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How many college presidents would join Williams College president Adam Falk in saying that shutting down a speaker invited to campus is a success? In a democracy that depends on free speech, advocates for coercive limitations on speech are nuts. Note briefly that calling someone nuts is not coercive. Shouting people down when a group has invited them to speak is coercive. Barring people who want to hear a speaker is coercive. Criticizing people is not.

Of course, disruptors say that all speech related to power is disruptive: their methods are no more disruptive than the hate speech they want to suppress. Not so. What they call hate speech does not aim to coerce or silence anyone else. It does not threaten violence, though many fear its implicit effects. Most of it is deliberately provocative. Most speakers love approval, but they’ll take hate if that’s all they can get. Richard Spencer’s white supremacist speech fits that description.

Spencer’s case is an interesting one. He and his fellow supremacists went to Charlottesville to provoke a response, and they got one. Counter-protesters tried to shut him down. Spencer did not plan blood and mayhem in advance, but both sides appeared on the scene ready to fight. A supremacist used a car to run down nineteen people in the street, killing one of them. Afterwards Spencer called the Charlottesville demonstration ‘a success’.

Now Adam Falk uses Richard Spencer’s words, one assumes deliberately, to praise students who shut down a speaker on campus. I would avoid that phrase: why would you want to use the same standards of judgment as Richard Spencer? President of a prominent college promotes campus practices where college leaders determine who gets to speak and who doesn’t, and calls that a success?

Constitutional protections

We don’t have a lot of absolutes in our Constitution, but free speech is one of them. You cannot abridge speech of any kind, period. Crying fire in a crowded theater does not apply as a category: Justice Holmes uses that example to illustrate an instance that does not apply. The Supreme Court holds the Constitution does not protect direct incitement to violence. Incitement to violence is the only restriction in nearly 230 years the Court has upheld. You cannot, for example, rile up a mob to the point where they lynch someone. That would not be a success.

Every other instance of unfettered speech is a success. Every abridgment of speech is a failure. In fact, every abridgment of speech is a profound failure of – and attack on – self-government. Yet college presidents like Adam Falk at Williams, who set policy for institutions that prepare young men and women for leadership in a democracy, say they want to abridge speech on their campuses. They target specific types of speech as impermissible. Then they and students who agree with them follow through to make sure people who might utter objectionable thoughts cannot speak.

Do not let restrictions on speech take hold. It is the most insidious form of control, as it requires no laws, no punishments, no formal court proceedings. It requires only disruption, which amounts to imaginative forms of street fighting, electronic finagling, or simply shouting. Informal, extra-legal restrictions on speech give you ability to curtail other people’s freedom drastically, at minimal cost. When you shut down your opponents’ speech, you have much more latitude on your own side to do what you like.

Leadership at Williams College

In light of the movement to abridge free speech on campuses, congratulations to Zachary Wood, leader of Uncomfortable Learning, a Williams College student group devoted to opportunities for open discussion. A pattern has developed at Williams where Wood’s group invites a speaker, and President Falk acts to deny the invited speaker access to any audience at all – especially students who want to hear the speaker’s thoughts – based explicitly on anticipated content.

Wood, a black student, has extended invitations to several controversial speakers, who accept the opportunity to speak to his group, as well as others on campus who want to listen. Then President Falk and his student accomplices, who practice coercive suppression under cover of various arguments that sound reasonable, move in. They either veto the engagement, or disrupt the speaker if he or she dares to deliver any remarks at all.

The same pattern has developed at campuses all over the country. The difference at Williams is that Zachary Wood does not give up. He recognizes his opponents, and resists them on principle. The First Amendment’s foundational principle is sound, tested over time, and clearly under attack. It is essential to our republic, and needs active defense. Thank you, Mr. Wood. Make sure Uncomfortable Learning continues after you leave Williams, if you can. Also, tell the Board of Trustees the college needs a new president. The college would do a lot better with you in that office.

Free speech is offensive speech: you cannot police it

In the conflict between Uncomfortable Learning leader Zachary Wood and Williams College President Adam Falk, Wood holds all the high cards. His position that all arguments, however offensive, have a place at the table is so obvious, you wonder why one has to argue the point. Yet you do have to argue it, urgently and repeatedly, because people suddenly seem to think free speech isn’t all that important, by comparison with other values. Educated people say, of course we need it, but we have to consider other factors.

If you want to list activists’ reasons to restrict discourse, start with speech that offends. Work your way to other restrictive rationales from there. The offensive speech standard gives you endless, fertile grounds to shut people up. In a democratic republic, based on liberal principles of live and let live, free speech is the principle you cannot let go. No political principle takes precedence. We do not even need to raise a slippery slope argument here, though one might find such a caution fitting. Free speech has absolute priority at the top of a republic’s pyramid of values. No other value can possibly displace it.

Yet somehow we find ourselves in discussion with apparently smart people who want to police what you can say. We are most aware of these discussions on college campuses, since colleges exist to promote open discussion, but disagreements about free speech diffuse into all arenas of politics and social interaction. The most obvious one concerns the ability of football players to express solidarity about the way police treat people, black men in particular. Even the right to burn the country’s flag in public, an issue the Supreme Court settled decades ago, comes into question again.

Concluding thoughts

What happened? Some would say strains of self-righteousness infect our minds. Others say the safe-space movement, where students cuddle up with kittens and cookies during a controversial speech, signifies a form of infantilism that can only have bad results. When adults seek shelter from intellectual discomfort, they intentionally demonstrate weakness. A sense of threat also justifies the movement’s other, more dangerous arm, which forces unwelcome speakers off campus. Disapproval transforms into retreat, and into abusive, violent attacks.

We have to find leaders who defend free speech unequivocally. To keep people quiet, to deny them opportunities to express their views, requires methods inconsistent with the existence of a free republic. A college president may think, “You are free to state your ideas elsewhere. Just don’t come to my campus with your offensive thoughts.” Students, however, don’t read the president’s reasoning the same way. They aim to eliminate offensive speech, everywhere. This vision of tight control over who gets to speak signifies a republic already split, into more than two pieces. How many people want to repair it?

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