As conservative author Ann Coulter’s speaking appearance at the University of California, Berkeley was being canceled this week, MSNBC host Chris Hayes expressed “amazement” that free speech issues on college campuses receive so much media attention.
“If you haven’t been paying attention to right-wing media recently, it’s amazing how much attention current campus controversies have gotten,” Hayes tweeted. “But modern conservatism’s emotional fuel is grievance and persecution, so they need to focus on Berkeley campus. You’d think liberals [sic] arts undergrads had the nuclear codes.”
It’s simply wrong to suggest that scrutiny on the current state of higher education in America is unwarranted. Liberal arts undergrads may not have the nuclear codes, but they are spending lots of money and years of their lives in pursuit of the most prestigious credentials in the world — college diplomas — and the power those diplomas buy.
The graduates of Berkeley, and other universities enduring similar moments of illiberalism, will go on to become the political leaders, activists, business leaders, doctors, lawyers, artists and writers of tomorrow. Their ideas matter.
The question is this: Do we want the society of the future to reflect a sustained commitment to free speech and other liberal, Enlightenment norms, or not? If the answer is yes, then what happens at Berkeley should matter to both liberals and conservatives.
Sadly, far too many liberal college educators and administrators don’t actually believe in free speech.
“The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community,” Ulrich Baer, a vice provost and professor of comparative literature at New York University, recently wrote in The New York Times.
This view is wrong and dangerous.
Free speech isn’t a public good: it’s an individual right. Expressing views that attack “someone’s humanity” may be wrong and legitimately hurtful, but hurtful speech shouldn’t be banned or restricted. Professors like Baer are implying censorship is justified if it is done to safeguard the feelings of others. That certainly isn’t free speech.
The purpose of the First Amendment is to prevent government and authorities from re-drawing the parameters relating to speech, since they cannot be trusted to do so. Indeed, Baer’s remarks demonstrate how the people who wish to constrain or reshape speech parameters will always be tempted to do so in a manner that disadvantages their enemies.
This is part of the hypocrisy of those who would limit speech in order to protect what they describe as the “humanity” of offended people. Invariably, the humanity of people that liberals disagree with, like conservatives Ann Coulter and Charles Murray, for…