Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Many People Are The Real Threat To Free Speech, Part 2

Last Fall, I noted that while we basically only hear about "threats to free speech" on campus when the alleged perpetrators are liberal, attempts to shut down distasteful speech are quite bipartisan in flavor. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Aaron Hanlon collects some right wing instances of speech suppression on campus -- including the striking statistic (drawn from FIRE) that, while campus liberals are more likely to try to disrupt or shutdown speakers, conservatives are more likely to succeed in doing so. This doesn't really surprise me -- on the one hand, there are more liberals than conservatives on campus, and on the other hand, if there's one thing conservatives are really good at, it's working the refs.

Again, the moral of this story isn't to simply flip things on their heads -- conservatives are the only threat to free speech, and liberals are as pure as driven snow. The right lesson is, to reiterate, that threats to free speech come from all sides of the political spectrum, and that genuine commitment to the principles of free expression -- as opposed to opportunistically crying "free speech!" only to swiftly abandon it once it ceases to be politically convenient -- is actually a rare beast.

1 comment:

Erl said...

I was a little suspicious of "more likely to succeed"—that would include a (counterfactual) world where right-wing opposition only attempted to shut down 1 speaker, and succeeded, while left-wingers attempted to shut down thousands etc.

But the source article, from Heterodox Academy (https://heterodoxacademy.org/2017/02/07/campus-speaker-disinvitations-recent-trends-part-2-of-2/), says that there were MORE successful conservative disinvitation campaigns than liberal ones between 2000 and 2016. (53 vs. 50)

These numbers seem a bit wonky; Fig 1. gives 200 attempts "from the left" while Fig 4. gives 50 successful attempts and 102 unsuccessful attempts "from the left", a discrepancy of 48 incidents (24%). In contrast, 5 of 102 "from the right" attempts and 1 of 31 "n/a" attempts disappeared between Fig 1. and Fig 4.

I have no idea what's going on with all of that.

Furthermore, I'm struck by the low overall numbers. Over a 16-year window there were fewer than 400 disinvitation campaigns, of which only 120 were successful. Given the estimate of 5,300 colleges and universities in the US (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/07/20/how-many-colleges-and-universities-do-we-really-need/?utm_term=.dc60650c1670), we find that there's an under 0.5% chance of a disinvitation campaign in a particular university in a particular year, and roughly a 0.15% chance that it's successful.

Undoubtedly those odds are higher at high-profile schools. But it doesn't seem likely to be a big feature of the average student's school experience. If you spend 6 years at school and these likelihoods are uncorrelated, you have only a 3% likelihood of living through even an attempted disinvitation.