Commentary: Why Free Speech Protects the Weak Even When the Powerful Benefit At Times

Earlier this week, we ran the article from the ACLU, “Free Speech Is There to Protect the Weak.”  One of our conservative readers lamented, “Nowhere today are free speech rights being denied at a more elevated level than on our nation’s campuses.  I haven’t heard the ACLU stepping up to protect these conservative speaker’s rights.”

If you understand the subtext of the ACLU – I think that is precisely what the piece is getting at.  But their target audience is not conservatives already convinced that college campuses are the problem, but rather liberal ones who unfortunately seem to need to be convinced that free speech protects them rather than exposes vulnerable populations.

This calendar year, I have given a number of guest lectures at UC Davis on the subject of freedom of speech.  While I’m often delivering this message to international students, the counter-arguments by the students are relatively similar to arguments you hear elsewhere.  There is a belief that allowing so-called hate speech – you can think of it as the standard repartee of  Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter – puts vulnerable populations at risk.

And before you dismiss that notion outright, as we saw with the Islamic Center of Davis, the rise of hate crimes against Muslims, and now the stabbing on a Portland train, there is something to that fear.  It should not be dismissed outright.  Angry rhetoric does have consequences, and my conservative readers will likely point out the reverse as being true as well – and that just goes to bolster the point I am making here.

The irony is that my defense of free speech has opened me up to the accusation that, as a privileged white male, I am shielded from the impact of such hate speech.  That accusation was made here in the comment section of the Vanguard earlier this year and it was made more subtly in some of the classes I have taught.

But hate knows no bounds.  A few days after that question was raised, I received my own hate calls for questioning the Davis police.  Synagogues in my community have been vandalized with swastikas and the impact of immigration policies are felt by my children and their friends.

While we have made great progress on LGBT rights, the LGBT community in general and the transgender community in particular not only feel vulnerable, but are vulnerable.  It was a moving moment last week at our event to see the father of a transgender child break down – this man is an experienced lobbyist, and yet working on legislation to help his own child is clearly very emotional for him.

The vulnerability of a transgender child, the awkwardness of a simple task for most of us – selecting the appropriate restroom – underscores that, for many, there is a feeling of vulnerability and susceptibility to hate rhetoric.

So I fully believe that the ACLU piece is aimed at addressing these issues, but in an indirect way to demonstrate that freedom of speech is paramount to the protection of the rights of minorities.

As Jay Stanley puts it, in “rereading the story in light of my work at the ACLU, I’ve been struck by the injustice not only of segregation, ‘separate but equal,’ and the deprivation of voting rights, but the key role that egregious violations of free speech rights played in Southern officials’ opposition to the movement.”

He adds, “It’s a reminder that when you mess with First Amendment rights, it’s ultimately the weak and powerless who lose out the most, even when those rights do sometimes protect the powerful.”

This is a key message that I try to get across in my lectures.  I tell it through a recitation of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and the shooting at Kent State.  It was not long ago that college campuses were clamping down on the free speech of the left – the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement, rather than what they are doing now in fighting the Milos of the world.

The test of civil liberties is during the trying times.  The point I make in my lectures is that any tyrannical government will allow you the “freedom” to sing their praises.  The test is whether they will permit dissent.

Mr. Stanley notes that “it is in times of political turmoil and conflict when our civil liberties really get tested — when angry people who want to change the world hit the streets in protest, and others, such as police officers and other officials, feel contempt and hatred for those doing the protesting.”

He frames this in the current climate of protest, but underscoring that is the notion that in order for the left to assert their rights to free speech, they must allow others to assert their right to free speech.

This is not a popular subject.

Recently we saw Notre Dame students walk out as Mike Pence gave the commencement address.  Heck, we even saw middle school students do the same for House Speaker Ryan.

This prompted CNN’s Fareed Zakaria to say that “though many liberals think they are tolerant, often they aren’t.

“American universities seem committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity. Conservative voices and views are being silenced entirely,” Mr. Zakaria said.

“The word liberal in this context has nothing to do with today’s partisan language, but refers instead to the Latin root, pertaining to liberty. And at the heart of liberty in the Western world has been freedom of speech. From the beginning, people understood that this meant protecting and listening to speech with which you disagreed,” Mr. Zakaria argued.

That means, he said, not drowning out “the ideas that we find offensive.”

In addition, Mr.  Zakaria noted what he called “an anti-intellectualism” on the left.

“It’s an attitude of self-righteousness that says we are so pure, we’re so morally superior, we cannot bear to hear an idea with which we disagree,” he said.

“Liberals think they are tolerant but often they aren’t,” he added.

How do we reconcile the importance of free speech rights versus the concerns of vulnerable minorities?

I come down where Jay Stanley does: “It’s a reminder that when you mess with First Amendment rights, it’s ultimately the weak and powerless who lose out the most, even when those rights do sometimes protect the powerful.”

As a journalist I think the answer is to expose the powerful for what they are.  The weak are only preyed upon when we have silence and do not shine the light on what is happening.

The lessons of the Islamic Center of Davis and the Portland stabbing are actually also the flipside of this.  In Davis, the offender’s choice of attacking the mosque failed to divide the community.  Instead, it brought  the community together in a show of solidarity and love that ultimately overwhelmed the hateful message of Ms. Kirk-Coehlo.

The tragic lesson of Portland is that what happened last century in Germany will not occur in this great nation.  Because when they came for the Muslims, three brave men stepped forward to put their lives on the line to say no.

The answer to hate is not to silence it, it is to fight against it, to put our lives on the line, and to conquer with an overwhelming message of love.

—David M. Greenwald reporting



Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$
USD
Sign up for

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts

41 thoughts on “Commentary: Why Free Speech Protects the Weak Even When the Powerful Benefit At Times”

  1. Keith O

    the stabbing on a Portland Train, there is something to that fear. 

    The curious thing about that is the killer is a Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein backer both who have given speeches on the UC Davis campus.

    1. Tia Will

      Hi Keith

      I am failing to see a connection between having a violent supporter and having spoken on the UCD campus. Can you clarify your point ?

      1. Howard P

        Keith is absolutely right… and Jodie Foster bears great responsibility for John Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate Reagan, and the resultant injuries to James Brady and Reagan… the logic is inescapable!  She was the commencement speaker at Penn in 2006… definite parallels!

        1. David Greenwald

          The two points are not mutually exclusive.  You can in fact argue that the political landscape has been shaped by the president regardless of who the individual supported in the election.

        2. Keith O

          In your article you wrote:

          And before you dismiss that notion outright, as we saw with the Islamic Center, the rise of hate crimes against Muslims, and now the stabbing on a Portland Train, there is something to that fear.  

          But it turns out that the killer was a passionate Sanders/Stein supporter.

          Now be honest, did you know that when you wrote that sentence?  If not, would you have used a different example if you did?

          You know that if the killer, Jeremy Christian, had been a Trump supporter that the media and the left would be making a big deal out of it,  that somehow being a Trump supporter led him in that direction.

        3. David Greenwald

          Your description of him as “passionate ” support isn’t accurate: https://www.google.com/amp/amp.oregonlive.com/v1/articles/20776655/who_is_jeremy_christian_facebo.amp

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            How does that explain him taking a position on the Muslim issue that is opposed to that of Sanders and Stein?

        4. David Greenwald

          “Death to the enemies of America. Leave this country if you hate our freedom. Death to Antifa!” he yelled in court Tuesday, referring to antifascism. “You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism. You hear me? Die.” 

          Sounds like a devoted Bernie Sanders/ Jill Stein supporter to me.  Not.

        5. David Greenwald

          He initially supported Bernie Sanders ― a point white supremacists and ultra-conservative sites have highlighted in the wake of the attack ― but then appeared to switch to supporting Trump in November.

          “F— Yeah!!! Trump is the Anti-Christ!!! I should have voted for him!!” he wrote at the time. He was also quick to declare allegiance to the president should he become “the next Hitler.”

        6. Ron

          David:

          In reference to the title of your article, who are the “powerful” that benefit from free speech?  (Not the guy in Portland – or those like him, I assume.  He’s in the minority, one way or another.)

          Now, if you want to talk about the corrupting influence of money in politics (which the Supreme Court seems to address as “free speech”), that’s another matter.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            It came from Stanley line: “it’s ultimately the weak and powerless who lose out the most, even when those rights do sometimes protect the powerful.”

            There’s a very long answer to explain the question, but I don’t have the time to flesh it out right now.

  2. Tia Will

    David

    Two points. First I firmly disagree with the point made by Fareed Zakaria. The first amendment guarantees freedom of speech. It does not guarantee one an audience. The students who walked out on VP Pence’s speech did so in a quiet and in my mind respectful manner. If the Westboro Baptist Church wishes to promote their hatred via public speech it is their right to do so. Tolerant or intolerant, I have no obligation to stand there and listen to their rantings.

    This may be a little nit picky, but words matter.

    It was a moving moment last week at our event to see the father of a transgender child break down.”

    I also was very moved in that moment. However, I feel that the use of the term “break down” casts a pejorative note on a heart felt display of emotion by a man. I am stressing the gender of the individual since our society still seems to be more affected when a man cries than when a woman does the same. I found this particularly poignant in the setting of the discussion which centered around issues of gender spectrum/ identity.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      I just meant he was overwhelmed by emotion – if anything I view it as a positive – his caring about the well being of his child and those like his child.

      1. Tia Will

        David

        Right, I know. I also saw it positively . I would just like us to move away from the societal concept that somehow being moved to tears represents some kind of “break down” from our usual composure when it should be considered a normal, healthy and desirable part of the human experience.

      1. Keith O

        I can agree with that too.  But unfortunately that’s not what’s happening, there’s too many occurances where conservative speakers are denied their right to free speech on our campuses.

        1. David Greenwald

          While I agree with you – at the same time I haven’t heard a single acknowledgement from the right on the point of concern for vulnerable populations in this country?

        2. Tia Will

          Keith

          But unfortunately that’s not what’s happening”

          That is exactly what happened in the episode Zakaria decries.He chose this specific example. I do not deny that there are attempts on college campuses to silence far right speakers. I do not approve of this. The VP is clearly far right, and yet none of these students attempted to silence him. They merely walked out. In my view, this one episode was a complete win/win/win.

          VP Pence’s right to speak was honored. Those who chose to hear him had their rights honored. And the right of those to not hear the message was honored. This is surely what freedom of speech is all about.

        3. Keith O

          I see you cherrypicked what I stated and left out this part:

          there’s too many occurances where conservative speakers are denied their right to free speech on our campuses.

          I didn’t say it happened all of the time, but there are too many times when it does.  In fact I agreed with you that the actions the snowflakes, that can’t stand to listen to alternative viewpoints, took with Pence at the commencement was far better than shutting him down.

  3. Alan Miller

    > The lessons of the Islamic Center of Davis and the Portland stabbing

    Are that both perps were severely mentally ill.

    The mayor of Portland is now trying to shut down an upcoming rally that is “pro Trump” or “pro free speech” because of the stabbing???  Huh???  Do rallies cause severe mental illness?  Things going on in society may trigger a small number of severely mentally ill persons, but that isn’t something anyone can control.

    This reminds me of when a Sparks family sued Judas Priest for causing the suicide of their son because he listened to the song “Suicide Solution” over and over and killed himself.  Nevermind the millions of us who listened to the song for the guitar solos, or that the song was written as an anti-suicide song.

      1. Alan Miller

        The problem here being “masked” “leftists”.  In my view, you are no longer practicing free speech when you cover your face (or appear in the Vanguard under an alias), and most certainly not when one crosses the line to violence.

        Practicing free speech ends when one hides their identity (cowardice).

  4. Alan Miller

    You can in fact argue that the political landscape has been shaped by the president

    You can also argue the political landscape shaped (elected) the president.

     

  5. Tia Will

    Don

    Thanks for posting. I thought that I had heard that the mayor was planning to shut down the event based on credible threat, not simply because of the attacks/murders.

  6. Tia Will

    Howard

    If I recall, the throwing shoe thing is a long-honored Iraqi custom… in Iraq.”
    Practiced in Turkey as well. Well, it was until the time of Erdogan. I suspect it is now used only on his opponents. I cannot imagine anyone sane throwing a shoe at Erdogan or any of his thugs.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for