Free Speech: Who gets to decide who speaks? But now we have a Decider!

April 28, 2017 • 10:30 am

This week we’ve seen two articles by English professors arguing that censorship is essential to ensure free speech. One, in the New York Times, was by Ulrich Baer from New York University, and the other, in the New Republic, was by Aaron Hanlon from Colby College (links go to my analyses, which contain links to the original pieces). Both professors claimed that yes, free speech was good, but that “hate speech”—speech that dehumanized people or attacked their identities or nullified their “lived experience”—was not free speech and thus was okay to censor. (By “censor,” I mean disinvite people who have already been invited to speak at universities, or to harass them in such a way that they become unable to give their talks.)

I’m thus pleased to see some pushback in the liberal press against what I consider not only dumb but dangerous arguments for censorship: arguments that, if they became policy, would allow only approved forms of speech on campus. One article, by Kevin Drum (a cat lover) is at Mother Jones, and is called “The most important free speech question is: Who decides?” Here’s an excerpt, in which Drum starts by referring to Aaron Hanlon’s New Republic piece:

The sophistry here is breathtaking. If it’s just some small group that invites someone, then it’s OK if the rest of the university blackballs their choice. After all, universities are supposed to decide what students don’t need to know. It may “look like censorship from certain angles,” but it’s actually the very zenith of free expression.

. . . But now everyone is weighing in, and here on the left we’re caving in way too often to this Hanlon-esque lunacy. Is some of the speech he’s concerned about ugly and dangerous and deliberately provocative? Of course it is. But that’s not a reason to shut it down. That’s the whole reason we defend free speech in the first place. If political speech was all a harmless game of patty-cake, nobody would even care.

Speech is often harmful. And vicious. And hurtful. And racist. And just plain disgusting. But whenever you start thinking these are good reasons to overturn—by violence or otherwise—someone’s invitation to speak, ask yourself this: Who decides? Because once you concede the right to keep people from speaking, you concede the right of somebody to make that decision. And that somebody may eventually decide to shut down communists. Or anti-war protesters. Or gays. Or sociobiologists. Or Jews who defend Israel. Or Muslims.

I don’t want anyone to have that power. No one else on the left should want it either.

Well, this argument is not new; it was made by Hitchens and parroted by me, and it’s a good argument. Who would you trust to make all the decisions about what you can hear on campus? Anyone? I can’t name anybody save someone like Hitchens, who would censor nobody. There is no clear distinction between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” speech, and different people have different views. I, for one, wouldn’t try to censor a Holocaust denialist, because I would want to hear what kind of arguments he/she would make. At the very least, hearing someone with “offensive” views gives you an idea of what  your opponents have to say, and a chance to hone your own arguments. There’s not really a down side, unless you think that you need to be The Decider because the Little People might be swayed by offensive speech.

A related piece is in the Washington Post, written by Samantha Harris, vice president of policy research for the estimable organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The piece is called Lawyer: Stop using censorship to ‘protect’ free speech“, and here’s an excerpt, which gives some tangible examples; I particularly like the invocation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Harris’s starting point is Ulrich Baer’s call for censorship in the New York Times:

Under this view, some enlightened group of people, claiming a monopoly on the truth, decide which viewpoints are permissible and which must be shut out because they “invalidate the humanity” of others. In Baer’s case, these impermissible views include not only Holocaust denial and white supremacy, but also opposition to illegal immigration and transgender rights, among other things.

. . . But Baer assumes, quite dangerously, that we can know in advance whose stories and experiences are “legitimate” and whose are not.

What about, for example, the lived experiences of genuine dissenters from marginalized groups — people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose arguments about the treatment of women in Islam have been the frequent target of calls for censorship because of their perceived insensitivity to Muslims, though Hirsi Ali was herself raised as a Muslim and subjected to female genital mutilation?

Would Baer and others like him consider her criticism of Islam’s treatment of women to be a legitimate personal narrative, or is it one of those topics that should be off-limits because reckoning with Hirsi Ali’s argument might force other Muslims to defend their humanity? Or is it both? And if it is both, how do we decide — and who decides — which aspect should prevail?

Down the rabbit hole we go.

And what about people like Jonathan Rauch, a gay man who thinks that unfettered free speech is actually critical to minority rights? What if Rauch — and not those who believe that minority rights require the suppression of “hate speech” — is correct?

In a 2013 article for Reason magazine, Rauch described growing up gay in an era of terrible prejudice, and observed how the right to free speech was critical to the success of the gay rights movement.

Now you can say that gay rights were clearly something that should have been articulated, and those opposing them censored, but remember that long ago there were many who had arguments against gay rights, and the morality of equal rights for gays, and of their marriage, wasn’t universally accepted. Societies change, and that change is promoted by free discussion. Criticism of Islam is considered “hate speech” by many Muslims; should we ban it? Then we lose the opportunity of reforming the religion to eliminate its more oppressive tenets.

But one person has set himself up as The Decider—the person who can and has determined which speakers colleges shouldn’t be allowed on campus. It’s those like Coulter and Milo, who are “Nazis” and “far-right asshats.” Further, we have to make such decisions because finance and time dictate that a college can host only a limited number of speakers (not a good argument!). We must invite only those people who promote education, not ignorance, and who open rather than close minds. (I presume, based on The Decider’s past posts, that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would not fill that bill.)

A bit of The Decider’s argument:

One catch. You want infinite free speech on campus, you have to give us infinite money, infinite time, infinite resources. Fair enough?

Somehow, I don’t think it’s coming. Especially since the same people who want to see Ann Coulter given a privileged spot on the non-infinite roster of available speaking engagements are the people who under other circumstances complain bitterly about diversity. The rage always seems to rise on behalf of far-right asshats and Nazis, like Coulter or Yiannopoulos, have you noticed?

But even if we could accommodate everyone and every single point of view, the result has a name: it’s called cacophony. I don’t see how that is useful or constructive. Universities have a mission of promoting education; should we, in the name of Free Speech, insist that we also promote ignorance? That would be incoherent.

Universities are not neutral on all issues, nor should they be. We try to encourage open-mindedness; you can’t do that by also opening the door to those who encourage the closing of minds. We try to serve a diverse community; that doesn’t work if you take a disinterested position on purveyors of hate and bigotry. We aim to be selective and teach the best ideas that have the support of an educated, informed group…the antithesis of indiscriminate acceptance of bad, unsupported, rejected falsehoods. Coulter has nothing to contribute.

I know what’s next: Marketplace of ideas! Exposing students to novel points of view! The university should take students out of their comfort zone!

This is true. We do that all the time. I introduced my students to epistasis last week — discomfort and confusion were sown everywhere. It was good. But none of these arguments apply to Ann Coulter.

. . . Further, if you think being a place for education and intelligence and learning means you’re supposed to be wide open and completely neutral on everything, letting every voice through unfiltered, you don’t understand the university. I’ll give you two words: critical analysis. The university will examine your ideas, all right, and it will judge them. Nazis don’t get to come back and demand a do-over and a new grade.

Those protests? Those are students exercising their intelligence, and then going into the public square to exercise their free speech. Why? Did you think free speech meant freedom from criticism?

Note to The Decider: none of us have ever made the stupid argument that free speech meant freedom from criticism. But criticism is different from violence, and the former doesn’t justify the latter.

Were The Decider to run a university, we would see nobody on the Right, or especially the Far Right, allowed to speak. After all, time and money are limited, and they’re asshats anyway.

In fact, cacophony is exactly what we need, for, as the Founding Father realized, progress comes not from a harmony of opinions, but from a clash of opinions. I would not want The Decider to decide who promotes the “best ideas” (which of course are his ideas). We wouldn’t hear from the Right, and many from the Left would also be censored—those, like Sam Harris, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who are the “wrong kind of Leftists.” What a constricted intellectual world!

Finally, as a geneticist, I have to say that the analogy between epistasis (gene interaction) and Ann Coulter is ludicrous.

h/t: Grania, Richard W.

199 thoughts on “Free Speech: Who gets to decide who speaks? But now we have a Decider!

    1. Damned if I’m not nostalgic for the guy who crashed the world economy and put us into two unwinnable wars, compared to present company.

    1. Yeah! I laughed when I clicked through!

      I couldn’t agree more with Jerry’s take on this topic. His is the true liberal Enlightenment ideal.

      Freedom of speech is perhaps the most important part of maintaining a democracy, and moving/evolving constantly towards a better society.

    2. Can you imagine the sheer arrogance it must take to think that you, of all people, should have that position in society?

      And to make that point on your blog that you named “Free Thought Blog,” no less? Hilarious. The man’s arrogance is exceeded only by his obliviousness.

      1. Isn’t it so peculiar that the people who are chomping at the bit to exercise authority over others often have so little of it? It’s almost as though society already doesn’t trust them with power.

        1. they still set up a dangerous trend whereby it becomes respectable for authorities and society to censor people – particularly around religion and anyone non western – in the interest of peoples feelings and supposedly being civilised or even not offending certain allies. It is becoming a middle class thing (at least the non business/small business classes) which further polarises society – and even much of business goes along with it in the interests of supposedly smooth international relations.

    3. I was fairly sure who it was before following the link. Asshats was the first clue. The succession of misrepresentations of the opposing position and the projecting of rage sealed it.

      Perhaps the reason that the “rage” always rises on behalf of of the far-right asshats is that the far=left asshats aren’t the ones being shut down. He really is a clueless retard.

    4. What amazes me is that Meyers could easily be classed as a purveyor of “hate speech” in some people’s eyes. He desecrated the Holy Host! He calls creationists idiots! He buried a Koran *and* a Bible! What a bigot. Now I don’t think actions like that are in fact hateful but how oblivious has he become that he doesn’t realize they would be immediate grounds for losing his job under the kind of repression he supports. I feel like he had an undiagnosed stroke years ago and he’s just getting worse with time.

        1. In fact, PZ had a serious cardiac issue several years ago. Seemed to me that his SJW stridency [as opposed to radical atheism] only really emerged after the medical issue. Also no science posts, even cephalopods. Might have changed the latter, haven’t been watching.

      1. Cephalopod jumps the shark.



        (just back from holiday, and catching up)

    5. P Z Myers is the most narrow, doctrinaire guy. He is a Social Justice Warrior often found doing the atheist version of the Spanish Inquisition on his blog. I gave up reading him years ago except for rare sampling to check if his blog has changed.

      1. So, the “Bearded Taint” (so named by Dilbert creator Scott Adams) is the Decider? That fits in with the megalomania from his Dunning-Kruger syndrome. Seems to believe his biology degree makes him an expert on everything, regardless of how often his errors are pointed out (which causes you to get banned).

  1. The overlooked aspect inherent to these illiberal screeds is the under-recognized right to peacefully assemble, i.e. free association. Like-minded people have a constitutionally guaranteed right to gather together for whatever peaceful purpose. Only by stretching the definition of violence to ludicrous extremes can one justify violence as a response to disfavored speech.

    I am daily amazed that so many otherwise intelligent and well-educated people are subscribing to such nonsense…and shouldn’t they realize that it’s bad politics?

      1. The problem with fascism is that once you’ve declared that censorship for political ideas is a-OK the people that dislike your ideas can play that game, too, and n the US I wouldn’t bet on the authoritarian left to defeat the authoritarian right if democracy collapsed, if only because nearly all the gun nutters are right-wing.

        More realistically and seriously PZ and his ilk think that by shouting out and interrupting right-wingers they’re starting a revolution when they’re actually just legitimizing the right-wing narrative that the left is intolerant and authoritarian and so moderates should vote Republican.

        1. There are “fascist” or dictatorship or sharia led countries in which expressing a viewpoint counter to the government’s is cause for a death sentence. Atheism in a Muslim country, for example? Or viewing religious leaders in a humorous light?

          I’m for freedom of written and spoken speech regardless of content. A person who opposes is free to walk away, hold a discussion or a whole range of relatively civilized behaviors.

      2. It is a ladder, a platform, a justified bench for fascism.

        With the advent of the internet I want every nutter on Facebook. I want them tw**ting nonsense, ignorance, and prejudice from the highest possible clickbait. I want blogs of violence, racism, sexism, and disgust.

        If these people are suppressed or feel like they are becoming the oppressed, their motives and their follower’s motives can easily turn from words to actions.

        I’ld rather low energy electrons be the only accomplice to provocative or hateful speech.

    1. As I have seen before, they seem to lack intelligence in certain areas. They are unable to see how this does far more harm than good, for one thing.
      The far right is being handed a big juicy talking point that ‘the liberals’ (meaning all of us) cannot tolerate speech that we deem offensive, and that we regularly shut down freedom of self expression. Never mind that this is technically not true (the people being de-platformed can talk elsewhere, sell books, etc.)they are being given a truthy sounding talking point against us that resonates VERY strongly with the core values of most people in democratic society. It makes all of us liberals look bad.

      1. While true that there are alternative outlets for the de-platformed, censorship at universities reinforces the climate of political bias in which youth are educated. They are encountering fewer and fewer balancing points of view. Does not bode well for the future.

  2. I’ve said this many times. I’m a Christian, but if the university could get Satan to speak at commencement, I’d be interested in hearing what the man had to say.

    1. Well if the Big Red Guy/Basement Cat existed (which I really don’t believe) it’d be very useful to see what he has to say! Just don’t agree to any deal he offers you, he has all the lawyers on his side. 😉

  3. I quite like Kevin Drum, he consistently writes insightful commentaries. I subscribe to Mother Jones.

    The underlying flaw in the Deciders’ arguments is the notion that preventing people from speaking somehow deletes their ideas from the public sphere. “If we just stop Coulter from speaking, then nobody will think like her!” It’s like painting over a rust spot on your car’s fender.

    1. It seems to me that the worry isn’t that people will be persuaded to think like Coulter (or whoever) but that they will be offended by her.

      And, you know, causing offense is really bad.

      1. There is that aspect to the argument, the safe space crowd, it’s true. What I get from the Decider’s screed though is that shutting down Coulter, even through violence, is an effective refutation of her ideas, a form of free speech in itself.

  4. Nobody has to invite anybody. (I wish there were some way to study who doesn’t get invited and why.) If a university itself invites and sponsors someone on behalf of the university as a whole, such as a commencement speaker, anyone who is part of the university community can raise holy (non-violent, non-disruptive) hell and try to get the university to change its mind, or boycott the event. And nobody has to listen to anybody. To that extent, I agree that we don’t have to throw the whole campus open to just anyone who wants to talk. But sub-groups within the university do a lot of inviting, which does not imply the endorsement of the university community. The English Department decides who gets to speak at a conference on American Transcendental Authors. Nobody else should have any say about that, though there can be neutral administrative rules about speaker invitations, notice, and use of facilities. The College Democrats may want to invite Elizabeth Warren and the College Republicans might want to invite Ann Coulter. There may be valid administrative issues in either case, and they might even be different for a prominent public officeholder and a freelance provocateur, but once those issues are dealt with, neutrally, they should be allowed on campus so people can listen or picket or boycott or attend wearing funny hats or insulting t-shirts. And anyone who tries to prevent it should be dealt with by campus law enforcement.

    1. Yes. Thank you for the point.

      Also, The Decider’s canard about limited time and resources… small groups usually do the majority of the setup and cleanup for indvidual events, and most schools have acres of rooms and venues sitting idle evenings and weekends.

    2. The fallacy here is that Anne Coulter is not the equivalent of Elizabeth Warren. Does Warren engage in maligning groups based on their race?

      Can we agree bigotry, specifically the maligning a group based on gender, race, or nationality. Should disqualify you from being invited to speak by decent people?

      1. Ah, so most feminists would be right out. Sounds good :-/

        No, seriously, the boundaries of what counts as “maligning” have been stretched so far that anyone who even touches any of these topics without prostrating himself to P.C. dogma runs the risk of being attacked. (See Murray, C.) And if you think a speaker, or the group that invited him or her, is “decent”, is up to you, but mostly irrelevant to whether the person should be able to speak.

        1. You keep sliding back into being allowed to speak. The issue is if people that care about basic decency should invite bigoted people like Anne Coulter.

          Bigotry can be objectively identified.

          1. Will you then answer the two questions you refused to answer in the last thread about free speech in which you made this point about how these things can be objectively identified?

            1) Who would you be willing to appoint to decide such things? If they shall be decided legally, you must realize that judges are appointed by different administrations, and there are conservative, liberal, middle of the road, and other judges. If it’s someone else of a committee of some kind, who will these people be? And do you not worry what will happen when your ideological opponents inevitably take power once again, as they always do throughout history?

            2) Are radical social justice warriors who say things like “kill all men” or “we should reduce the population of men to 10% of its current number” or “white men are stupid and should have basic rights revoked in the name of progressivism” people who will fall under your “objectively identified” hate speech rules?

            1. “… bigotry can be objectively identified>”

              Really? Have you tried to actually do that? Please share your technique.

          2. You are missing the most basic point about free speech: It exists only to the extent that speech you don’t like is permitted. No one needs to protect speech that everyone thinks is dandy.

            No one is holding a gun to your head and making you go to that auditorium to listen to someone you don’t like.

            A society without free speech is equivalent to fascism.

            It astonishes that you can’t see how this will be flipped on you: Eventually you will be prevented from speaking under these rules.

            Don’t you have the confidence in your better ideas and public presentation of them: That they will persuade people to your side instead of the other side?

            1. These are all nice platitudes that are proven false by the existence and proliferation of conservative hate media, which led to the election of Trump.

              You need to care as much about the truthfulness and character of speech, as much as you care about it being free.

              1. …and whom would you trust to police the truth of speech?

                Before you answer, consider who’s currently the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

                That’s the part I really don’t get about today’s liberal calls to curtail freedom of speech. I mean, it’s one thing for the fox to guard the henhouse. It’s another for the hens to be the loudest voices clamoring for even more proactive policing after the foxes have been given the keys to the kingdom!




              2. +1

                When we know with absolutely certainty everything that is true, we can shift the debate to those terms. Insofar as I can tell, science has never approached the truth via eliminating “falsehoods” a priori.

              3. Like I said. Fascists won’t care if you acted honorably in the past.

                To begin with, let’s not question decisions to deplatform the truly execrable people like Coulter and Milo.

                Let’s have a conversation about each instance and their merits. For example Charles Murray was prevented from giving a talk about his data and conclusions because he is lumped incorrectly with bigots.

                The problem is that there is a vast difference between hacks like Coulter and Milo, and legitimate researchers like Murray. We truly do a disservice to people like Murray when we defend everyone equally.

              4. …but some animals are more equal than others, eh?

                Again. Jeff Sessions is the current Attorney General. The man who picked him for the job has Milo’s most recent employer as one of his closest advisers — though, granted, perhaps not quite as close this week as the week before last.

                If the cases of both Murray and Milo were to wind up before the courts, which sides do you think Sessions would argue on?

                …and you want this to even hypothetically be a topic for debate, who does and doesn’t get to speak…why, exactly?

                It’s a rather tired trope that “the terrorists” want to kill us because they hate our way of life, and that we must defend ourselves against them to protect our liberties.

                The very first such liberty is the freedom of speech.

                Care to explain why calls, such as yours, to deprive Americans of their First Amendment right to freedom of speech should be seen as anything other than an open declaration of anti-American terrorist loyalty?

                Now, do you really want to keep framing this discussion under the guise of the relative merits of the one whose speech is being challenged? Do you sincerely believe that that’s a fight you can win, that that’s a molehill you’d gladly plant your flag on and die for?

                Never forget that the sword of statecraft cuts both ways. The weapons you would use against others can and will be gleefully used against you. Understand that, and you’ll come to realize the true brilliance of the mutual non-agression pact we all know and all too few of us love as the right to express one’s self.




              5. The first amendment only refers to government jailing people for their speech. That’s not what we are talking about.

                Saying that someone is wrong or bigoted to deplatformi them is not a first amendment issue. It’s just basic human decency.

                xkcd: Free Speech

              6. The University of California at Berkeley is the government. And the First doesn’t merely prohibit the government from jailing people, but from infringing upon the right.

                In practice, that means that speakers must not be judged on the merits of their speech or anything that can be considered a proxy for such.




              7. That’s why we have to fix the situation with clear guidelines of who can be invited to speak at a teaching institution. A guideline preventing invitations for speakers that would engage in hate speech would solve the situation.

                But I suppose you will disingenuously argue that hate speech can’t be identified. I don’t know if it can be easily identified all the time, but in the case of Coulter and Milo it can.

              8. “we have to fix the situation with clear guidelines of who can be invited to speak at a teaching institution.”

                A blacklist should do it.

              9. I don’t know if it can be easily identified all the time, but in the case of Coulter and Milo it can.

                You do realize, do you not, that you just torpedoed your entire argument right there?

                I’ll give you a perfect example of the sorts of “hate speech” that would instantly be blacklisted: observing that Muhammad’s umpteenth wife, Aisha, was a preteen girl not only when they were married but also when the marriage was consummated.

                So, if you want the right to say that women in Saudi Arabia should have the right to drive their own cars without their husbands’s supervision, then you’ve got to give Milo the right to be an asshole.




              10. Will he draw it based on hate speech? Your logical fallacy seems to be that hate speech and bigotry can’t be objectively identified.

              11. Look into why we don’t use natural human languages to program software. Interpretation, ambiguity, subjective interpretation and a plethora of other factors go into determining semantics. After that, are you seriously going to suggest that a society containing a majority who believes in angels and demons and God-driven evolution, and a plurality who believes Jesus rode on dinosaurs is suddenly going to agreement on what qualifies as “objective hate speech?” Tell me how that process worked out with The Librorum Prohibitorum…

  5. I have a serious proposal.

    We should permit anybody who wishes to claim the mantle of Supreme Censor.

    With the mantle comes the right to silence anybody absolutely and without recourse to appeal.

    …there is, of course a catch. You see, the oath of office is a vow of silence….



    1. “That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”

      Problem is, we could wind up with a Trappist monk; they take a vow of silence anyway. 🙂

      1. I’d be more than happy to have a Trappist in charge of censorship. Not only would we get an acceptable void of censorship, we’d get some damned good cheeses and breads — with superlative beer to wash it down.




  6. If as PZ says, this isn’t about free speech or censorship, I wonder which speakers he would allow to be invited by the campus republicans.

    1. None. Allowing Republican speakers would be promoting ignorance after all, which would run counter to the duty to educate.

      1. My thoughts exactly. Best to update the admissions process as well and keep those wrong thinkers off campus.

        1. A lot of stuff said about Myers isn’t true. Just as a lot of stuff said about Coyne on Pharyngula isn’t true.

  7. I introduced my students to epistasis last week — discomfort and confusion were sown everywhere. It was good.

    Given ‘the Decider’s’ shaky & politically-influenced grasp of genetics, his lesson on epistasis likely presented it as yet another example of why phenotypes are all completely random and virtually neutral in effect (cf. obama’s nose), thus serving his Moralistic Fallacy that because everyone should be equal, everything in nature is equal.

    NB: This is not the first time he’s bragged about confusing his students.

    1. thus serving his Moralistic Fallacy that because everyone should be equal, everything in nature is equal.

      I think the parsimonious explanation is he just did a bad job of teaching it.

  8. > #32 chris61

    #31 PZ
    There you go again with the straw man argument. The point isn’t that you or Coulter are entitled to be invited to speak anywhere but that student groups, having been given the right to invite speakers (and assuming said speakers aren’t advocating anything illegal) should have their choices respected.

    and in response

    > #34 PZ

    #32: Wait, now you’re arguing that this isn’t about free speech, as Coulter claims, but students’ “right to invite speakers”?
    You know, not only is that not in the Constitution, but it’s not even a right at a university. It’s a limited privilege.

    Chancellor of UCB Nicholas Dirks (anthropologist), Dean of UCI Law School Erwin Chemerinsky, Mayor of San Francisco Willie Brown (lawyer by training), Sen. Warren (lawyer), and just about every other first amendment lawyer or constitutional law professor I’ve read disagrees emphatically with PZ on this, agreeing that the free speech rights of the students who invited Coulter are being infringed.

    This trivial fact has been covered at the Daily Cal, in the LA Times, in the SF Chronicle, the Washington Post, everywhere.

    How can a professor who would write on such a topic allow himself to be so uninformed?

    1. But the phrase “right to invite speakers” doesn’t appear in the Constitution! Just like the phrase “separation of church and state”.

      1. Nobody tell him that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” is right there in the same amendment.

  9. If there is any single person in academia who has utilised their right to free expression to the hilt, it must be PZ “look I’m desecrating a Host” Myers. The hypocrisy, it burns.

    And oh, PZ’s rabbit hole easily reaches the Lower Mesosphere.

    1. “If there is any single person in academia who has utilized their right to free expression to the hilt, it must be PZ “look I’m desecrating a Host” Myers.”

      Excellent point. What did he say to those at the time (there must have been some) who argued that what he was doing had no educational value but was merely an act of taunting, provocation and self-promotion?

  10. My only gripe about free-speech for uncouth speakers, and it seems to have little weight, is the ‘robe of authority’ an academic setting gives to worthless woo.

    For the uncritical, ideas expressed in the lecture hall, perhaps with an introduction by distinguished scholar and all the academic trappings, MUST be true. With wealthy backers, twisted ideas can be filmed, edited for specific target-groups, dressed up to appear to have the academy’s backing, and widely distributed in the guise of scholarly wisdom.

    Perhaps universities could require political talks be given in rooms lacking institutional identification and, if debate is not permitted, limit speaker introductions to institutional representatives (agreed on by all parties). If the university cannot and should not regulate hate-speech and what many see as pernicious views, at the least it should not abet them.

    1. Whose hate-speech and pernicious views? I can think of nothing more offensive than someone else dictating what I can and cannot say or hear. Were that the case, PZ, Baer and Hanlon should be censored for their pernicious views.

    2. For the uncritical, ideas expressed in the lecture hall, perhaps with an introduction by distinguished scholar and all the academic trappings, MUST be true.

      This is a university. If the students can’t think critically, you might as well pack up and go home.

      1. I think you’re being unrealistic there (about critical thinking). Most students are too busy trying to absorb the ‘facts’ they’re given to question the foundation they’re built upon.

        For example, I could imagine a very persuasive and intriguing lecture on Lamarckism (and wouldn’t evolution be so much more efficient and less wasteful if Lamarckism worked?). Would you expect biology students to instantly work out for themselves, unprompted, why Lamarckism is incorrect? Should it, therefore, be allowed to be taught as if it were the accepted wisdom?

        So there are arguments to be made for both sides, and as usual, either side taken to its extreme is pernicious. I think W. Benson has suggested a workable compromise.


        1. Would you expect biology students to instantly work out for themselves, unprompted, why Lamarckism is incorrect?

          I’d expect them to not accept it at face value just as I’d expect them to not accept evolution at face value. I wouldn’t expect a lecturer in evolutionary biology to just teach facts, I’d expect them to review the evidence too.

          As it happens, Lamarckism is quite easy to refute. Jewish boys are born with foreskins.

      2. I’m not talking about students. I am referring to films or accounts of presentations made at prestigious universities being falsely portrayed as receiving institutional recognition of the speaker’s competence or endorsement of him or his message. This applies whatever the speaker’s view might be. There must be no claims, implicit or explicit, of institutional endorsement, and this should be spelled out in contract between the speaker, his sponsor(s) — who should be identified –, and the academic institution.

  11. Re:
    “Finally, as a geneticist, I have to say that the analogy between epistasis (gene interaction) and Ann Coulter is ludicrous”

    I’m sorry. I can’t resist this.

    In genetics, “epistasis” is a form of genetic interaction in which one gene stops another one.

    But in medicine, “epistasis” means “a scum that forms on a urine specimen upon standing.”

    In addition, in genetics, the gene that is stopped is a hypostatic gene which literally means to “stand under” the roots from which our English word “understand” comes from.
    As such, epistasis stops something that is “understanding”.

    I don’t claim that the Decider had figured this out!!

    P.S. Doesn’t the Decider write for something with the word “freethought” in the title??

    1. Unfortunately, I think there’s a wee bit of perfectly understandable lexical confusion. I find that “epistasis” is the genetic term, which comes from stop, stoppage; epitaxy is the crystalline scum, from upon + arrangement; and “epistaxis” is nosebleed: firned from dripping and upon. All, obviously ultimately from the Greek.

      1. “Epitaxy” is a broader more generic term for
        “The growth of the crystals of one substance on the crystal face of another substance, such that the crystalline substrates of both substances have the same structural orientation.”

        “Epistasis” is, as originally stated, the term for scum on top of urine according to Merriam-Webster, Collins Dictionary, and the National Institute for Health.

        1. Thank you for the clarification. I am very glad to learn of this word “epistasis” as the scum on urine. Love it. It’ll definitely come in very handy in simili modo to your usage.

  12. Wonderful to think of Ann Coulter compared to
    “a scum that forms on a urine specimen upon standing.”

    The genetics definition of “epistasis” as “a form of genetic interaction in which one gene stops another one” is lovely also. Ann Coulter
    definitely aims to prevent certain thoughts from forming in her fellow human beings.

  13. C’mon, show a little respect. That’s the ‘Fifth Horseman of Atheism’ and the Leader of Internet Atheism you’re talking about.

    He said so himself!

  14. All ‘deciders’ are insecure. What have they to fear? This is nothing more than a person speaking about contentious subjects and very likely making inaccurate claims.

    ‘Deciders’ are children who aren’t even sure what they fear.

    Nothing Coulter has ever said is remotely interesting to me. What’s scary about being boring? And Milo’s dopey ploy? At least I felt sorry for him.

  15. In the quoted text the decider only mentions education and learning as a purpose of a University.He does not mention scientific research at all. My guess is therefore that he isn’t involved with any active research. If he was it would have been top of mind and would have been mentioned.

    His whole piece goes against universally shared university values like being a place for the free and open exchange of ideas without interference from the government or other organizations.

    This part strikes me.
    “The university will examine your ideas, all right, and it will judge them. Nazis don’t get to come back and demand a do-over and a new grade.”

    I do not agree with this statement. It is not the University that judges ideas and theories but the scientific community. If Coulter for example would say something about a certain race and their genetic propensity for crime, we could test it and hold these ideas up against the current body of knowledge. And even if the outcome does not suit our own personal beliefs(perhaps certain races do more crime(just an example)) we should report it nonetheless and set aside our biases, do more research to verify. Students should hear dissenting voices and they can evaluate these ideas through the scientific method and the knowledge they have acquired and have access to.

    1. My guess is therefore that he isn’t involved with any active research.

      Does killing PetsMart™ fish with Round-Up™ count?

    2. It seems that immediately the phrases ‘white supremacy’, racist, sexist , ‘anti queer’ are all automatically linked and invoked, often by people who obviously have NEVER actually read anything these people have said.

      I don’t know that much about Coulter other than she doesn’t like atheists (so what, I don’t need her affirmation) but I am not aware of anything actually hateful about races or sexuality.

      Heather MacDonald, who was subjected to similar harassment is hardly racist or ‘queer hating’ as she seems to be described. She does (whether you fully agree nor not) advocate active policing… her position is that in the brutally violent minority neighborhoods of Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis etc, gangs hold everyone in terror. And that the thousands of decent minority people who live there are in constant fear, and if the gangs even suspect they have talked to the police, they’re likely to be assassinated. The real risk to people in those areas, is hundreds of times more from local gang members and thugs than from ill advised police shootings… but that’s not the message BLM wants to hear.

  16. … remember that long ago there were many who had arguments against gay rights, and the morality of equal rights for gays …

    Wasn’t so long ago, not more than 50 years, that the only people advocating for the rights of “homosexuals” was the Mattachine Society, and they were considered societal outcasts.

    Time, and chance, and evidence have upset many a man’s fighting faith. And that alone is reason enough to revere free speech.

  17. I agree with a lot of conservative commentary on free speech, but I have a question:

    Do conservative campuses like Liberty University invite controversial liberal speakers to speak?

    I mean since conservatives apparently love rhetorical controversy I assume they must do it all the time. Dan Savage must make so much money from them!

    (Last paragraph was sarcasm.)

    1. (1) There’s nothing ‘conservative’ about the arguments for free speech.

      (2) Conservatives aren’t obliged to invite liberal speakers. Liberals can do that, and they do. It would only be hipocritical is conservative students protested – or resorted to violence – against liberal speakers.

      1. 1. I never said free speech arguments were inherently conservative, thanks. But there is a lot of gloating in the conservosphere about it at the moment.

        2. It is hypocritical because not inviting challenging speakers is worse than inviting them and protesting.

    2. Free speech is not a Conservative vs. Liberal (note the caps!) issue. It is a (lower-case) liberal vs. illiberal issue.

      And… I do wish people would stop with the “universities invite…” framing. It is always groups within universities who issue invitations to speakers. What is at issue is whether or not other groups within universities get a veto.

    3. Historically, conservatives have a lousy record on free speech — at least where it’s any but their own asses on the line.

      But that’s thing about true free-speech advocacy — it extends the same rights to all comers. Because, in the end, the free speech you take is equal to the free speech you make.

    4. Liberty University invited Bernie Sanders to speak last year, and he did, and the entire crowd was extremely respectful throughout. There have been other such invitations of liberals at that and other conservative universities.

      So, yes.

      1. I dread to say it (because any form of authority goes against my natural instincts) but it could even be that conservative students are more formally polite than left-wing ones.


      2. Bernie, a presidential candidate at the time, does not compare to someone like Anne Coulter, who is a professional provocateur.

        1. You know, you ask a question, get an answer you don’t want, and then move the goalposts. And again, go look up the many other liberal and non-religious speakers they’ve invited.

          1. I specifically gave the example of Dan Savage. Do you honestly believe he is in the same realm as Bernie Sanders?

            1. Being “in the same realm” is entirely irrelevant. Your value judgments about this speaker vs. that one have precisely zero value here. The same goes for my judgements. Freedom of expression has NOTHING to do with the quality of what someone says.

              I don’t trust your judgement and you shouldn’t trust mine.

              1. My point is that it’s pretty easy to claim you love freedom of expression when you don’t actually test it.

                I’m not particularly happy people want to invite provocative liars/attention seekers/book peddlers like Coulter to campus just to make a point about free speech, but she must be allowed to speak when they do.

                Meanwhile conservative institutions who criticize the protestors at liberal institutions without similarly challenging themselves are like annoying backseat drivers.

                If you can’t tell the difference between Bernie Sander’s degree of offensiveness vs. Anne Coulter’s then you have a genuine problem.

              2. Oh, lordy, why is this so hard to understand.

                This issue has absolutely zero to do with whether I, or anyone else, “can tell the difference between Bernie Sander’s degree of offensiveness vs. Anne Coulter’s”. (As it happens, I was a Sanders voter.)

                Nobody has the right to not be offended.

          2. There were more in the days of Falwell Sr., Ted Kennedy was there a number of times. Of course, they have about 80 guest speakers a year, so the percentage is low.

  18. Well, I rarely comment over there, but I did say this:
    “Well, its clear to me that you are saying college groups should not invite people who have argued for oppressing the vulnerable, or for racist views. And if they have been invited, that we should work to get them uninvited. You are trying to say that speech from the worst of the worst can be shut down.
    There are so many problems with this, I scarcely know where to begin. I will just say the most important thing:
    Instead of letting their reprehensible views be the story of the day, put out there alongside the factual (and I think correct) rebuttals from our side, the story then becomes whatever the far right wants it to be. And of course what they all along wanted it to be is that the snowflakes of the regressive left can’t stand to hear views that they do not agree with. This translates into the minds of the majority that ‘the left’ has become anti-free speech. It does not matter if this is not what was intended, the far right will simply spin it into being the story they wanted all along. This is how the sell books and get on major outlets of social media. And it sells. Sorry, but your opinion just plays into their hands.”

  19. I think I agree with most people here, but still one point seems to be missed.
    The real problem is not only about free speech (although I agree that is a big part of it), but the fact that many of these students might not even know “why” ann Coulter and others like her are wrong, they shut her down because they have no idea how to debate people.
    We need to inoculate students against these views so they can learn how to fight them. Coulter is the equivalent of a vaccine against a terrible ideological disease. If students never know how to debate such lunatics as her, what chance do they have at making a difference in the real world?

    1. That was one of John Stuart Mill’s most cogent arguments on free speech. It ought to require a man of unusually clear insight and great wisdom to consider himself knowing better than Mill in On Liberty (freely available on the web and a quick and refreshing read recommended to all); PZ Myers is not that man. I am glad you have spoken up against him, Jerry, as he is a toxic influence that has corroded the gains won by atheism and skepticism a decade ago, and sundered the movement, such as it was, into factions who hate each other more than they hate untruths and charlatans. I’m afraid it will cost you – look what the idiot did to Mick Nugent, who is possibly the most effective atheist in the world when it comes to pushing for the changes we’d like to see out in the real, unsafe space of the world. But I’ll lend you my handy little trick for overcoming such silly fleabites – just imagine PZ (or anyone else spouting nonsense) on a stage debating Hitch. Beautiful, isn’t it?

      1. “It ought to require a man of unusually clear insight and great wisdom to consider himself knowing better than Mill in On Liberty (freely available on the web and a quick and refreshing read recommended to all); PZ Myers is not that man.”

        No, he is not that man, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find out he thinks that he is, in fact, far more intelligent and insightful than many of the greatest thinkers throughout history and among us today. His ego knows no bounds.

  20. And now for a more serious post.

    If universities want to police who speaks on their campus (“Not that there’s anything good about that”- to paraphrase a famous Seinfeld phrase), then they need to get student organizations to ask their permission first, rather than allowing the organization to first invite the speaker and then have them uninvited.

    This is elementary courtesy, which even Ann C and Milo Y deserve.

  21. I’ve been scrolling through comments. A main counter argument seems to involve not so much Coulter herself, but her fans. The claim is that this speaker advocates genocide, racism, and ripping away people’s rights — and a crowd which happily comes to listen to her justifiably frightens marginalized minorities.

    By the same token, someone who advocates genocide, racism, and removing human rights has no business speaking at a liberal public university.

    I am not familiar enough with Coulter to know whether this is a fair characterization (not sure if quotes would help or not.) But it’s not a bad argument. My guess though is that those who find Coulter compelling would hotly deny that that’s what she supports. Which wouldn’t tell us that she doesn’t, but all things considered I think those who dissemble are marginally better than those who don’t.

    1. It is a terrible argument, if only because it presumes the incredible frailty of the people who might hear her speak.

      “Fans” will already have heard her. They will have purchased many of her (probably horrible) books. These folk exist in the world and silencing Coulter on campus is no defense against any of them.

      1. From what I can tell, they appear to think she might be the catalyst for an angry mob, during or after her appearance.

        Which is a fair argument IF they’re right. Which I doubt.

        1. It seems like a very unfair argument, since the angry mob they’re worried she might incite is a mob of people who wish to stop her from speaking and students who want to listen to her from hearing what she has to say. It is a university’s obligation to protect its students and to uphold the values of free speech and the free exchange of ideas (and its a legal duty of a public school like this one to uphold the value of free speech, as they are considered a government actor and thus must act in accordance with the Constitution).

    2. By the same token, someone who advocates genocide, racism, and removing human rights has no business speaking at a liberal public university.

      Why on Earth not?

      I would hope that you would expect, for example, that students taking a WWII history class should have to read Mein Kampf as part of the coursework. How else should one contextualize the statements and actions of the Nazis? How else should one understand the very war itself, from instigation through armistice, from personal to national motivation — and both supportive and reactionary?

      And if it’s okay to have Mein Kampf in the classroom itself, how could one possibly object to permitting a Nazi a pulpit?

      And if a liberal public university isn’t a safe space for students to encounter such discomforting subjects and people, how else do you propose that they should prepare themselves for the time when they will assuredly encounter them off campus?

      And are you really so fearful that the students will become genocidal racists after hearing somebody advocate for genocidal racism? If so, what are the arguments that you yourself find so compelling in those of the genocidal racists — and, if those arguments actually do have merit, shouldn’t the actually be seriously considered?




    3. First, I don’t know of any quote anyone can attribute to Coulter in which she calls for genocide. Second, the only people outright advocating for ripping away the rights of others are the no-platformers.

    4. From what I can tell the danger to marginalized minorities of simply allowing people like Coulter and Yiannopoulos to speak has been overblown to the point of absurdity.

    5. … someone who advocates genocide, racism, and removing human rights has no business speaking at a liberal public university.

      Once you start applying a litmus test to free speech, it’s not free speech anymore.

      It’s already illegal to incite the public to commit crimes; so as for the rest, we don’t need Sastra or anyone as the Decider of who ‘has any business speaking.’

      1. This isn’t necessarily my own view, I was trying to exercise the ‘principle of charity’ and put forth one of the better arguments.

        Assume, for the sake of argument, that, instead of Ann Coulter, it’s another speaker, and their advocation of genocide, racism, totalitarianism, and even the elimination of science and all public education is crystal clear — the topic of the speech, in fact. Assume also that this speaker isn’t a quaint little nastiness on the fringe, but part of a growing movement which has actually been committing violence and eliminating funding. These attacks are being made on people like you. You have friends, relatives, and colleagues who have been directly effected. If the speaker gets their way, the university they are speaking at would be closed, its books burned, the professors executed.

        In other words, would the most extreme views imaginable be enough to call for a litmus test? No actual audience with pitchforks and torches, no — but pitchforks and torches out there nevertheless, inspired by such rhetoric. My own tendency is to say “yes,” if this entire worst case scenario applies. Then we walk it back. Is this really the case here?

        Part of their argument rests on the distinction between looking at the issue from an academic perspective — and viewing it from the perspective which comes when we insert that bit about you and yours being attacked. There’s also the irony in someone using a platform to call for the elimination of such platforms. Does the platform now have a say?

        But again– is this Ann Coulter? On the whole, I doubt it, so I’m with you. I think we do though have to seriously consider whether our “privilege ” isn’t distorting our judgment, rather than the other way around.

        1. Apologies, I misread your intent.

          I still believe the only litmus test for prohibiting speech should be: is the speech criminal?
          Calling for genocide or mass murder of entire classes would seem illegal. But even here, there’s considerable leeway. Brandenburg v. Ohio permits the advocacy of violent doctrines, so long as it does not incite imminent lawless action.

          NB: Coulter was disinvited not because she directly incites violence, rather it was feared her words or mere presence might indirectly inspire others — her opponents included — to commit violence. When sports teams win championships, it is now common for hooligans to vandalize cars during the ‘celebrations’. Should the teams be held responsible?

          There are many who wish to stifle all ‘hate speech’ — as defined by them, of course. But hatred is not illegal (though, sadly, we have effectively criminalized it with Hate Crime laws that tack on extra punishment just for one’s thoughts). Hateful speech must be protected.

          And, as you have alluded to, the regressive left consistently & flippantly misapplies terms such as genocide, violence, racism, misogyny, etc., to the point of rendering these terms meaningless. BLM has called the 400 justified homicides a year of blacks by police “genocide”; LGBT activists declare ‘mis-pronouning’ and ‘dead-naming’ “actual acts of violence”; Matt Taylor was pilloried for wearing a ‘misogynist’ shirt a woman artist friend of his made for him; legitimate criticism of an ideology — Islam — embraced by a billion people of every ethnicity, is ‘racism.’

          You ask, and rightly so, for evidence of these claims of genocide, etc. The regressive left has moved past such antiquated notions as evidence-based reasoning. If an oppressed or unprivileged person, in their lived experience feels something is racist, violence, etc., then it is, end of story.

          We are so far beyond the Pale of sanity, it is truly frightening.

        2. In other words, would the most extreme views imaginable be enough to call for a litmus test? No actual audience with pitchforks and torches, no — but pitchforks and torches out there nevertheless, inspired by such rhetoric.

          Even in such dire circumstances, the answer remains, “no.” Indeed, especially in such circumstances!

          If there is to be a peaceful resolution, it will be through speech — even if that speech gets quite heated.

          Even if there is violence, speech is the best first line of defense against it.

          And, should you really be so far up the creek that violence is all you’ve got left, you’re going to need that free speech once the dust settles.

          If you’re still not convinced, consider just how many “temporary” states of emergency that “required” suppression of civil liberties ever actually were voluntarily lifted by those who imposed them. Even in the least-violent such examples, it’s taken an independent judiciary to restore liberty. Much more commonly, the “emergency” only ends with the violent overthrow of those who declared it.




  22. There are new deciders in town The annual Portland Rose parade was canceled because the
    ‘antifa’ thugs declared”

    “You have seen how much power we have downtown and that the police cannot stop us from shutting down roads so please consider your decision wisely,” the anonymous email said, referring to the violent riots that hit Portland after the 2016 presidential election, reported the Oregonian. “This is nonnegotiable.”

    The email said that 200 people would “rush into the parade” and “drag and push” those marching with the Republican Party.”

    The police determined they don’t have the resources. The town buckled to these scum. When the police back down, law becomes a joke.

    We are entering a violent era again, like the early 70s, and at the moment it’s mostly the left. Until (as one conservative blogger I read expressed real concern) the (actual) Nazis decide to make a move. It’s not good.

    1. You know, ever since the KKK was neutered several decades ago, it has usually been the left that has engaged in group violence. The 60s and 70s brought us the Weather Underground, Black Panthers, and many other lesser-known groups. The 2000s brought riots at global summits and the like. In fact, some of the people who actually committed terrorist acts (and were even convicted!) during the late 60s and 70s, as well as some of the people who financed them, are now teaching at our colleges in the US. The left is becoming more and more violent once again. Instead of learning the lesson that throwing a tantrum every time they don’t get their way makes them seem like condescending know-it-alls and/or wannabe dictators who will not tolerate any ideological disagreement, what they’ve taken from the most recent election is that they need to up their aggression and condescension.

      Since I still consider myself someone who leans left-liberal, I’m gravely concerned for what this might mean when it comes to the future of the left in this country in the near term. These things can only go on for so long before the public at large outright rejects any ideological position even tangentially connected to these people, thus cementing years of right-wing rule.

      Condescending leftists love to refer to people “voting against their own interests,” but the far left continues to act against its own interests, to the detriment of the rest of us.

      1. While it really shouldn’t, liberalism in the US has long flirted (hell, fornicated) with totalitarian communism, Marxism, Maoism etc. These are some of the most illiberal political philosophies on the planet, but decades of left heroes have turned a blind eye, or actively supported these atrocities (inconsistent, to decry Hitler, but no Stalin).

        The term ‘classic liberal’ harkening back to the 19 century liberal ideas is probably closer to moderate libertarianism in today’s climate.

        1. I agree with your comment about libertarianism. I am basically a left-libertarian by today’s standards in the US. I believe in the necessity of social safety nets and that markets require proper regulation to function optimally, but beyond that, I’m with the libertarians on just about everything else.

        2. The old left probably leaned Social Democrat but mostly about people getting their fair share in terms of wages and working conditions.

          The crazy new left is neo-Marxist. And nothing else.

  23. PZ is now referring to PCC as “the regressive Jerry Coyne,” proving he is a master of the “I am rubber you are glue” school of debate.

    1. Surprised PZ hasn’t yet declared WEIT “a haven for rapists”. Which, as we recently discovered, leads ultimately to the person slandered being named Atheist of the Year!

  24. “I, for one, wouldn’t try to censor a Holocaust denialist, because I would want to hear what kind of arguments he/she would make.”

    I think this needs to be more considered. I don’t think you want to hear the arguments of a holocaust denier. After all, there’s an endless source of crackpots who wish to be heard on their crackpottery. Rather, I think the argument is that you would wish that crackpots are able to have their say, in the forums that they’re able to get some purchase, then whatever sense they may speak lends itself to wider and wider audiences. Ultimately if they had a valid argument, or one that is not easily put down to crackpottery, THEN you would want to hear it.

  25. A while back, someone said that Trump supporters were likely to be “deplorables”. Sounds like hate speech to me; she should be de-platformed.

    1. There are people on the left who despise her for a variety of reasons–she’s a war hawk, she’s a tool of Wall Street, etc. Sooner or later, she (or some other liberal icon) will be invited to speak somewhere and will face this kind of violent opposition from the far left. It will be interesting to see the reaction.

  26. Some more prominent far left ‘deciders’:

    Pol Pot
    Kim Jong-un and daddy and grand-daddy

    I love it when the crazy new left decides there needs to be a decider.

  27. Little kids learned a lesson long ago that adult censors seem to have totally forgotten: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names (free speech) can never hurt me.”

    1. Sorry, that should be “words” rather than “names”. Covers more territory.

      As an addendum. “Words” don’t hurt unless you allow them to. Violence, oppression are what hurts, not words which can always be ignored or argued against.

  28. I really do not find Baer’s argument stupid or superficial.

    quote from the NYTimes article:
    ” In today’s age, we also have a simple solution that should appease all those concerned that students are insufficiently exposed to controversial views. It is called the internet,…”

    Why doesn’t it [appease]? It seems just as the religious folk are so worried that the children’s ears become tainted with blasphemous speech, some free speech advocates think the only thing that matters is to let people talk, as if we are living in a totalitarian society and the universities are the last bastion of free speech which are in a mortal danger by some students.

    One does not really need to listen to Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkley to know what she has to say. A few minutes on or will be more than enough. She is not censored. Her speech is not being stifled in any way. She and her fans have more than enough resources to rent a private venue and hold her talks there.

    This is simply not about free speech. It is about the symbolic value of the university and who controls the education process. Right wingers have been complaining for decades that the university administrations are heavily left-leaning. Now they have found a cudgel in the form of free speech to take on their adversaries in the academia. If it was the right who had the upper hand, it would be Naom Chomsky dis-invited without a second thought.

    The fact is we have the technological means to preserve free speech and we don’t really need universities to do that for us. This is a pointless fight which will only benefit the trolls on both sides.

    1. And I will defend your right to say this idiotic nonsense.

      But let me add: First they came for my rights to speak at colleges. And I did nothing. Then they came for my rights to speak on Facebook. And I did nothing. And so on.

      You are the kind of do nothing idiot that Stalin and Mao and Hitler et al loved. Because your ilk all of them possible.

    2. It very simply is about free speech, and there’s no way you’d be saying otherwise if the situation was reversed: it was right-wing groups constantly shutting out leftist speakers from campuses with violence and riots while only allowing right-wing speakers.

      More importantly, it’s about free speech according to the law of the land and our Constitution. Berkeley is a public school, and thus a government actor; as such, it must abide by the Constitution and provide First Amendment protections.

      Finally, right-wingers are, in fact, right that the administrators and professors of US colleges are overwhelmingly left-leaning, to a frightening and intolerable degree if the free exchange of ideas, teaching critical thinking skills, and intellectual diversity are values you think are important to institutions of higher learning (of course, if you think the value of those institutions is to pass on your personal ideology and block out all others, that’s different, but you at least must admit that’s not what higher education is *supposed* to be about). Go look up the numerous studies showing that up to 90 to 95% of professors at modern U.S. colleges lean left.

      1. “It very simply is about free speech, ”

        There has been no indication that the protesters are against free speech or for censorship of certain ideas. We can repeat our own positions without regard to the other side until kingdom come, but it does not mean that the other side is 100% wrong.

        The boring fact is that a university is an institution with a management and the management gets to set the rules. Obviously, it is not like Tucker Carlson’s show rules where he can freely talk over or interrupt his guest without any consequences. But in the end, this is how it goes and the Right would like to have a larger piece of the cake.

        But the question is who really needs the universities in this day and age for this kind of information? Can someone honestly claim they have difficulty finding out in a few minutes what Ann Coulter has to say?

        1. When it comes to freedom of expression, the Constitution sets the rules. The “management” is supposed respect the free expression rights people whether they be disgusting right wing extremists or disgusting left wing extremists. Or anywhere on the continuum between.

          Freedom of expression means nothing if it doesn’t apply to people you detest.

          1. The constitution does not compel anyone to provide an auditorium for me to convey my detestable ideas to the people. Freedom of expression is a negative right, not a positive one.

            The problem in my view is not that universities do not accept freedom of expression. The problem is universities are much more complex than a TV network or a private think tank. This complexity has led to confusion. Our time will be better spent discussing this core problem. But the right wing provocateurs are trying their best to transform the debate to a very abstract discussion about freedom of speech and ideological puritanism and nothing else.

            Like I said, Ann Coulter has zero problem disseminating her ideas in the society. So while extreme forms of protest is a problem (in that they show a failure in education), I am not convinced that the universities are a bastion of Bolshevism!! as so many people on the right are claiming without a moment of hesitation.

            1. I’ll leave with this, where our host started. Who gets to choose?

              Neither you nor me, nor some group of offended students has the right to prevent other people from hearing from speakers that have been invited. I’m unwilling to have you decide who I might invite as a speaker (assuming I’m in the position to invite anyone). And I’m unwilling to allow anyone else from vetoing those rights. Period. Whether or not I can go somewhere else to hear that speaker is irrelevant. (Again, assuming I’m in a position to invite speakers.) Your position is one upon which authoritarians have always built their case for the control of others.

              1. “(assuming I’m in the position to invite anyone)”

                I don’t know how many times I should repeat this: I am not condoning violence in any form or calling for limitation of free speech. Period!

                If you are a host in a TV network, the rules are clear. In a college or university, not so much. The amount of power a student group should possess is always subject to debate and it is not just the matter of inviting a provocateur. What if the students want to choose their own professors? Do they get to talk about that?

                Obviously, I am for letting her talk and get done with it. However, simply dismissing the protesters and painting them as red-blooded communists who want to set fire to everything is not an honest position either.

              2. Also, look at the first comment below mine. It is something you would expect if you wanted to post a comment at not WEIT.

                Now let’s talk about if freedom of expression applies here or not…here we go again.

                Not every debate can be reduced to the most abstract form. Complexity of the issue matters and we need to recognize this or it will become quickly a very boring and fruitless debate.

              3. All I’ll say, foxer, is that you have all kinds of different things muddled up. Public universities are neither TV shows nor privately-maintained web sites. Freedom of expression is not a hiring decision. As long as you can’t keep these items separate in your argument you’ll never gain clarity. And you’ll fall into the kind of censorship apologetics that justifies treating words and physical actions the same ways. Down that path lies authoritarian social policy. It is a place I won’t join you at.

              4. We are going around in circles here.

                It is you (and some other free speech warriors) who seem to be confusing cases such as Muahammed’s cartoons with university protest equating the students to Bolsheviks or foaming-at-the-mouth Muslims demanding beheading of a blasphemer. That is clearly not the case regardless of how pure you think your stance is.

              5. Foxer, how is comparing people who use violence to shut out ideas they don’t want to be spoken to other people who have done the same “confusing cases”? How is it unfair?

                And, to be clear, it is only you who has brought up Bolshevism and similar historical examples in this thread. Nobody else has brought these things up, though the comparisons for how they started can and have certainly been made elsewhere. You are arguing with strawmen at this point. I will post no further on this issue with you, as per the rules of the site and out of respect for the fact that it will not change your opinion. You may have the last word.

            2. You do not understand the law on this matter. Public universities such as this one are compelled to allow free speech and protect it. They are considered government actors. If a student group invites a speaker, the school must provide a venue for that speaker. That is the law.

              1. There are no “best of their abilities” exceptions. Neither the Constitution nor the Supreme Court cases of which you were unaware allow publicly funded universities to stifle speech out of fear that some of their students may react violently. In addition, public universities have the support and use of the public police force of the area.

                And, as an aside, in trying to get Coulter to cancel her talk by making absurd demands, they asked her and the student club to pay exorbitant security fees for protection. When they accepted that and the other demands, it was then they outright cancelled it, realizing their gambit hadn’t worked. It was their intention from the start to get either the club or Coulter to back out, and when they couldn’t, they simply broke the law instead. There is no excuse for this.

              2. What’s your source for the claim that the university “asked her and the student club to pay exorbitant security fees for protection”? Because the only “absurd demands” I’ve seen are a change of date and venue.

              3. “It was their intention from the start to get either the club or Coulter to back out, and when they couldn’t, they simply broke the law instead.”

                That’s just wrong. From the NYT, “Ann Coulter said Wednesday that she is canceling her planned speech at the University of California, Berkeley, because she had lost the backing of conservative groups that had initially sponsored her appearance.”

              4. “allow publicly funded universities to stifle speech”

                Wow! After so many comments, you just repeat your own position without any regard. What is the point, really?

                I have asked this question many times now and you have not answered:
                How Ann Coulter’s right to express herself freely has been curtailed? Can’t you by spending a few minutes of your time and a few clicks see almost all she has to offer, freely? Can’t you spend a few dollars to buy her books? If you can, then you cannot claim that she does not have freedom of speech.

                A college nor anyone else does not have a duty to “provide” freedom of speech for anybody. It is a negative right.

                Many students feel that they should have a saying in who is being invited to what they consider to be their home. They are probably wrong both on insisting on not inviting certain people and the form of their protest.

                But that does not make this ludicrous right wing campaign of lies and deception with the goal of gaining more control in academia a credible or serious thing.

    3. This is simply not about free speech. It is about the symbolic value of the university and who controls the education process.

      Very well– I still think it’s problematic. The university has set up a system where students can invite speakers. A group of students with a minority viewpoint has invited a speaker who gives voice to some of their concerns.

      What is the symbolic value of the university discriminating against students in the minority because students in the majority are offended – when they would never do the opposite? If we’re dealing in basic principles, should we really be examining the specific unpopular view for its worth — or should we be considering the education process? As in the democracy it represents, at least part of the control has been granted to We the Students. Can a majority vote here remove the right to invite a speaker?

      1. I am not condoning students’ actions. I am just saying that we need to keep a sense of proportion in this debate. This is not Russia circa 1917 and American university students are not members of the Bolshevik party.

        If protests are a call for censorship it is censorship in a very limited sense simply because almost anyone can post everything on the Internet and be viewed freely. They are not protesting because they don’t know what Ann Coulter has to say, they protest because they exactly know what she is going to say. This should make a difference in this debate, unfortunately, it doesn’t.

        1. They had no idea what Charles Murray was going to say, but they damned well weren’t going to allow him to say it.

          1. Yes, the case for Murray is a little bit different, although maybe not that much. He is not a provocateur like Milo or Coulter. Anyways, it was not the same college so I cannot guess what would have happened if Murray was to give a talk at Berkley. “Students” are not one uniform group across all the colleges and universities in the country.

              1. ” Who decides? ”

                Apparently, university administration is the ultimate decision maker! That’s all I have been saying all along. There is a system with a set of rules in place. If that system does not work or does not satisfy you, you are free to create your own. No one is preventing people from establishing new colleges and universities.

                For example, see here( to see what Dennis Prager thinks an ideal high school should look like and he probably has the same idea about a college. Why can’t they let Berkley be Berkley and start their own university which will be all humanity all ever wanted if you take them seriously!

              2. Why is this so hard?

                In a public institution (Berkeley is one) the university administration is the government.

                The government may not prohibit free expression, even of “provocateurs”.

        2. Foxer, what exactly is your reason for comparing Murray vs. Coulter wrt being a “provocateur”? Are you condoning threats of violence and/or other means to disrupt or get cancelled appearances by those deemed “provocateurs”?

          Once again, who decides who receives this label, and under what criteria?

          1. ” Are you condoning threats of violence and/or other means to disrupt ”

            Not at all, as I have repeated multiple times. If anything, protests show a failure in the college educational system.

            The main point of my comment was about having a sense of proportion about what is actually happening. Ann Coulter has zero problem disseminating her ideas and her readers have zero problem obtaining what she publishes. Her “speech” has not been suppressed in the slightest.

            What was suppressed in fact was her “show” (for lack of a better word). It is unfortunate, but I do not see how it warrants all this doom and gloom comments and posts about how freedom of speech is dying.

            1. If the practice of hosting public talks has any value at all — and apparently people still believe it does, given the large number of speaking events at universities — then who is allowed to speak, and who is not, must not be subject to litmus tests of any kind.

              Inviting speakers only of a certain viewpoint not only stifles free speech and freedom of thought, on public campuses in the US it is unconstitutional.

        3. They have NOT prohibited her free speech

          UC Berkeley unduly burdened her exercise of free speech by applying restrictions and conditions not uniformly applied to guest speakers. That constitutes effective prohibition of free speech.

          1. Maybe.

            Quote from NYTimes(

            “The school said she could speak only at a later date and an earlier time of day, when there were likely to be fewer students on campus and less of a likelihood for violent outbreaks.”

            Is this undue burden? I don’t think so. Ann Coulter is not a world leader or the pope. Her talk does not justify high security costs for whatever reason.

            That a talk by her needed heightened security in the first place is a bad sign (for Berkley). But again, the fact that they could easily provide a venue for her talk on campus shows that the problem is not as deep as she and some others like to pretend.

            1. She and another conservative are the only two speakers who have been subject to these restrictions — only permitted to speak either when students are in class or not on campus at all. Liberal speakers have spoken without any such restrictions.

              1. And it shows a problem. But how deep is it? Listening to Coulter herself, it seems that the cancellation of her talk is the end of freedom of speech itself (she also believes that if the wall is not built, it is the end of America).

                But is it, really? One can argue we never had more freedom of speech throughout history than today thanks to the Internet. What is the worst case scenario here? Berkley loses its prestige and symbolic stance as a bastion for free speech? So be it, who needs Berkley, really?

                Just as the notion that “America” will come to an end if a wall is not built is nonsense, the notion that freedom of speech is in mortal danger because a talk was cancelled in a university full of young and hot-headed people is absurd.

              2. You still seem to be missing the profound significance of UC Berkeley’s status as a public institution.

              3. I don’t believe that a university has a duty to provide a platform for everyone no matter the cost. Some people like the attention they get when they utter controversial nonsense. Is it the university’s fault that they receive death threats by some other lunatic?

                Of course security costs should be taken into account. That someone is invited by a student group is not enough in itself.

                Why not invite Iran’s Ahamdinejad for example? Shouldn’t he get what Ann Coulter gets for the sake of free speech? (all security fees covered by the university)

                To my understanding Berkley’s offer was not unreasonable. After tasting the political victories of the past year, the right simply can’t let go of their sensationalist recipes for political and societal gains. True, they have learned it from the left. But two wrongs don’t make a right.

              4. 1) UC Berkeley offered varying access to speakers based on those speakers’ viewpoints;
                2) It caved to the threats of a violent fringe group, thus emboldening them to further blackmail;
                3) It is well worth the extra cost and effort to ensure that controversial or unpopular voices be heard. This is at the very core of our free speech principles;
                4) You blame Coulter, et al. for being too controversial — serves her right for being to inflammatory. Per your rule of thumb, only the most anodyne of speakers will ever be heard. That would suffocate free speech.

              5. “1) UC Berkeley offered varying access to speakers based on those speakers’ viewpoints;”

                This is not a problem in itself. I would expect that a Physics department in a well-known university to give different access levels to a Nobel laureate and someone like Deepak Chopra!

                “2) It caved to the threats of a violent fringe group, thus emboldening them to further blackmail;”

                This claim seems reasonable given the means that were at Berkley’s disposal to hold a talk.

                “3) It is well worth the extra cost and effort to ensure that controversial or unpopular voices be heard. This is at the very core of our free speech principles;”

                This is where I disagree. Free speech is a negative right. No one has a duty to “provide” free speech for anyone. “Provision” of free speech should also follow the bounds of reason and practicality.

                “4) You blame Coulter, et al. for being too controversial — serves her right for being to inflammatory. Per your rule of thumb, only the most anodyne of speakers will ever be heard. That would suffocate free speech.”

                I don’t blame her for being controversial. I blame her for uttering irresponsible sensationalist nonsense for more fame and wealth (and clicks!) This agitates some people and inevitably increases her appearance costs in places where those people are the majority. But in the end she could have gone there and she could have given her talk. Instead she chose to make it another “battle” for America’s soul. How pathetic.

              6. I would expect that a Physics department in a well-known university to give different access levels to a Nobel laureate and someone like Deepak Chopra! […] Free speech is a negative right. No one has a duty to “provide” free speech for anyone.

                You completely and utterly fail to understand the role of the University of California, Berkeley, in all of this.

                The University is the government. Period, full stop, end of discussion. You might not like the fact that they’re the government; you might think it’s silly that they’re the government; you might wish that they’re not the government. All that is irrelevant; they are the government.

                The government can and does evaluate academic speakers on their merits. There’s not a chance in Hell that Chopra would be invited to give a lecture on Quantum Physics.

                And the government can decide whether or not to prove an open platform for discussion. The government often does — famously in town squares for anybody who wants to speak; in this particular case, in the student union building for anybody whom some students want to listen to.

                What the government cannot do is evaluate the merits of the speakers based on the content of their speech.

                The government can, in these situations, set standards independent of the content; those in the town square may use a simple cone megaphone, perhaps, but may not use electronic amplification. Campus facilities are open to guest speakers invited by registered student groups, but not to those lacking such an invitation.

                But the government is prohibited from saying which words may and may not be spoken. If the town square is open to Christian preachers proclaiming hellfire and damnation for all sinners, it must also be open to Nazis screaming about the evils of the pollution of the inferior races. If the campus’s New Age spirituality center can invite Chopra to chant about chakras, then the Republicans can invite Coulter to be her usual incoherent self.

                Again, you may well not like that this is the case. You obviously wish to yourself be The Decider who Decides whose speech is and isn’t pure enough — but, so, too, do the Nazis would like to impose their own impurity test, and I can assure you that theirs is much more lily-white than yours.

                And so we have reached the bargain that’s worked damned well. I’ll say things that you don’t want to hear and you’ll say things that I don’t want to hear. I’ll listen to you if I like and not if I don’t, and you’ll listen to me if you want and not if I don’t. But none of us is going to use force, including that of the big burly men in neatly-pressed blue uniforms with shiny badges, to stop the other from saying bad words.

                I’ll leave you with a thought. The people you would silence clearly wish to speak. They would also rather not hear you speak. Why are you so sure that, if the fight is over who does and doesn’t get to speak, that the speech you yourself prefer is the one that would prevail? Do you really think those you would silence are imaginary boogeymen who have no power to effect change in the real world, or that they’ll somehow just silently sit down and shut up when you tell them to do so? And if you really think you have such amazing power over them, why are you so fearful of their mere words?




              7. “The University is the government. Period, full stop, end of discussion.”

                Well, the “government” claims they did what they could for the talk to happen.

                Maybe they are lying or they are incompetent. In any case, I am not convinced that merely changing time and place of the talk means malicious intent on the part of “the government”.

                It is dictators who secure their speeches by military force. It should not come to this. I would say canceling the talk was a more rational choice than holding it under heavy police presence. But this is a practical decision not an ideological one. Failing to distinguish between the two is the hallmark of the latest right-wing sensationalist campaign. It is amazing this many people have fallen for that.

                You also say:
                “The government can and does evaluate academic speakers on their merits. There’s not a chance in Hell that Chopra would be invited to give a lecture on Quantum Physics.”

                Well, if you concede that the government has such a right, then how can you oppose their assessment of Coulter’s merits and the decision they made based on that assessment?

                You can’t have it both ways. Either a university is a big town hall in which case everyone (including Chopra) should be able to talk there. Or it is not a town hall, in which case you have to concede that the university administration has veto rights (with rational justification) over student body decisions.

              8. Either a university is a big town hall in which case everyone (including Chopra) should be able to talk there. Or it is not a town hall, in which case you have to concede that the university administration has veto rights (with rational justification) over student body decisions.

                It is both.

                Chopra is not welcome in the physics classroom, since he has no credentials demonstrating his merits there.

                But Coulter (and Chopra!) are welcome in the student union, provided they meet the same content-agnostic standards as all other guests invited by the student body.

                If you really want to keep Coulter off campus, you have to disinvite everybody and prohibit all non-academic activity on campus. But it’s obvious why that’s not a good idea, which is why Coulter has every bit as much of a right to speak in the campus’s equivalents of the town hall as anybody else does.




  29. There should be only one Decider, and that is me (/s)
    Seriously though, I would love to see a debate between Ayaan and Linda. Although it would look better on Linda’s CV than Ayaan’s, I would nevertheless love to see Linda softly, but decisively, being destroyed by Ayaan.

  30. according to disinvitatins are DECREASING. 2016, 14 pages of items; 2015, 21; 2014, 28; 2013, 34.

    I worry that you (we?) are feeding another right wing conspiracy against academics and liberals by making so much of every disinvitation. i suggest adding to every post like this, that fortunatly the problem is NOT endemic to either academia nor to liberals and is in fact getting better.

    1. Disinvitations are only the extreme tip of the iceberg. My wife works at an Ivy League school, and the intimidation runs right through the workplace. If you don’t buy into the latest opinion du jour, you’re best to keep a very low profile.

      1. Adding a thought: Her environment contrasts sharply with my job in a very corporate environment… discussion of politics is strongly discouraged. The day after the ‘upset’ election at my job was just like any other day… at her job their was moaning and (literal) crying and anger. Everyone was expected to display shock and distress.. if you voted Republican, you’d better not mention it.

        There are times when I’m really glad not to be in academia.

    2. Disinvitations are decreasing because censorship-before-the-fact and left-wing violence are on the rise. There’s really no narrative here. We’ve been watching this happen for years.

  31. Dear Decider,

    When the tables turn and “Punch a Nazi” day becomes “Punch a Snowflake” day and we’ve taken discourse of the table, how do we decide which arguments win the day? I often disagree with Noam Chomsky, but as he recently said, when this is the path, the most violent group wins and that’s not us.

    This is a race to the bottom.

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