential college master Nicholas Christakis and shouting about how his wife's opinions on Halloween costumery made them feel unsafe; it ended with Evergreen State College students surrounding professor Bret Weinstein and shouting about how his opinions on student activism made them feel unsafe. Berkeley's campus had been engulfed in angry protests, which culminated in the cancellation of speeches by right-wing provocateurs Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos.
Many students came back to campus looking to fight. They were not disappointed.
Before classes even began, Fordham's dean of students and deputy Title IX coordinator Christopher Rodgers was already under investigation for showing a video questioning popular statistics on campus rape in a resident adviser training session. Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, a book that makes controversial claims about the relationship between race and IQ, faced protests at the University of Michigan. (Unlike at Middlebury College the year before, where his attempt to speak ended in physical assault, Murray managed to finish his talk after the hecklers moved on. "We feel it is important to make an unequivocal statement that we believe universities should remain bastions of civil debate and tolerance," the students who invited him, under the auspices of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told The New York Times.) At Brandeis, an award-winning playwright wrote a show about political correctness inspired by the profane comedian Lenny Bruce; the school cancelled it after students who hadn't read the script said they were offended. Northwestern returned to its favorite whipping girl, film studies professor Laura Kipnis. Having weathered one Title IX investigation last year in response to a critical essay she wrote about Title IX prosecutions in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Kipnis was accused of Title IX violations again this fall for her new book. Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. In other words, as First Amendment lawyer Ken White observed, she was investigated for writing a book about being investigated for writing an essay about being investigated.
A common denominator in these stories is that many of the controversies were actually meta-controversies, triggered when someone spoke up in favor of free expression and against censorship. Not all of the victims of this year's cycle of panic over offensive speech were anywhere close to being Republicans. But once their stories got out, they were typically embraced by the...