Free speech: what we’re up against

February 25, 2018 • 9:00 am

This comment appeared in the remarks following my letter to the Chicago Maroon (our student newspaper) asking the paper to take a stand on free speech. Nearly all of the comments were pro-free speech, which is good, but this one stood out in contrast:

Becker’s link at the end is to the faculty letter opposing Bannon’s appearance here. Do read it, or at least look at the faculty affiliations of the signers. Note the imbalance among disciplines, which says something about which areas of scholarship tend to harbor censorious faculty.  (Note: not everyone who signed is a faculty member.)

Now I don’t know who Jay Becker is, and I don’t much care, but I hope he’s not organizing or participating in some kind of disruption when Bannon appears.  Here are all the errors in his reasoning (I’m assuming “Jay” is a man’s name):

  1. Becker is correct that the First Amendment (should be capitalized) prohibits government suppression of speech.  But the law itself does “prohibit people from objecting and even mobilizing to stop a specific person or group from speaking at any one time or place.” People can object, of course (that’s one of the purposes of the Amendment), but if speech is being legally disseminated, as in a permitted rally or talk, then law will punish people who “mobilize to stop a person or group from speaking”. Such individuals would be prosecuted not on constitutional grounds, but on the basis of disorderly conduct—or worse if there’s violence involved, as there was when Yiannopoulos tried to speak at Berkeley. And certainly the University of Chicago has made its intentions clear to punish students who disrupt speakers.
  2. “This is not about free speech; it’s about fascist speech.” This is the mantra of every censor in American colleges. It’s a blanket statement that means any speech deemed “fascist” by the censor is illegal and can be shut down. Of course “fascist speech” is not defined. What it really means is either “speech I don’t like” or “all speech uttered by anyone I deem a fascist.” I suspect that Becker means the latter.  If Becker knows his First Amendment, he’ll know that the courts don’t see anything Bannon says as a violation of that Amendment.
  3. Is Bannon a fascist? I don’t know, and I don’t much care about those labels. He’s an extreme right-winger, and has many views I consider odious, but that’s no reason to ban him. Further, not all of his views are “fascist”. He has, for instance, called for a 44% federal tax on incomes over $5 million a year. When he was in the White House, Bannon advocated a big pullback of US involvement in Afghanistan. Are those “fascist” views? As I noted the other day, after a conversation with Bannon, New York Times columnist David Brooks, while vehemently disagreeing with Bannon’s views, nevertheless “highly recommended” Bannon’s visit to campus as a way to acquaint people with his populist views (Brooks is a U of C graduate).  Apparently Becker doesn’t think anybody needs to hear those views, even if they are opposed to them, want to question Bannon, or want to sharpen their own thinking. Having Bannon here is in fact promoting critical thinking, not suppressing it.
  4. The idea that someone speaking at a university gets the university’s official imprimatur, and that Bannon’s visit is somehow “legitimizing his ideology” is wrong and, frankly, stupid. All kinds of people come here, from all sides of the political spectrum, and it’s simply impossible for the university to be “legitimizing” all these conflicting views. In fact, the university is legitimizing nothing—except for someone’s right to speak. I despise creationism and those who lie to people to further a religious agenda, but if a creationist spoke here (as one did: Bill Dembski), I would not for a minute think that the university was “legitimizing creationism.” The “legitimizing” argument is rejected by the University of Chicago and all enlightened universities.
  5. Finally, letters like this, as well as other stuff I see, makes me think that people (not necessarily connected with the University), are planning to “mobilize” to disrupt Bannon’s appearance. That would not be wise. I am sure the University is preparing for this, and will ensure that Bannon gets to speak without disruption. I am also sure that there will be police to remove disruptors. Nobody will gain by trying to prevent him from speaking. Already the group of humanities professors who wrote the “Ban Bannon” letter look censorious, and I have no sympathy for them. I, too, despise what Bannon stands for, but that’s no reason to prevent him from speaking. Remember, he’s in a debate, so there will already be planned counterspeech. Are people worried that Bannon will actually convert people who are more liberal? If so, they’d better examine their own arguments against him.

I’m curious about Becker’s logo above, which says “Not this time” in the middle, and around the triangle some words that begin “First they came for. . ”  Does anybody recognize this, or can make out the rest of it? The quote appears to resemble the famous “First they came for the socialists . .” quote by Martin Niemöller, in which case Becker is claiming that there’s a slippery slope from Bannon to (OMG) Nazis!

56 thoughts on “Free speech: what we’re up against

  1. I sent this to PCC(E) earlier :

    an important aspect of free speech is for the speaker themselves to hear what they have to say (I don’t think it’s the same as just churning stuff over in your head), illustrated by none other than Pooh bear :

    “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

    The House at Pooh Corner (1928), p.104
    A.A. Milne

    …. not that Bannon will change his mind, but as a spectacle for people to marvel at, it will help. The Milne quote is a long time favorite of mine, but only the other day did I see a connection to free speech.

    (The letter writer misspelled “Chemistty”)

    1. You make a very interesting point. The corollary, of course, is that those on Bannon’s side of the political landscape, and who hear him in a debate setting, are more likely to reconsider some of their beliefs as well. There could be a rather large payoff there.

    2. I agree -I love the Pooh Bear quote and will be looking for an excuse to use it now you’ve reminded me of it!

  2. People who argue that we should only listen to others we agree with are Group Think Warriors. The mistake that would be is punctuated by things like the Challenger Disaster.

    Keep slugging on this one, Doc!

  3. For a major clue that the word “fascism” is just code for fill-in-the-blank ideology, check out the Antifa logo that’s currently most popular. The first thing it says is “abolish capitalism.” Fighting political fascism gets second billing. As far as I can tell, kids today define “fascism” as status-quo economics and “stuff I think is racist.” It bears minimal relationship to historical fascism.

      1. I’ve thrown the word around myself, and probably used it to describe Bush at one time or another. But the more I study about historical fascism, I realize it’s too complicated to toss around as a political epithet. One can just as easily focus on Italian Fascism’s history as a left-wing movement that took a hard turn to the right, and wonder if that’s being recapitulated in some sense by today’s regressive left.

        1. “Fascism establishes the real equality of individuals before the nation… the object of the regime in the economic field is to ensure higher social justice for the whole of the Italian people… What does social justice mean? It means work guaranteed, fair wages, decent homes, it means the possibility of continuous evolution and improvement. Nor is this enough. It means that the workers must enter more and more intimately into the productive process and share its necessary discipline….” Benito Mussolini: Four Speeches on the Corporate State, Rome, (1935) pp. 39-40. Speech delivered to the workers in Milan.

          “When the war is over, in the world’s social revolution that will be followed by a more equitable distribution of the earth’s riches, due account must be kept of the sacrifices and of the discipline maintained by the Italian workers. The Fascist revolution will make another decisive step to shorten social distances.” Mussolini’s speech in Rome, Italy, February 23, 1941. Published in the New York Times, February 24, 1941.

  4. Since I’m currently reading it, I can’t help but wonder if this is a symptom of Fantasyland :

    Speeches, talks not as speech or talks or discussions, but group immersive experiences to revel in the words people wish to hear….


    1. “legitimizing”

      hmmm… allow me to put my hobby results here:

      verb: legitimize; [..edit…]
      make legitimate.
      “voters legitimize the government through the election of public officials”
      synonyms: validate, legitimate, permit, authorize, sanction, license, condone, justify, endorse, support; legalize
      “the idea of an institution controlling knowledge in order to legitimize a political agenda isn’t new”
      antonyms: outlaw

      …and my favorite : the ngram:

      … significant rise starting around 1960…

  5. I believe the professor and the rest of us who have read the first amendment and the constitution always must speak out on this. With his school on the line here it is even more important.

    It is always predictable that people such as Jay Becker will add, subtract or otherwise mangle the language to suit their beliefs. It never fails, but if we look at the amendment itself, there is no mention of fascist or any other political idea. His ideas are entirely made up by his own imagination. This is very similar to some people who look at the second amendment and imagine that we have militia all around us. There are no militia in this country and there has not been for many years. If you want to argue that a militia still exist, I have a couple of bridges for you.

  6. People who wish to censor the speech of others do so based on a fundamental premise: the masses through human nature, their biases and prejudices, or lack of knowledge are incapable of discerning the “truth,” as defined by the censor. Exposing the masses to contrary views could incite social unrest and result in society led to a direction the censor feels dangerous. When censors are in political power, free speech is formally banned. This has been done countless times by authoritarian regimes. People such as Becker are afraid that Bannon could contribute to the birth of more Trumpists, hence his speech must not be allowed.

    To say that free speech can never induce the masses to support authoritarian movements is historically naïve. Whether this happens or not in a given society depends on its particular situation at a particular time. Therefore, allowing free speech for authoritarians is a calculated risk. In the United States of today such a risk is well worth taking. The alternative is so much worse because, at bottom, people such as Becker do not believe in democracy. It is true that democracies do not last forever. Many respected academics and others have warned that American democracy is on shaky grounds. If the banning of free speech should become commonplace, incited by the left or right, then these warnings may come to pass. Trump and the far right must be resisted vigorously. The way to do this is through the political process. The masses must be shown that alternatives to authoritarianism can result in better lives. There are signs that this is happening. The 2018 elections will tell us more. In any case, Bannon should not be censored. Instead, his opponents must show why he is wrong and their vision of America offers a better life. Keeping a democracy is hard work. Banning the speech of those you don’t like is a lazy and unproductive way to do it.

  7. The Chicago Reader reported in 2010 that a “Jay Becker” had formed a group to protest suppression of speech and censorship, including the deplatforming of a speaker by McHenry County College. FIRE provides details of the McHenry deplatforming, which involved threats of mobilizing protesters to disrupt the speech. It’s interesting that the 2010 free speech advocate shares the same name as the 2018 deplatforming campaigner, yet their views are so different.

  8. A good analysis as usual.

    It would be interesting to know how Jay Becker and ilk would define “legitimize” in this context. It seems like a weasel word to me. It allows one to hint that those giving a platform to an offending speaker somehow side with the speaker but with plausible deniability.

    What, exactly, makes an idea legitimate vs illegitimate? For example, “xenophobia” is certainly legitimate in the sense of being well-defined, real, and is an emotion shared by a lot of people.

  9. Their biggest delusion is that suppressing “hate speech” will stop the likes of Bannon. In fact these types use supposed suppression to fuel their cause. That is how the Nazis used Weimer’s laws against “insulting religious minorities.” As PCC has said, the best response to speech you don’t like is more speech.

    1. And what would have happened back in the early 50s when McCarthy was going after everyone who he decided were communists? This speech suppression might have allowed him to hang around a long time. But because he was allowed to go full tilt he quickly lost popularity and his job.

  10. And it certainly doesn’t prohibit people from objecting and even mobilizing to stop a specific person or group from speaking at any one time and place.

    It certainly does:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,…

    [Bolding added]

    No exception for “fascist” speech either. They really have to re-write the First Amendmet to try to make it fit their censoring ways.

    Glen Davidson

  11. A ‘Jay Becker’ appears on lists of antifa members [not very reliable lists though] & is a follower of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. He is a very busy re-tweeter of a narrow range of ‘anti-fascist’ opinion & march notifications. His Twitter is here: FutureUp2Us

    The ideas he favours are:
    & the Republican party has been fascist since the 60s

    He is a humourless, witless, joyless sloganeer – if it weren’t for his long online history I’d almost think he was a bot.

  12. I do get frustrated with people advocating censorship of speech deemed immoral. I would certainly agree with Bannon’s speech is immoral, but what else has been censored in part or all of this country as immoral?

    Arguments for abolition of slavery.
    Information about contraception.
    Information about abortion.
    Arguments for LGBQT rights.

    If it’s OK for us to censor, it’s OK for others to censor, and censorship will be used against us.

    1. “If it’s OK for us to censor, it’s OK for others to censor, and censorship will be used against us.”


  13. The better argument isn’t that the definition of fascist is not defined, as PCC suggests. Assume that we have objectively determined that someone is a fascist – they are still entitled to free speech.

  14. My first thought on reading that faculty letter was why can’t academics write clearly and concisely? They could have better made their point in a letter about a quarter as long as that one.

  15. I think absolutes don’t really work that well in such situations.

    Let’s look at an extreme viewpoint (no idea if he believes it, but it’s certainly from his general corner) for the sake of the discussion, like the idea that Sandy Hook was a hoax. As long as it is fringe, it would be unwise to give it any bigger or venerable stage. Indeed, that might inadvertently promote such views, or lend them credence. That doesn’t mean they should be left unchecked: specialized venues should counter and debunk them.

    But when a view becomes too widely known, it also requires bigger responses, and a society can no longer ignore what exists at growing fringes. There will be controversy when that threshold is met, where one switches gears from ignore to attack, but it’s quite clearly not a neat situation that has just one answer.

    What about the platform? I agree with the principle that certain views really shouldn’t have a platform offered to them and that includes fascism, holocaust denial and the likes. They can create their own platforms, write their books etc. but no serious institution should help them in any way, unless, and that’s the caveat from above, the fringe are such an influence that it would be perilous when ignored. I still would not like them invited, but an institution can make a symposium or inform about it.

    Now Bannon was in the White House and was the Presidents whisperer for some time. That alone pushes him above that threshold. Someone like that has demonstrable influence, where it would be dangerous to simply ignore him and hope for the best.

    I think the invitation was wrong. But now that it was extended, the University needs to go through the motion. The students should collect his views, and counter them and hand that to visitors, and protest without disrupting his speech, and that way show that his views are inimical to society and country.

    Overall, the US is pretty much f*cked for it happened that half the country is brainwashed by Far Right, conspiracy and religious extremists. The Overton Window is such far to the extreme right fringe, that even “arming teachers” is seen as serious suggestion and not instantly laughed out of the room. Trying to use violence to push the window back into reasonable terrain is only making it worse.

  16. So Jay Becker and his/her ilk want to refuse to tolerate Bannon because Bannon is “profoundly anti-dissent”.

    Whereas people like Jay Becker are models of welcoming dissent??

    1. It’s the title of a legal act, specifically an amendment.

      That’s the convention for bills, acts, laws, and amendments. Capitalization means that it refers to a specific “first amendment,” one that most people will recognize.

      Glen Davidson

    2. It’s so that we know that the first amendment is called the “First Amendment” – that is its title. Generally the NAMES of all acts, bills, laws & amendments are capitalized: Bill of Rights, North American Free Trade Agreement, Declaration of Independence & so on

      Example writing:

      The First Amendment has a Free Exercise Clause & an Establishment Clause. Our Fourteenth Amendment contains a Due Process Clause & an Equal Protection Clause.

      It makes it a lot clearer for foreigners like me to know I’m looking at the names of things 🙂

  17. Becker has claimed the right to free speech AND the moral authority to disclaim Bannon’s right to the same.
    It is a failure on Becker’s part not to see what this actually means.
    Fascism indeed and in this case, by whom?
    Speak, argue, debate, question, protest against, that is the actions of free people.
    For a comparison, go to Russia and give Putin a serve, see how that works out.

  18. First they came for the Nazis; I wasn’t a Nazi, so I said nothing… THAT is the slippery slope. Are these people stupid enough to think that if Freedom of Speech is weakened, that weakness will not be used by the worst elements of the right wing to silence them?

  19. If Jay Becker is indeed a communicant of the Revolutionary Communist Party, then it all falls into place. Decades ago—and EVERYTHING about the regressive Left today seems to be reenactment as farce—the RCP fancied itself to be Maoist, during the same period that Chairman Mao himself unleashed the wonderful Cultural Revolution in China. Following the examples of Stalin and Mao, the RCP created its own little personality cult around one Bob Avakian, who RCP agitprop termed their “precious leader” (no kidding!).
    At first, I thought the RCP was doing a parody of Leftism, until I came to understand that self-parody was their specialty.

    Speaking of which, the names Brian Becker
    and Richard Becker kept turning up at Workers World and Internationa Answer self-parodies back in the 1990s. Maybe there is a whole clan of Beckers who operate these things.

  20. Will Bannon be paid by the University of Chicago? Will his room and board be covered by the University of Chicago? His travel expenses? I am glad his appearance will be in a debate in which his “odious” views will be countered. I am not sure that any money paid to the Uni of Chicago by students, their parents, or U of Chicago supporters should be used to facilitate “odious” views being presented on your campus.

    Your arguments are well reasoned and compelling but… we have FOX News and Rush Limbaugh who are given daily national platforms to push “odious” lies about climate change, Hillary Clinton, Obama birth certificate, Obama place of birth, Seth Rich, Benghazi, etc. These “odious,” easily disprovable lies are believed by nearly half of our country currently. Our democracy and its institutions are seriously threatened by the wide spread acceptance of “odious” lies propagated by Rush and FOX. Some balance between the unlimited right of free speech and the dissemination of false, hateful, hurtful, and destructive propaganda has to be found. I am not sure any of your arguments address this concern.

    1. I think the assumption has to be that allowing Bannon to speak will, on balance, help protect democracy rather than trigger the collapse of civilization.

    2. Problems like Rush and Fox should, IMO, be addressed by the reinstatement of the old fairness doctrine and a massive investment in quality publicly-funded journalism.

      That likely labels me as a wild-eyed socialist. So be it.

      1. I just read about the FD in Fantasyland.

        It sounds “bad” (I haven’t read details) – how would you defend it?

        1. Because it worked for decades until Reagan destroyed it. Eliminating the Fairness Doctrine led to right wing talk radio, Rush and all the rest. That laid the groundwork for Faux News. The Fairness Doctrine prevented public airwaves from becoming propaganda channels for wealthy extremists. It was killed using the excuse that cable wasn’t covered and so this was “unfair” to radio businesses.

          1. But how is CNN not the Fox of the left?

            How do we break this false dichotomy of one citizen’s Sean Hannity is another citizen’s …. I dunno …. Anderson Cooper?…

            And I guess this is making your point, that the _wealthy_ on the left are far outnumbered by those in the right?…,

            So there is no Bill Gates left propaganda media networks…

            1. CNN is leftist propaganda? Srsly? IMO they are right of center.

              In any case, the Fairness Doctrine didn’t apply there anyway since CNN is a cable network.

              The point is that the FD was effective for decades. Radio and broadcast TV owners actively sought to moderate their news and commentary. You didn’t get rampant extremist propaganda on your morning commute (Rush, Hannity, etc.)

              In an era of Internet delivery, it would be hard to implement. Still, drive-time propaganda continues to pollute our “public square”. Reinstating the Fairness Doctrine would help mitigate it.

  21. Peter, we don’t need “a balance” between free speech and propaganda (that you don’t like). What we need is more support for free speech. There is no such thing as a “balance” between opposing views. Free speech itself will take care of the supposed “imbalances” you fear. Start restricting the free speech of others and soon such restriction will come back to throttle you.

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