A Conundrum of Free Speech

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By Darkhan Omirbek

Americans have been discussing the boundaries of free speech for centuries, divided into two camps – those who believe that it should not have limits and those who think it should. However, recently, the dispute became a local one when a member of the alt-right Milo Yiannopoulos, who is known for his hatred against feminism, Islam and political correctness, came to the UCD campus as a speaker. This provoked a huge backlash from people who cherish liberal ideologies, resulting in prevention of his speech. However, David Greenwald, the publisher of Davis Vanguard, is skeptical of these protests, even though he does not share Yiannopoulos’ beliefs. In his article “Shutting Down Those You Disagree With Is Not the Answer” he writes that figures like Yiannopoulos should not be banned because we need to allow alternative opinions on campus and not suppress them (The Davis Vanguard, December 11, 2016). While Greenwald may be correct that we must tolerate different ideas, I cannot accept his definition of free speech or his advice on how to react to offensive speech.

David Greenwald argues that we should not restrict the expression of bad ideas because first, we have to be consistent in our support of free speech, and second, tactically, such limitations do not give the results we want. Greenwald writes that attempts to squelch Mr. Yiannopoulos’ speech only make his voice stronger, and even if we manage to suppress him on campus, his ideas will not disappear. They might turn up on the Internet, where they might blossom, or very likely, he will go elsewhere to speak. The author suggests that we should ignore people like Milo Yiannopoulos, or if we wish, attack their ideas, but not their right to speech. He also agrees with Yiannopoulos that people today are too sensitive to alternative viewpoints and blames social media for exacerbating the problem.

We cannot take comfort in the notion that there is somehow an inverse correlation between freedom of expression and hatred on the Internet. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London, writes that the main drivers of online inflammatory comments, ortrolling, are anonymity and temporary identity loss. When we can hide our identity, we may feel that all restrictions are lifted and we may then show our worst hateful selves (The Guardian, Sept 18, 2014). Therefore, allowing people to express offensive speech publicly may even increase online trolling, as public speakers spread hate without any consequences. Meanwhile, the contamination of the Internet with excessive bigoted comments shows what might happen in our public discourse if we lift political correctness offline.

Furthermore, Greenwald asserts that the purpose of defamers is to attract attention and that to ignore them makes them lose their power. I would retort that sometimes ignoring actually empowers the perpetrator. In fact, we have seen in recent history how this response has led to an increase in totalitarian movements. In “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of Small Minority” Nassim Taleb insists that a persistent intolerant minority may impose their ideals and beliefs on a tolerant majority, which ultimately brings us to another kind of tyranny (Medium, Aug 14, 2016). This is exactly what happened in Germany and Russia when fascists and communists came to power. Hitler was spreading hatred against Jewish people and those who ignored him ultimately paid a very high price. Because of this, Julia Serano, an American writer and activist, insists that tolerating intolerance is equal to supporting it and therefore it is right to not endure intolerance (Medium, Feb 6, 2017).

In addition, Greenwald advises to respond and to confront the speakers who seem to be offensive. This might work if you are a full member of a majority group where you can easily generate immense support, but as long as you are a minority and assailable that does not work. As Julia Serano puts it, harassing and intimidating speech is usually used to oppress vulnerable people, depriving them their right to speech – speech that paradoxically is protected by the First Amendment. When you are the only Muslim among hundreds of white people and one of them criticizes you and your religion, you cannot always reply сonfidently. Rather, you just try to defend yourself, desperately disproving the accusations; ironically, when you justify yourself it partly makes you seem guilty. In order to attack someone’s ideas, you have to have enough voice and community support.

Advocates of absolute free speech say that if we censor speech we will slide down the slippery slope toward tyranny. But the reality is that we have slippery slope on both sides and we can also fall to tyranny down the other side, if we do not identify proper limits to the First Amendment. Therefore, it is important to remonstrate against Milo Yiannopoulos and others like him who would promote hate speech on campus.

Darkhan Omirbek is a Presidential Bolashak Scholar from Kazakhstan

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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22 thoughts on “A Conundrum of Free Speech”

  1. Keith O

    As always the case when someone advocates for shutting down free speech.  Who decides what is hate speech and what isn’t?  Just as liberals will often find conservative speech hateful conservatives can feel the same way about liberal speakers.  WHO GETS TO MAKE THAT DECISION?

    1. David Greenwald

      Ultimately the courts get to decide. But I think you are fundamentally correct here and that was the point I tried to make to the students over and over again. If you decide Milo is hate speech, who is to say that next year the UCD Administration can’t say the same thing for what you want to say. Got a lot of pushback on it though.

      1. Keith O

         Got a lot of pushback on it though.

        Of course you did because you’re speaking to a group who are probably all of the same mindset.  They don’t want to see the other side of the issue, just their collective opinions.

        1. David Greenwald

          I also spoke to a group of people who grew up in countries without free speech protections or traditions – you have to keep that in mind.

    2. Howard P

      “David”, “the Moderator”, and the “Editorial Board”…

      I say that allegorically… newspapers do that (make the decision)… DA’s do that… parents do that… those who have, or aspire to have, “power over others get to make that decision.  Unless we stop them, rein them in.

      The definition of  ‘hate speech’ is not a matter of fact, but a matter of opinion… inherently ‘political’, as far as I can see.  Is calling a police officer a “pig” (an animal considered ‘unclean’ by at least two major religions) “hate speech”?  “Whitey”?  “Cracker”? “F****T” (originally used to describe a piece of wood or a cigarette)?  “Queer” (originally meaning ‘strange’, then considered an ‘epithet’, then taken on as a ‘badge of pride’)? The term used colloquially for brazil nuts 60 years ago?

      Famous Quaker axiom:  “all the world is ‘mad’, except me and thee, and I sometimes wonder about thee.”

      1. David Greenwald

        I don’t agree with you.  Free speech is a right granted by the constitution but the provision is “congress shall make no law” and the courts have extended that right to the states through the 14th Amendment.  There is no right to have newspapers print your speech.

        DA’s?  As much power as DA’s have – and they certainly gate keep cases – judges make the rulings and most speech rights are going to be adjudicated in civil rather than criminal court.  Occasionally you’ll get an obscenity case that is criminal charged, but ultimately the court rules on those as well.

  2. Howard P

    Understand your nuance… you are correct in the first paragraph statements… yet, I suspect 95% of the US population do not make that distinction…

    You are also correct that judges make the ‘decisions’… with their own biases, will you not agree?

    You chose to ignore my points regarding the ‘subjectivity’ of what constitutes “hate speech”… what constitutes “free speech”… or, do you believe those are objective, concrete, measurable standards, without inherent biases?

    And, it is clearly your right, first amendment or otherwise, to ignore comments you can’t ‘cherry-pick’… you are also free to never admit you were mistaken, never apologize, never admit someone has made a good point if it conflicts with your views.

    Reminds me of at least one person in the D.C metro area.

      1. Howard P

        Good luck.  Meant sincerely.

        People need to have that discussion, and realize, perhaps as my Prof opined in a Sanitary Sewage Engineering class, “it may be s**t to you, but it’s bread and butter to me…” (he might have used the term ‘sewage’, but we all knew how to translate…)

  3. Alan Miller

    Reads just like the other three yesterday.  Same class project?

    Interesting if you put that name in Google, the only hit is the Vanguard article.  No Facebook, no Radis, no nothing.  This person has never posted to the internet in their entire life?

      1. Alan Miller

        Why are you searching students’ internet history?

        Or lack thereof.

        In this case, I wondered if they were from the same class, since the formulaic essay format was almost identical to the other three essays.  I actually thought they might be the class professor or T.A.  The “Presidential Bolashak Scholar” (whatever that is) bio description was so sparse it wasn’t even clear they attended UC Davis or were a student.  With a zero internet footprint, it’s also not clear they even exist.

        1. Sharla C.

          He received a full scholarship from the Kazakhstan government to complete graduate studies in the U.S. in exchange for 5 years of government service.   I think he needs help in identifying what are proper limits to the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, of which there are very few.  The one that he seems most concerned about is that you can’t incite actions that would harm others (Example: Yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater.)  Other limits have to do with K-12 school rules prohibiting obscene speech at school sponsored events, publishing articles over objections to school administration in school sponsored newspapers, and advocating drug use at school sponsored events.

  4. Sharla C.

    These students seem to be completely unaware that there was once a ban on political activities on University of California campuses.  There was a battle to get this policy changed.  It is ironic that the dampening of free speech on campus is now coming from students in direct conflict with the past efforts to remove censorship by the University administration.  It falls to older people who remember the work done to establish the practice of free exchange of ideas on campus to continue to work to protect this right.

  5. Eric Gelber

    Advocates of absolute free speech say that …

    I don’t know of anyone who advocates absolute free speech. But the degree to which these university students advocate governmental censorship of political speech they find to be offensive is disturbing.  Sounds like they need to take a more extended, advanced class on the First Amendment.

  6. David Greenwald

    The professor asked me to post this on her behalf (this refers to yesterday’s article I believe):

    I am very proud of these three young women, members of my entry-levelcomposition class at UC Davis, who put themselves out there to sharetheir thoughts on this very difficult topic – a topic, by the way, thatis somewhat unfamiliar for those who do not come from Western-styledemocracies, and one that is doubly challenging to address in a secondlanguage.  I hope that those who leave comments will do so in the spiritof furthering dialog and learning.  Commenters may also want to set anexample by stepping forward themselves, publicly, to offer a piece ofwriting detailing their own views on this topic and inviting commentsfrom others.Jill Van Zanten

  7. Tia Will

    What I find reassuring is that these students, all lacking in the background and perspective from which we tend to view our basic rights are stretching their ability to convey their impressions of these rights in a second language. I have read essays of native English speakers at the same academic level who are less articulate. While they may not share our perspective or agree with our ideas, they are undoubtedly fulfilling their chief goal which is that of learning about new ideas, how to think about them independently and how to express their ideas. They, and their teacher have my respect for that endeavor.

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