The sway of this value is slowly shrinking – has been for quite some time. Unfortunately, our higher education system is a primary purveyor of vitiating the value of free speech. A recent Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) survey found that 9 in 10 American colleges restrict free speech. Another FIRE survey of the students found general lip-service for the concept of free speech that waned considerably in specific situations. FIRE Director of Communications Nico Perrino said, “This is troubling because it suggests a surface-level understanding of the free speech protections that underlie the First Amendment and an unwillingness to see them applied to the protection of expression some find offensive or objectionable.” The results play out daily in our society.
In Portland, Oregon, protesters – unable to get their way by stopping the invitation – disrupted the talk of author, scholar and feminism critic Christina Hoff Sommers “with chanting and loud music.” In February 2017, the University of California at Berkeley “canceled a speech by then-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos due to fires, injuries, and vandalism caused by rioters. A month later at Vermont’s Middlebury College, a discussion featuring academic and writer Charles Murray was shut down mid-speech when a hostile mob drowned out Murray by chanting throughout his talk.”[ii]
At a recent California Democratic presidential candidates’ forum Kamala Harris’s appearance was interrupted by a protester who grabbed her microphone. Not only that, but when “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) took the stage at the California convention and called for national unity...Her comments didn’t go over very well with some people in the audience, who shouted her down by yelling ‘Impeach,’ referring to President Donald Trump.”
Meanwhile in Washington, DC, a Theater cancelled Kristy Swanson and Dean Cain’s pro-Trump performance over ‘threats of violence’. “...the Mead Theater notified the producers of FBI Lovebirds: UnderCovers that they would no longer participate in the production due to concerns over ‘threats of violence’.” Though the threats of violence were likely real, there was also concern that the “Theater withdrew the event…in…an attempt to squash the content of FBI Lovebirds: UnderCovers and what it reveals about the anti-Trump forces in the government…They just don’t want the truth out there… the theatrical establishment is really afraid of the way we are using Verbatim Theater, which utilizes only the actual words and texts from Strzok and Page…The intolerant left can’t challenge the actual, verbatim text.”
In a mix of abridging freedom of speech and freedom of religion, a Bible Study battle has gone Federal after a Christian couple was threatened with eviction. The Evergreens at Smith Run, a senior community in Fredericksburg, Virginia, seemingly cannot tolerate a Bible study in the living quarters of its residents and have threatened octogenarians Ken and Liv Hauge with eviction if they do not cease and desist!
A common thread in much anti-free speech rhetoric is to claim the opposed speech violates the rights of others/someone. The courts have weighed in on many cases, attempting to distinguish between speech that is controversial and offensive versus speech that is dangerous and harms others. Speech does not violate your or my rights just because we don’t like it. The zenith of free speech is vigorously defending the rights of speech that you don’t like! The nadir is “we support free speech – just not your free speech.”
Other anti-free speech advocates no longer feign intellectual opposition, but use the heckler’s veto of brute force.[iii] If we have the strength of numbers to shout you down or shut you down – we will!
[i] Even then, courts do not always agree what constitutes these actions of obscenity or harm.
[ii] In the aftermath, protestors damaged Murray’s car as he tried to leave, and put Professor Allison Stanger in a neck brace after “one of the demonstrators pulled Prof. Stanger’s hair and twisted her neck.” Having not learned their lesson – or having learned the wrong lesson – Middlebury College cancelled a talk by conservative European politician Ryszard Legutko of Poland “for safety purposes.” The correlation in the heckler’s veto seems to not be left-side or right-side political views, but unresolved anger. Hecklers from the right shouted down California attorney general Xavier Becerra at Whittier College in 2017, apparently because of California’s lawsuit against the Trump administration over DACA. Protestors on either side of the ideological spectrum resort to this low when they believe it suits their purpose.
[iii] Another iteration of this tactic features using the power of the purse to bully one with opposing views into submission.