Conservatives Must Thoughtfully Defend Free Speech

On May 20th, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, delivered the commencement address at Hampshire College. Taylor led by saying that she “does not consider herself an academic” but rather “an organizer who tries to communicate the urgency of our political moment through the lens of history and the concerns of ordinary people.” Among organizers, she revealed herself to be a relatively radical one, drawing on Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter to argue that revolutionary change is needed and possible but only outside of the constraints of the two-party system. From this standpoint, seeking to gain a Democratic majority in 2018 is small potatoes at best, at worst a distraction from the fact that the injustice and violence that a standard issue liberal Democrat might take to be specific to Donald Trump is really the result of a fundamentally oppressive system presided over by both parties.

I think most of this argument is wrongheaded but it was not at all out of place in an address at Hampshire College, which has a long tradition of political radicalism and scholar-activism. Nonetheless, her speech drew attention, first from Campus Reform then from Fox News, probably because she said that “the president of the United States, the most powerful politician in the world, is a racist, sexist, megalomaniac.” For enunciating this view, which, whatever the accuracy of the particulars may be, is widely enough shared to be utterly mainstream, Taylor tells us that her work email was “inundated with vile and violent statements. I have been repeatedly called ‘nigger,’ ‘bitch,’ ‘cunt,’ ‘dyke,’ ‘she-male,’ and ‘coon.’” She reports that she received over fifty emails, containing “specific threats of violence, including murder.” While I have no firsthand knowledge of the emails, reports of this kind of abuse from certain supporters of Donald Trump are widespread, and so I think Taylor’s account entirely believable. Taylor took the threats seriously enough to cancel two planned lectures.

I, along with all decent people, am disgusted by the threats Taylor has received. But it is also true that Taylor’s story was little remarked on at the time in conservative outlets. Those who did remark on it either reported it straight or focused on the unfairness of Taylor’s attack on Fox News. For that reason, and in light of the attention these same outlets lavished on left-wing attempts to shut down Charles Murray at Middlebury, Heather Mac Donald at Claremont, and Milo Yiannapoulos at Berkeley, Taylor has taken to the pages of the New York Times to argue that the “right-wing media . . . seems to care only about protecting speech it likes.” In addition, Taylor, takes to task middle of the road and left-leaning organizations that ordinarily uphold free speech, like the ACLU and PEN, for failing to stand up for progressives even as they have “gone out of their way to defend the rights of provocative speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter to speak on campuses.” Taylor’s suggestion is that not only on the right but also on the middle left, there is a kind of free speech exception for progressives who are not accorded the same degree of protection as are right-wingers.

This argument that progressives are denied free speech in this country, often delivered on the editorial pages of high circulation newspapers and magazines, and from podiums at our most prestigious colleges and universities, is disingenuous. One need consider only Taylor’s breathtakingly dishonest attack on PEN, which in fact, made a statement specifically referencing Taylor’s own case! “Death threats against Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor,” PEN says, “who criticized Trump in a speech to graduates and demands that activist Linda Sarsour be disinvited as a commencement speaker at the City University of New York (CUNY) warn of deteriorating respect for the peaceful expression of opinion on U.S. university campuses.” She does mention the rare statement the American Association of University Professors made on her behalf, even though private death threats are not really their bailiwick, but implies that it was made reluctantly, only after several cases of progressives under attack came to light. Of the three cases she goes on to describe, two broke after the AAUP statement, which was offered on June 2, just a day after news of Yamahtta-Taylor’s situation was widely reported. Yahmatta-Taylor herself has a perch at Princeton University, although she forthrightly says she is not an academic and although the book she is known for was published by the left-wing activist press, Haymarket Books. So no, there is not a free speech exception for progressives.

We could now, if we are so inclined, spend some time engaging in whataboutism. Where are Taylor and her fellow radicals when conservative free speech is threatened? Hasn’t a strain of the left that, unlike conservativism, has real power in academia, devalued speech by treating it as violence. More broadly, hasn’t a strain of the left endangered free speech by suggesting that free speech protections, like other bourgeois rights touted by a failed and diseased liberalism, are there largely to support those in power by, for example, forbidding the enactment of hate speech codes?

But conservatives—and all serious-minded people—should not rest satisfied with responses that say nothing about the matter of hand. The truth is that Taylor is right, in part. While conservatives will support their own and people of the left, like Brett Weinstein of Evergreen State, when they can be used as a stick with which to beat more radical leftists, they have had almost nothing to say about ideological enemies who cannot easily be used in that manner. For example, Lisa Durden, an adjunct at Essex County College was fired for defending a private party, sponsored by Black Lives Matter-NYC, one of whose organizers made it clear that white people, whatever their views, were not welcome. She made the mistake of offering this defense on Tucker Carlson Tonight. President Anthony E. Munroe, after making ritual and empty bows to the idea of academic freedom, declared that what he saw as Durden’s reverse racism (“Racism cannot be fought with more racism”) was beyond the pale. Durden had so compromised the college’s mission that she had to go (“we cannot maintain an employment relationship with the adjunct”).

I know that at least one conservative wrote about this case, because I did, in the Chronicle of Higher Education. My simple point was that conservatives frequently appeal to the principle of academic freedom or freedom of speech when one of their own is at risk. This appeal will seem disingenuous, and consequently be weakened, if it is not also made on behalf of people like Lisa Durden. Moreover, insofar as the language used to justify Durden’s firing—of “diversity” and “safe spaces” was precisely the language typically used in attempts to shut down conservative speech, it is just good, self-interested sense to contest it wherever it appears. My piece was referenced favorably in a National Review article the following month. But while it claimed that one could find any number of conservative responses along the same lines, I know of just one. Another National Review piece on Durden, published better than a week after mine, is simply a criticism on the ideology of Black Lives Matter—in no place does it even mention that Durden was fired!

Of course, it’s a gross exaggeration to say that conservatives and conservative publications refuse to defend free speech when their ideological enemies are under attack. I have defended the rights of the anti-Semite Joy Karega in Commentary Magazine and of Students for Justice in Palestine, an organization whose work I despise, in Minding the Campus. I did not have to fight my editors to get them published. Robert George—no one is conservative if not he!—has publicly defended the rights of Peter Singer, whose views on many issues George finds not just wrong but repugnant. He has not been drummed out of the movement. But, to repeat, the thrust of Taylor’s position, however dishonestly presented, is correct: conservatives do not stand up as much as they should for the free speech rights of their ideological adversaries.

Yet there are promising signs. Perhaps the most promising is the founding of the Heterodox Academy, devoted to promoting viewpoint diversity in the academy. Founded in 2015, the Academy has made a point of seeking out people from across the political spectrum and conservatives have joined in numbers, making up, even if we leave out the large classical liberal/libertarian component, over 17% of membership, nearly equal to the liberal/progressive contingent. Jonathan Haidt, who leads the organization, just published a piece that, though it properly notes that the primary threat to speech in a left-leaning academy is the left, also fully acknowledges the threats progressives face in our atmosphere of manufactured outrage. Haidt is a self-described centrist, but, to repeat, many conservatives have joined him. Still more recently, Henry Reichman, a self-described man of the left, had high praise for a symposium on higher education published in Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and sees many points of convergence and opportunities for cooperation between liberals and conservatives, when it comes to defending academic freedom against what amounts to a bipartisan assault on it. This very IHS-sponsored forum, The Open Inquiry Project, libertarian in inspiration, but open to liberals and conservatives, is another hopeful example.

Finally, although there is a strong case for a conservative defense of academic freedom it must not be a thoughtless case. Thoughtful, respectable conservatives—one example is Patrick Deneen—raise questions about academic freedom that at least superficially resemble questions raised by the left. Is academic freedom really a means of defending the pursuit of the truth, or was it, from its inception, “the means by which the substantial commitments once held mainly by religious institutions were initially destabilized and eventually rejected.” Does it now uphold an “implicit philosophy” that protects the left-liberal professoriate from plausible criticism of the politicization of our colleges and universities? One candidate for founder of the American conservative movement, William F. Buckley, began his career with a book subtitled The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom”. Though I do not agree with Buckley or Deneen, their arguments must be engaged, particularly by conservatives sympathetic to other elements of their thought that may be hard to disentangle from their positions on academic freedom.

After all, if defenders of academic freedom, conservative or liberal, wish to live up to its spirit and not only its letter, they must, even as they defend it, be prepared, even eager, to address disputes concerning its basis, meaning, and scope, about which reasonable people can and have disagreed. I trust we are up to the challenge.