Friday, January 27, 2023

The Free Speech Chilling of Free Speech Protests

As some of you know, there's been a bunch of controversy recently about the "free speech culture" at Yale Law School, and particularly whether the school is hospitable to conservative speech. Several conservatives have argued that particularly raucous protests that have targeted conservative speakers have crossed over into effective censorship, negating Yale's claim to be a place where diverse views can be discussed.

On that note, David Lat reports on a recent talk at Yale given by an attorney for the right-wing, anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (on a panel with former ACLU head Nadine Strossen and Yale Law Professor Robert Post). By all accounts, the talk, which had approximately 100 attendees, went off without a hitch. Far from the abuses of the past, this time there was not, in Strossen's words, "even a peaceful protest."

Now, I want to be very careful in articulating what I say next. I'm not a "protest" guy. I don't enjoy going to them, I don't find them especially inspiring even when I agree with them, and I'm probably predisposed to think of them as unreasonable. And I'm fully willing to believe that in the past some forms of "protests" at Yale (e.g., I don't think that protesters can be permitted to "shout down" views they disagree with).

All that said, it is also an element of free speech culture to permit some forms of peaceful, minimally disruptive* protests. Students quietly holding signs, or passing out flyers, or even booing the speaker when she's introduced -- those, too, are exercises of free speech, the protection of which is important just as protecting the ability of dissident speakers to come to campus and have a genuine, practical ability to present their views is important.

So when I read that there wasn't "even a peaceful protest", well, obviously one explanation for that is that no Yale students felt moved to protest this speaker, or that they were busy with other things. But given that this speaker is exactly the sort of figure who had been raucously protested in the past, and that presumably there are still a fair chunk of students who probably continue to deem her protest-worthy, what does it signify that no protest occurred? It seems highly likely that the steps Yale has taken to discourage illegitimate, censorial protest (and again, I'm inclined to think that there are such protests and Yale is right to tamp down on them) have had the additional chilling effect of deterring legitimate, non-censorial protest.

The conservative journalist who quoted Strossen as saying there were no "peaceful protests" also reported that "there were no ear-shattering chants, no profanity-laden signs, and no ad hominem questions." The first of these might be validly limited as a "shout down." The latter two, however, don't seem procedurally inappropriate (though of course one can agree or disagree with their on-the-merits substance). Free speech protects the right of attendees to have signs with profanity on them. Free speech protects the right of audience members to ask harsh or hostile questions. If those, too, were eliminated, then it seems Yale didn't just ban illegitimately disruptive protest; it also functionally squelched perfectly legitimate, normal forms of protest. As one sort of speech avenue opened, another closed.

The laudatory tone of the articles I've read praising Yale for successfully hosting this speaker suggest, however, that this ebb of free speech culture is not viewed as significantly worrisome. And perhaps the problems are not in equipoise -- one might think that obstructing invited speakers from presenting via "shout downs" is a more serious violation than deterring peaceful protests of speakers via perhaps overbroad or heavy-handed administrative initiatives. But it still worth recognizing that there appears to have been a free speech cost here as well as a benefit. A healthy free speech culture at Yale absolutely must allow speakers of diverse views the realistic, non-nominal opportunity to present their arguments. But such speakers are not entitled to be free from the normal pushback and protest that is also part of a culture of free speech. If the pendulum at Yale has swung so far back as to eliminate the latter, that cannot be deemed an unmitigated victory.

* Why "minimally disruptive"? Some take the view that any sort of "disruption" of a speaker's talk, even if de minimis, represents a form of censorship. This seems untenable: normally audience reactions like booing a poorly received point would fall into this category -- a speaker probably has to temporarily pause and regroup until the booing dies down, and so is "disrupted" -- but that can't be the standard for governing whether the speaker has functionally been obstructed from speaking.  On the other hand, some argue that protests are by their nature meant to be disruptive -- considerably more so than "minimally" -- which is what makes them a protest. I don't necessarily disagree with that point, but what I would say is that a protester who takes that approach is consciously refusing to submit to or cooperate with the prevailing legal or governance structures (that, again, is implicit in the disruption) and so cannot truly complain when those structures refuse to cooperate back (e.g., by imposing various forms of sanctions). "Minimally disruptive" I think walks the line appropriately.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

New Depths of "Both Sides-ism": Gun Violence Edition

Commenting on the only-in-America news that the first 24 days of 2023 have already seen 73 Americans killed in mass shootings, Paul Campos points to a CNN article on the matter which he summarizes as

point[ing] out that fault lies on both sides of the political aisle for this epidemic, given that the Republicans don’t want to do anything about it, and the Democrats are unable to force the Republicans to do anything about it.

Ha ha -- good one, but obviously that's an exaggeration. Here's what the article says:

A partisan political system that is little help

Resignation that nothing will change is fueled by a political system that is so entrenched on guns that it can’t usually frame a meaningful response to shootings, let alone solutions. Offers of “thoughts and prayers” by pro-gun rights Republicans are routinely mocked by Americans looking for reform. Conservatives often divert blame to a national mental health crisis that they do little to alleviate.

Second Amendment absolutists often argue that if more “good guys” carried guns, everyone would be safer. In their own ritualistic response, Democrats often re-up demands for an assault weapons ban they know they can’t pass.


Nobody Is More Gullible Than Alt-Center "Free Speech" Advocates

When Florida announced it was banning the AP African-American history course, 90% of Ron DeSantis' supporters know exactly what he's doing -- legally banning wrongthink on race to the greatest extent possible -- and support it on that basis. They know that's what he's doing because he's been crystal clear about his agenda from day one and entirely consistent in applying it.

But you still can easily find alt-center "free speech!" advocates who tie themselves in knots to plead that it's actually about "opposing indoctrination" or "ensuring that multiple perspectives are taught" or something that just has to be different from "rank censorship". Meanwhile, the Florida government just states outright that if the college board wants its class taught in the Sunshine State, "we expect the removal of content on Critical Race Theory, Black Queer Studies, Intersectionality and other topics that violate our laws." They're not even bothering to hide it, but the alt-center sorts are perfectly happy to pull the wool over their own eyes in order to maintain harmony on their Scales of Broder.

It is incredible, looking back, to remember that approximately 9 month period where conservatives went on a high horse about protecting "free speech" and "uncomfortable learning" in the educational space as against various real and imagined left-wing bugaboos. The rapidity to which they shifted without even breaking a sweat into "enact legal bans on left-wing ideas whenever and wherever we can", and the degree to which their "free speech" hangers-on just followed along without seeming to notice or care that they suddenly were becoming foot soldiers of legally-mandated censorship, is a development I still can't fully wrap my head around. At most, you get some "both sides" grousing about how while they aren't exactly fans of throwing librarians in jail if they stock books that deviate from state-imposed orthodoxy, they can't focus on that too extensively because it might distract them from finishing their 67-tweet thread on an overzealous student protest at Swarthmore, followed by a portentous statement expressing outrage that anyone would even think of withdrawing any honors or accolades from state-censor-in-chief Ron DeSantis.

But seriously -- has any movement more quickly demonstrated itself to be populated entirely by useful idiots than this one?

Hamline Faculty Vote No Confidence in President

Eugene Volokh has the faculty statement, passed by a vote of 71-12, asking the President to step down after her mishandling of accusations of Islamophobia against an adjunct professor who showed a painting depicting Muhammad in an art class.

Under the circumstances, this is the right decision, and it is heartening (though not surprising) that this appears to be the broad consensus of Hamline faculty.