ACLU admits it screwed up by changing RBG’s words; Michelle Goldberg explains why the changes were misleading

September 28, 2021 • 9:15 am

A week ago I called attention to a tweet by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that quoted but redacted some words by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG). The ACLU made six changes in just one short quote, including an omission. Here’s what they tweeted:

Here are her real words, which according to Michelle Goldberg’s NYT article below, were uttered during RBG’s 1993 Senate confirmation hearings. As usual, RBG didn’t pull any punches!

“The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When the government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a full adult human responsible for her own choices.”

― Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I added this in my post:

There are six changes, five in brackets, getting rid of “woman” and “her” (substituting “persons” and “people” for “woman” and “they” or “their” for three “hers”).  The missing part of the quote, which is “It is a decision she must make for herself”, could have been altered to “It is a decision they must make for themselves,” but that would add two more sets of brackets and make the whole quotation look really weird.

The explanation is simple and obvious; they are removing RBG’s reference to women having babies since the ACLU, whose mission now includes a substantial amount of transgender activism, is onboard with the idea that transmen, who are now given the pronouns “he” and “men”, can have babies. And indeed, transmen have given birth.

The ACLU is heavily into transsexual rights, which is fine since those are civil rights, but they’ve gone overboard on this before (one of their staff attorneys called for the censorship of Abigail Shrier’s book, and did so again by drastically changing RBG’s words. They’re also slowly but surely removing themselves from defending the First Amendment.  Here’s the tweet (now removed) by their chief attorney for transsexual issues:

I’m pretty fed up with the ACLU, though they’re still doing some good work. But back to the RBG redaction. In her op-ed, Michelle Goldberg (click on screenshot below) puts her finger on two reasons why the alteration of RBG’s words was misleading and invidious.

While Goldberg bends over backwards to approve of gender-inclusive language, she criticizes the ACLU’s changes for two reasons. The first one I raised in my post; the second is one that is more likely to be spotted and raised by a woman.

This was a mistake for two reasons, one that’s easy to talk about, and one that’s hard.

The easy one is this: It’s somewhat Orwellian to rewrite historical utterances to conform to modern sensitivities. No one that I’m aware of used gender-neutral language to talk about pregnancy and abortion in 1993; it wasn’t until 2008 that Thomas Beatie became famous as what headlines sometimes called the “First Pregnant Man.” There’s a difference between substituting the phrase “pregnant people” for “pregnant women” now, and pretending that we have always spoken of “pregnant people.”

What’s more difficult to discuss is how making Ginsburg’s words gender-neutral alters their meaning. That requires coming to terms with a contentious shift in how progressives think and talk about sex and reproduction. Changing Ginsburg’s words treats what was once a core feminist insight — that women are oppressed on the basis of their reproductive capacity — as an embarrassing anachronism. The question then becomes: Is it?

Goldberg clearly thinks “no, it’s not an embarrassing anachronism”, but for a reason that some trans-activists might oppose. (Bolding below is mine.)

A gender-inclusive understanding of reproduction is in keeping with the goal of a society free of sex hierarchies. It is one thing to insist that women shouldn’t be relegated to second-class status because they can bear children. It’s perhaps more radical to define sex and gender so that childbearing is no longer women’s exclusive domain.

Yet I think there’s a difference between acknowledging that there are men who have children or need abortions — and expecting the health care system to treat these men with respect — and speaking as if the burden of reproduction does not overwhelmingly fall on women. You can’t change the nature of reality through language alone. Trying to do so can seem, to employ a horribly overused word, like a form of gaslighting.

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. You can interpret this to support the contemporary notion of sex and gender as largely matters of self-identification. Or you can interpret it as many older feminists have, as a statement about how the world molds you into a woman, of how certain biological experiences reveal your place in the social order, and how your identity develops in response to gender’s constraints.

Seen this way, a gender-neutral version of Ginsburg’s quote is unintelligible, because she was talking not about the right of all people to pursue their own reproductive destiny, but about how male control of women’s reproductive lives makes women part of a subordinate class. The erasure of gendered language can feel like an insult, because it takes away the terms generations of feminists used to articulate their predicament.

The way I would answer this myself is that childbearing remains the domain of biological women (i.e., people who, when born, fit into the biological definition of “female”), even if they’ve become transsexual men.  This is what I think Goldberg means by saying, slyly, that “you can’t change the nature of reality through language alone.”

Her real objection, which I’ve put in bold, is that reproduction is but one of women’s “biological experiences” (I suppose menstruation is another, though I don’t see oppression as a “biological experience”) that cannot be had by biological men, and by “women” she means the term as it was used by earlier feminists. By saying that a man can become pregnant, the oppressor then gains membership in the class (“men”) that many feminists saw and still see as oppressors.

Although Goldberg doesn’t say so, the problem is the failure to distinguish between biological men and women on one hand and men and women who identify as members of the other sex on the other. Importantly, to activists, transmen are considered men in every respect, just a stranswomen are considered full woman.

But to Goldberg, “full” neglects history. What really irks her (and I can understand and sympathize with her position), is that biological women can not only be called “men”, but assumed to be men in every respect, including, thinks Goldberg, in their historical position as oppressors of women. (By the way, I don’t think that the ACLU quote “erased” gendered language, which it didn’t, but erased sexed language.)

Goldberg’s contortions to avoid seeming “transphobic”, I think, has obscured her point, which is a semantic one. (Or so I think: I may have misinterpreted her point.)

And regardless, I think that she’s still going to be demonized for writing this column.  But to her (and the ACLU’s) credit, the organization seems to go along with her. She reports:

On Monday, Anthony Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U., told me he regrets the R.B.G. tweet, and that in the future the organization won’t substantively alter anyone’s quotes. Still, he said, “Having spent time with Justice Ginsburg, I would like to believe that if she were alive today, she would encourage us to evolve our language to encompass a broader vision of gender, identity and sexuality.”

This may very well be the case. It’s also the case that she spoke specifically about women for a reason.

The problem is that the activists who approve of this redaction don’t care about altering history, even “for a reason”.  They just want to make historical language conform to modern norms.

Manchester Museum to add “multifaith” space (presumably largely for Muslims)

July 19, 2021 • 9:15 am

Reader David Milne, chair of the Greater Manchester Humanists, got the letter below from the “Engagement Manager” of the University of Manchester’s Museum (I use David’s name and position with permission). It announces the creation of a “multifaith space” at the Manchester (University) Museum. Read it and see if there’s any justification for this project.

The letter (I’ve removed the signer’s name):

Dear friend:

As part of Manchester Museum’s transformational development hello future, we are delighted to be creating a multifaith space, which will be opening in autumn 2022.

The Museum is keen to share these ideas for this new space with as many people of as possible, so have created one of the two zoom consultation sessions where you can find out more and share you [sic] views.

These sessions are on

Thursday 22 July 11am-12noon

Or Monday 26 July 6.00-7.00pm

Please do share this invitation with other people in your networks and all at Faith Network for Manchester, as we are keen to work with as many people as possible.

To thank you for your attendance we will be offering a £10 voucher.   If you would like to attend either of these sessions please book at the Eventbrite link  or find out more please email

Multifaith/Contemplation space

The Multifaith/contemplation space will provide a space for prayer and reflection for people of faith and no faith, as part of the new visitor facilities being created as part of the hello future transformation at Manchester Museum.  Manchester is one of the UK’s most multi-lingual, hyper diverse cities, and providing a multifaith space is part of our commitment to being a truly civic organisation and commitment to the people of our city. 

In multicultural, multi-faith societies there should be respect and even admiration for the varied ways that people of all faiths and none take time out to pause, reflect, pray, meditate.   The Multifaith Room is not just about a space but a way of being and reflected in the way we programme, learn together and respect each other. This work builds on our previous experiences and activities, such as our first ever Iftar in 2019, Diwali celebrations in 2019 and contribution to online Diwali programming in 2020, and the integral place of prayer in the launch event for the Jalianwalla Bagh 1919 Punjab under Siege exhibition and programme.  And our current and future work, such as the ‘Indigenising Manchester Museum’ programme. 

The Multifaith/contemplation room is part of the Museum’s £13.5 million exciting hello future development which includes a new Exhibitions Hall, a South Asia Gallery and Chinese Culture gallery, as well as new visitor facilities, including a new entrance on Oxford Road and our first Changing Places toilet. Through this transformation our ambition is to become the world’s most inclusive, imaginative and caring museum when we reopen in 2022.

What it will do

·                  Prayer/contemplation space for people of faith and no faith

·                  To be welcoming to all and respectful of each other for people of faith and no faith  (how to reflect the need to be respectful of gender neutrality and gender specificity)

·                  Feel calm, peaceful and inviting

·To be rooted in Manchester Museum, making links with nature that’s expressed in our collections as well as responding to the multilingual cultures of our city of Manchester: Nature provides a common link between people of all faith and none – recommendation to focus on plants (as representation of animals not appropriate); Geometric designs (but avoiding any religious iconography) 

Manchester Museum is committed to working in partnership and give voice to young people to help shape the Museum and the heritage sector.  To help develop the initial project brief we worked with a group of young people from the Our Shared Cultural Heritage Collective (a National Lottery Heritage Fund, Kick the Dust programme, led by the British Council) and young people associated with the Multilingual Manchester Project.   These young people are continuing to participate in the consultation process.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate in contacting myself.

Many thanks,
Name Redacted

I share David’s concern about this. For one thing, people can pray in their homes, in private, or in their mosques, temples, or other religious buildings. Why do we need a prayer space in a museum?

Further, it’s very likely this is not really a “multifaith” space, as Jews, Anglicans, and those of many other faith do not need to take time out while visiting a museum to “pause, reflect, pray, or meditate”. Given the reference to the Museum’s own “Iftar” (the meal that Muslims eat after fasting all day during Ramadan), and the fact that devout Muslims must pray several times a day, I suspect this is not designed for Jews, Anglicans, or Catholics, but Muslims. (Do note, however, that the Museum seems to celebrate Diwali, largely a Hindu holiday.) But what is a Museum doing hosting celebrations for religious holidays?

Third, I object to this sentence:

In multicultural, multi-faith societies there should be respect and even admiration for the varied ways that people of all faiths and none take time out to pause, reflect, pray, meditate.

Given the lack of evidence for any religion, as well as the conflicting claims made by all faiths, I have no respect, much less admiration, for “the varied ways that people of all faiths and none take time out to pause, reflect, pray, or meditate.” (Note the reference to “no faith” which by definition is not a faith and doesn’t require a “meditation room”.)  

Finally, the Manchester Museum, owned by Matthew’s university (he has of course no connection with these plans!) is devoted to displays of science:  archeology, anthropology, and natural history, apparently concentrating on the latter.  To put a religious space (yes, you can also “contemplate” there, which is their way to de-emphasize religion), is an unconscionable mixing of faith and science. Note the statement, “To be rooted in Manchester Museum, making links with nature that’s expressed in our collections as well as responding to the multilingual cultures of our city of Manchester: Nature provides a common link between people of all faith and none.”  Well, I’m not sure how Nature provides a common link between people of all faiths except insofar as they’re all part of nature and take advantage of its products. 

Now I don’t know how this project came about: it could have been an accommodationist gesture on the part of the Museum, the result of a request by certain religious people, or via some other force. But it’s out of place. I know airports have these things, too, and they always bothered me a bit, but I don’t object to them as much because in the U.S. they do cater to everyone but mainly provide an island of peace in crowded airports (I’ve never been in one). But in a Museum about natural history? And must we have religion sticking its nose in everywhere? (No, there would be no “interfaith spaces” in a secular society.) Do Sweden and Iceland have “meditation rooms” for their atheistic population?

Please give your take below, because there are arguments to be made for allowing such spaces (though should they be in every building?).  And let’s have a poll, too. But I do want to hear readers’ opinions.

Should the Manchester Museum build a "multifaith space" for visitors?

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Stanford University tries to block student from graduating for publishing a satirical post, fails on First Amendment grounds

June 3, 2021 • 10:40 am

Here’s a pretty blatant violation of the First Amendment by Stanford University as reported by Slate. But to know how it’s a violation, you have to know two pieces of law. Click on the screenshot to read:

In short, a third-year student at Stanford Law School, Nicholas Wallace, decided to make fun of the conservative Federalist Society, some of whose members agreed with the January assault on the U.S. Capitol, by publishing some satire on a listserv:

The flyer promoted a fake event, “The Originalist Case for Inciting Insurrection,” ostensibly sponsored by the Stanford Federalist Society. It advertised the participation of two politicians who tried to overturn the 2020 election, Missouri Sen. Joshua Hawley and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. “Violent insurrection, also known as doing a coup, is a classical system of installing a government,” the flyer read, adding that insurrection “can be an effective approach to upholding the principle of limited government.”

Reader Paul found a screenshot of the flyer:

The Federalist society urged Stanford to formally investigate Wallace. When the school did, Stanford put a hold on Wallace’s degree and forbade him from graduating, asserting that Wallace may have violated the University’s code of conduct.  But Stanford, and especially its law school, should have realized two things, which apparently were caught by the estimable Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), whose own statement is here.

On Tuesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to Stanford urging the school to “immediately abandon its investigation and commit to procedural reforms to protect the expressive rights Stanford promises to its students.” FIRE pointed out that California’s Leonard Law requires private universities to comply with the First Amendment, and there is no real question that Wallace’s email is shielded by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has held that satire, including offensive and hurtful expression, constitutes protected speech, and Wallace’s email is obviously satirical. “No reasonable person familiar with the email’s context would understand it to be sincere,” FIRE wrote, noting that it advertises an event that occurred 19 days earlier and is “laden with figurative language intended to impugn national political figures.”

(FIRE’s own statement is here.)

If you knew about the Leonard Law, and that satire is considered free expression, you’d realize that Stanford shouldn’t have even begun an investigation of permitted speech. Indeed, the Federalist Society itself promotes free speech on campus, so why is it doing this? Wallace suspects, correctly, I think, that this is pure retaliation.

But, as the NBC News ends every evening, “There’s good news tonight!”  Yesterday evening Slate updated the article with this:

Update, 9: 30 p.m.:  Stanford has concluded that Nicholas Wallace engaged in protected speech, dropped its investigation, and lifted the hold on his diploma. Wallace has confirmed that he will be allowed to graduate.

What’s especially ironic is that a left-wing school went after a student for making fun of a right-wing organization, all the while violating the freedom of speech that Stanford is required to adhere to.

h/t: Scott

Is social-media criticism by professors bullying and a violation of academic freedom?

March 28, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Here we have a back-and-forth in The Chronicle of Higher Education between two professors at Portland State University (“PSU”; a public college). The first piece is by Jennifer Ruth, a professor of film studies, and the second by Peter Boghossian, a philosopher, anti-woke writer, atheist, and one of the three people involved in the “Grievance Studies Affair“.  Ruth complains that critics of Critical Theory have been bullies by engaging in social-media pile-one (does she know how the Woke do that much more often?), and refers specifically to Boghossian and another professor, Bruce Gilley, who has argued that colonialism is good for the colonized, which of course caused a huge fracas.

As far as I can determine, what happened here is that a student (none of the principals already named) took pictures of some slides in a teacher education course which “offended” him/her because they were of the “Math is Racist” genre, and put the slides on Twitter. Boghossian and Gilley retweeted the slides. Apparently, though, some of the first names of students were on the slides, and so the dean asked Gilley and Boghossian to take down the tweets. They did so immediately. But apparently others joined in on the discussion, and that was considered bullying by Dr. Ruth.

Click on the screenshots to read.

Why was this considered “bullying”? According to Ruth:

[The professor who showed the slides] is shocked, then, to find her name and picture tied to the phrase “math is racist” — shorn of any context or any reference to the CNN article — and posted on Twitter by two of her male colleagues. It is picked up by the anti-woke warrior Chris Rufo, who tags the professional provocateur Joe Rogan and Fox’s voluble and influential Tucker Carlson. She has now become the latest exhibit in a national right-wing campaign to frame university professors as the new apparatchiks of a racially motivated totalitarianism. She shares an article with her students, and she is cast as one of Stalin’s henchmen. She is one of the “new racists.”

Anyone who has lived through one of the right-wing rage-gasms of the past decade — and they are disproportionately women and faculty of color — knows how terrifying they can be. All you have to do is say, “It’s true that the Greeks painted their statues,” or, “Hmm, it seems that the far right is appropriating a lot of medieval imagery,” and you can find yourself in the cross hairs, subject to doxxing, hate mail, physical harassment, and death threats.

Note that neither Gilley nor Boghossian engaged in this pile-on and did not encourage it; others took up the issue and (I didn’t follow this) there was a social media pile-on—one of the kind with which we’re familiar but apparently coming from the anti-woke. Nevertheless, Gilley and Boghossian suffer the consequences and take the blame for the mob. Peter, by the way, is a classical liberal, not “right-wing”.

Ruth continues:

The two men who circulated the “math is racist” meme were outsourcing the harassment of a colleague to the legions of trolls flying from Mr. Potato Head to Dr. Seuss to rapping librarians to the next faux-outrage fury-fest. Every time this happens, the targets of right-wing rage can only hope that a shiny new object will come along to distract their tormentors. But there is always the possibility — given the apocalyptic rhetoric that higher education’s attempts to reckon with systemic racism constitute a Maoist Cultural Revolution — that one of these stunts will get someone hurt.

The above scenario is not a hypothetical. It happened at my university, Portland State, and was instigated by our very own anti-woke warriors, Bruce Gilley and Peter Boghossian. Gilley and Boghossian have been working this beat for years now, on Twitter and on blogs. And they claim to be doing so in the name of academic freedom.

No, Boghossian and Gilley—and no, I don’t agree with Gilley’s thesis, but he has the right to his opinion—did not outsource harassment or encourage it. They were simply exercising the right to criticize ideas like “math is racist.” That is both free speech (PSU must adhere to the First Amendment and academic freedom). And the “math is racist” meme certainly does deserve examination, criticism, and, to my mind, a fair amount of ridicule.

As for the worry that “one of these stunts will get someone hurt”, it’s ironic that Ruth is part of the group who is always claiming that speech itself is considered harm. She’s already been hurt!

The details of this kerfuffle are described in a document by the Oregon Association of Scholars. which links to the following resolution of the PSU Faculty Senate which was the result of the two retweets (click on screenshot):

Part of the resolution:

While we all have the right to express our opinions in accordance with The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, there are limitations to free speech when it violates our laws and when it results in a true threat for an individual or a group of individuals or incites actions that will harm others. It is crucial to ensure that the members of our academic community can learn and work in an environment that is free of hate and hostility.

Whereas When faculty become active in, or even endorse or tacitly support, public campaigns calling for the intimidation of individual colleagues they disagree with, or with an entire faculty they disagree with, they are undermining academic freedom. Intimidation and explicit or implied threats to physical integrity are not accepted as academic methods.


As Faculty, we must be thoughtful in our exercise of academic freedom and guard against its cynical abuse that can take the form of bullying and intimidation. This kind of abuse of academic freedom destroys academic freedom by eroding the trust that makes possible open dialogue, which is a central tenet in university intellectual life as well as in the practice of participatory democracy more broadly.

Again, this meeting was occasioned solely by the two taken-down retweets by Gilley and Boghossian who, needless to say, are not greatly beloved at PSU. And the resolution accuses them, though it doesn’t mention them by name, of intimidation, making threats, and academic bullying.

None of that was true; remember that this comes from just two social media posts taken down at the behest of the Dean. This is, pure and simple, chilling of free speech and academic freedom (which, though Ruth claims are not the same thing, are so closely related—identical in this case—that one must be careful about distinguishing them).

At any rate, Peter (full disclosure: he’s a friend of mine) wrote a response to Ruth’s piece in the Chronicle, and it’s quite good. The take-home lesson is in the title, and we should all make this a mantra:

I’ll give two quotes. Given that two retweets brought down official opprobrium of PSU on Boghossian and Gilley, Peter is quite measured in his response (the bolding is mine):

By claiming that criticism of published ideas and pedagogical models is harassment, and by creating institutional mechanisms that erect barriers to wholly appropriate critique, entire lines of scholarship become exempt from scrutiny. The academic process depends on having the freedom not only to state ideas but also to criticize other ideas. Limiting criticism in academia is tantamount to telling potters they can make all the clay pots they want so long as they never use clay. This is particularly disturbing because the claims in question — almost always about race, gender, and sexual orientation — are presented as knowledge and then used to influence public policy.

It is worth noting that criticism is framed as harassment only by academicians working in certain domains of thought that are in Critical Theory’s orbit. Civil engineers are not claiming that criticism of truss bridge design is harassment. Physicists are not claiming they’re being persecuted when their contributions to quantum theory are criticized. Philosophers are not claiming victimization when their arguments about free will are scrutinized. Claiming criticism is harassment occurs when a discipline’s North Star is not Truth, but ideology.

The internal rationale for calling criticism “harassment” is as simple as it is absurd: because these Critical Theories are believed to proceed from one’s “social position” as an occupant of some “identity category,” the person and her ideas are treated as though they overlap. They do not. Thinking they do is a dangerous mistake for anyone to make, not least institutions that are nominally devoted to Truth. The backbone of rational thought is separating people from ideas to protect the dignity of the former while being free to criticize the latter.

Boghossian defends the use of Twitter as a way of alerting people to what’s going on inside the academy, and also as a way of making arguments—not the best venue for extended discourse, though! However, scholarly journals aren’t accessible to the public. Boghossian ends like this:

There’s a dual irony in Ruth’s accusations. First, if there’s an institutionalized rule that criticism of academic work is harassment, how would Critical Theory, which is entirely predicated on criticizing existing systems, have emerged? It would not have. The ability to criticize has enabled the existence of disciplines in which my colleagues work, and from which they have framed criticism as harassment. Second, Ruth is doing to Gilley and me exactly what she claims we are doing to our colleagues — criticizing us. The only difference is, she takes aim at us, while we take aim at ideas.

Big new British monument to answered prayers

September 13, 2020 • 8:45 am

As Britain races towards secularism faster than the U.S., the faithful are making their last stands. One such stand is this Mobius strip of a memorial slated to be started next spring in Coleshill, near Birmingham. As this article in The Times explains, it’s to be called “The Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer”, and it’s huge. (Of course, an Eternal Wall of Unanswered Prayer would be much, much larger!)

Click to read; it may be paywalled, but judicious inquiry will yield you the document:

Here’s how big it is:

At 169ft tall, the monument will be just a few inches shorter than Nelson’s Column in London but almost three times the height of the Angel of the North, Anthony Gormley’s 66ft-high steel structure in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.


It’s a big ‘un!  It was envisioned by Richard Gamble, former chaplain of the Leicester City football club, who had a revelation to build it.  He began a crowdfunding campaign had an international competition to design it, and then crowdfunded the construction. It’ll contain a gazillion answered prayers (actually, about a million).

Each brick in the wall will be associated with a Christian prayer and feature a unique code that can be read with a smartphone app. Visitors can use their phones to learn about the prayers individuals feel were answered, as well as the personal stories behind them. For bricks out of reach, the app can zoom in on a map of the monument.

Gamble, 51, and a team of volunteers have been collecting people’s testimonies online since 2018, noticing a surge in messages during the pandemic.

“Until this year it had been a small trickle,” he said. “But then it started accelerating. During lockdown it went mad.”

They need £9.35 million to finish it off, but, you know, God will provide; all you have to do is pray. So far God has prompted the faithful to ante up nearly £6 million. And you can submit answered prayers here.

It’s curious that God decided to answer more prayers during the lockdown (were more people were praying?), but the one prayer he didn’t answer was “God, please make this pandemic disappear.” But of course He works in mysterious ways, and one of those ways is killing off lots of innocent people.

The article gives examples of some of the prayers that will appear on the bricks:

The apparent miracles people have shared range from the dramatic to the mundane.

One person wrote about how their baby daughter had been rushed to hospital with a brain haemorrhage but survived and is now a healthy five-year-old. A doctor told a story about how, after 20 minutes kneeling in prayer, he and his team were sent a delivery of personal protective equipment that had been cancelled. Others also talked about mending difficult relationships and overcoming serious illnesses.

At the other end of the spectrum, one person explained how they had managed to have an “impossible meeting” with a dentist while suffering a swollen gum during lockdown.

“God is sooooooooooo good! He listens to our hearts’ cry,” they wrote.

But God is also sooooooo bad! He’s killed a million people in this pandemic, and he could have stopped it. At any rate, there’s been some discussion about “inclusivity”—not racial inclusivity but religious inclusivity. Not all religions are Christian, so they’ll be an exhibit inside about how adherents to other faiths pray.

I still think the humanists should build an Eternal Wall of Unanswered Prayers nearby, but to make its point it would have to be larger than this one, and that would cost too much.

h/t: Dom, Jez


Greg Lukianoff of FIRE outlines how colleges should commit to freedom of speech

August 3, 2020 • 10:30 am

Here’s a short video of Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), outlining five actions people can take to ensure free speech on college campuses. These are, he says, things that people should demand of all college presidents.  I’ll give a short list of What Is To Be Done, but watch the video:

1.) Stop violating the law if you’re a public university with speech codes that abrogate the First Amendment. There should in fact be no speech codes in colleges beyond those affirming the principles and exceptions of the First Amendment.

2.) Ask the university to reaffirm its commitment to freedom of speech, academic freedom, and freedom of inquiry.  The University of Chicago has led the way in this with its Chicago Principles, though various recent ideological statements by administrators and departments threaten to erode the freedoms of speech and inquiry by creating a chilling effect, one in which University members are implicitly urged to adopt a stance of ideological conformity.

3.) “Defend the free speech rights of your students and faculty loudly, clearly, and early.” This happened here when the students, faculty, and alumni asked for Steve Bannon’s invitation to speak to be withdrawn. The university merely made this statement:

“Professor Luigi Zingales of the Booth School of Business is planning an event with the tentative format of a debate on subjects including the economic benefits of globalization and immigration, and has invited Steve Bannon, former chief strategist and senior adviser in the Trump administration, to debate an expert in the field, with Zingales serving as moderator. More details will be available soon from the Booth School of Business.

“The University of Chicago is deeply committed to upholding the values of academic freedom, the free expression of ideas, and the ability of faculty and students to invite the speakers of their choice.

“Any recognized student group, faculty group, University department or individual faculty member can invite a speaker to campus. We recognize that there will be debate and disagreement over this event; as part of our commitment to free expression, the University supports the ability of protesters and invited speakers to express a wide range of views.”

Now isn’t that great? (Bannon didn’t come, by the way.)

4.) “Teach free speech from Day One.” Every school should, says Lukianoff, have orientation sessions for incoming students to instruct them in the principles, philosophy, and meaning of free speech. I’ve long suggested this. These are not the usual sessions on “hate speech,” but a discussion of the principles of the First Amendment and why they’re important. (There could, for instance, be readings by John Stuart Mill or the viewing of Hitchens’s excellent “free speech” video.)

5.) “Be scholars; collect data.” By this Lukianoff means polling the faculty and students to find out what the climate for free speech is. That will determine what reforms need to be effected. Note that FIRE is willing to help any college that asks to formulate a free-speech policy.


At long last, the University of Chicago contravenes its own principles of political and ideological neutrality

July 23, 2020 • 12:00 pm

One by one, elite American colleges and universities (as well as the less prestigious ones) are giving in to Wokeness, rushing to embrace Critical Race Theory, trying to suppress “hate speech,” and indoctrinating students with a preferred ideology when they arrive on campus.  The University of Chicago hasn’t been immune to this, but I’ve taken great pride in the fact that, compared to others, we have remained the Great Holdout among elite colleges.

A large reason for this is because we have several Foundational Principles and Policies that undergird how the University is run. One comprises the Free Speech Principles as outlined by the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression. These so-called “Chicago Principles,” mandating near-absolute free speech (and in a private university!), have been adopted by over fifty of our peer institutions.  At Chicago you can say anything you want that’s in line with the courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment, and nobody is going to punish you. You may of course experience “counterspeech,” but the University itself will neither praise nor censure you; it will just say, “Professor X has the right to say whatever she wants.”

The other Foundational principle is the “Kalven Report,” known as the Kalvin Committee’s Report on The University Role in Political and Social Action. I’ve described this report before, but you should read the short document for yourself. It ensures that the University as a whole takes no stands as an institution on political, moral, or ideological issues, but remains neutral. Faculty and other individuals are of course free to write and speak about their own views, but the University does not express official views on politics, ideology, or social issues. Why is this principle so important here? The report explains (my emphasis):

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.

The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.

The main exception to the Kalven Principles, outlined in the report, occurs when there are cases in “which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.” In such instances, the University is justifiably obliged to combat the threats to its underlying principles. Otherwise, we espouse neutrality. During the two great crises of my college years: the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Era of segregation, demonstration, and victory for equality, the University of Chicago remained completely silent. Likewise with the McCarthy “Red-baiting” era.

This estimable principle, which was erected to ensure intellectual independence and freedom of expression, is being dismantled quickly.  In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, departments are planning or issuing statements that take explicit ideological, moral, and political stands that have nothing to do with the mission of the university to seek truth wherever it lies. Here’s one from our Department of English Language and Literature, representing the views of the department as a whole, about racial inequality. I’ve put the full text below it (click on screenshot to see it in situ):

What it said (the bolding is mine):

The English department at the University of Chicago believes that Black Lives Matter, and that the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks matter, as do thousands of others named and unnamed who have been subject to police violence. As literary scholars, we attend to the histories, atmospheres, and scenes of anti-Black racism and racial violence in the United States and across the world. We are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality. As part of our commitment to funding and fostering scholarship in Black studies, in the coming academic year (2020-2021) we are prioritizing consideration of applicants who work in and with Black studies for admission to our PhD program.

The department is invested in the study of African American, African, and African diaspora literature and media, as well as in the histories of political struggle, collective action, and protest that Black, Indigenous and other racialized peoples have pursued, both here in the United States and in solidarity with international movements. Together with students, we attend both to literature’s capacity to normalize violence and derive pleasure from its aesthetic expression, and ways to use the representation of that violence to reorganize how we address making and breaking life. Our commitment is not just to ideas in the abstract, but also to activating histories of engaged art, debate, struggle, collective action, and counterrevolution as contexts for the emergence of ideas and narratives.

English as a discipline has a long history of providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction, and anti-Blackness. Our discipline is responsible for developing hierarchies of cultural production that have contributed directly to social and systemic determinations of whose lives matter and why. And while inroads have been made in terms of acknowledging the centrality of both individual literary works and collective histories of racialized and colonized people, there is still much to do as a discipline and as a department to build a more inclusive and equitable field for describing, studying, and teaching the relationship between aesthetics, representation, inequality, and power.

In light of this historical reality, we believe that undoing persistent, recalcitrant anti-Blackness in our discipline and in our institutions must be the collective responsibility of all faculty, here and elsewhere. In support of this aim, we have been expanding our range of research and teaching through recent hiring, mentorship, and admissions initiatives that have enriched our department with a number of Black scholars and scholars of color who are innovating in the study of the global contours of anti-Blackness and in the equally global project of Black freedom. Our collective enrichment is also a collective debt; this department reaffirms the urgency of ensuring institutional and intellectual support for colleagues and students working in the Black studies tradition, alongside whom we continue to deepen our intellectual commitments to this tradition. As such, we believe all scholars have a responsibility to know the literatures of African American, African diasporic, and colonized peoples, regardless of area of specialization, as a core competence of the profession.

We acknowledge the university’s and our field’s complicated history with the South Side. While we draw intellectual inspiration from the work of writers deeply connected to Chicago’s south side, including Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, and Richard Wright, we are also attuned to the way that the university has been a vehicle of intellectual and economic opportunity for some in the community, and a site of exclusion and violence for others. Part of our commitment to the struggle for Black lives entails vigorous participation in university-wide conversations and activism about the university’s past and present role in the historically Black neighborhood that houses it.

Note that because it is the statement of the department as a whole, it is also a statement from the University. For at the University of Chicago, more than anywhere else, it is the faculty who are considered to run the school. Departments admit students, set curricula, and in those ways are the heart of the University. Departments have no more right to take ideological or political positions than does the University as a whole, represented administratively by the President and Provost. Nevertheless, we have here a specimen of performative wokeness that violates in may ways the Kalven Report.

Now in some respects the English Department statement also defends the mission of the University, and in that way is fine. It’s within a department’s purview to emphasize equality, assuring students that their freedom of expression, and their rights, will not be abridged on the grounds of ethnicity, race, or sex.  Likewise, it’s within a department’s mission to set its curriculum, and if they want to increase the number of courses on ethnic studies because they think it’s educationally useful in today’s society, then that’s fine, too.

But this statement goes far beyond that. Have a look at the first paragraph. First, the Department explicitly aligns itself not with racial equality, but with the Black Lives Matter movement, which holds to a specific political and ideological view. Have a look at their “What We Believe” page, which says a lot about “state-sanctioned violence”, the death of Trayvon Martin and  Michael Brown (with the shooters exculpated by Obama’s Justice Department), “cisgender privilege”, and a pledge to dismantle the “Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.” Black Lives Matter is a political movement, one that adheres closely to the tenets of Critical Race Theory. Note too the Department’s statement, “We are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality.” Yes, there’s nothing wrong with holding that view, but doing so as a department violates the Kalven Report in a big way. It is a statement not of academic commitment, but of political commitment. Even in the Sixties we saw no departments, much less the University, issuing such statements. The conflation of academic with political commitments, violating the Kalven dicta, persists throughout the statement. The bolded part at the end again expresses a political commitment.

I emphasize again that during the racial turmoil of the Sixties, inarguably more serious and far-reaching than the troubles going on now, the University remained silent. There were no statements like the above. Individual faculty and students, of course, had plenty to say!

The rest of the Department’s statement, while it could be interpreted as a valid commitment to change the curriculum and to ensure equality of students, is also couched in cringeworthy wokespeak, using much of the argot of postmodernism. The view that “all scholars have a responsibility to know the literatures of African American, African diasporic, and colonized peoples, regardless of area of specialization, as a core competence of the profession”, implies that this is a duty not just of English students and professors, but of all students and professors. That is a prescription for everyone, not just a requirement for those in that niche of English studies.

More important, the statement is one that enforces ideological rigidity and conformity upon the Department. If you were an untenured professor in this department, would you dare challenge the tenets of Black Lives Matter, or question affirmative action? No way! The statement above is ideologically rigid, implying that the Department will brook no dissent. So while you could argue that it’s just mandating and explaining a new curriculum, you’d be disingenuous to think that it isn’t also putting in place a system of political values that will brook no dissent. The University in the Sixties would never have written such an authoritarian screed.

Writing this post gives me no pleasure. I don’t like to criticize my school, of which I’ve been immensely proud for nearly 35 years. And, of course, I’m bucking authority here. But I can’t hold my tongue any longer. It’s not just the English Department, either: other departments are contemplating similar statements. And lately we’ve received notes from the President and Provost that seem to skirt the Kalven Principles in similar ways: by conflating our academic mission with a political and social mission, calling for us to commit to action not just on a university level, but on a national level. Again, while I approve of many of the sentiments, for I accept the need for university initiatives to promote racial equality, including affirmative action, those views should be limited to our mission as a university. While as an individual I’m happy to promote such initiatives on a broader scale, it is not the business of the University—or its departments—to do so, and for the cogent reasons outlined in the Kalven Report.

As that report says, the University “is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby. . . . . . Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.”

I fear that, caught up in the desire to conform to what liberals are supposed to do, my university is indeed beginning to “endanger the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” We may not wind up in the sad position of The Evergreen State College, but we may well converge on Yale and Harvard, losing all that made the University of Chicago a unique American institution.

UPDATE: Lest you think that this kind of statement is limited to the Humanities, there is an even stronger statement, one that clearly contravenes the Kalven Report by expressing political views and calling for action beyond the University, on the website of the Department of Human Genetics.

A conservative argues for mandatory school prayer to stem the increase in nonbelief

May 16, 2020 • 11:30 am

Where else would you find a mushbrain argument like this except in The American Conservative? For it not only sees the decline in religiosity in America as a bad thing, but, importantly, blames it on the lack of mandatory prayer in schools, which, they say, makes religion seem “taboo” to kids and weans them from their faith.

Implicit in all this is that the First Amendment is a bad thing, at least insofar as it is held by the courts to apply in schools. Also implicit is the idea that religion is a good thing. The argument, also implicit, is that we should change the First Amendment, or at least the way it’s been interpreted, so that kids can not only pray in schools (which they can—on their own), but have organized prayer in schools.

So here is the argument:

1.) Religion has declined in America not because of increasing wealth, well being, education, but because of the increasing secularization of education. Author Helen Andrews gives two lines of evidence for this conclusion:

A new report from the American Enterprise Institute has a different explanation. “The most likely causes of declining religiosity are the increasingly intense role that more and more secularized educational institutions play in children’s lives,” author Lyman Stone writes, plus “the continuing delay and decline of marriage.” It is not education that makes people less religious, he argues, but specifically secular education.

There’s no further mention of marriage in the article, though it’s also supposed to contribute to America’s godlessness.

I haven’t read the report, and maybe they have real data about this, but I doubt it, for the “increasingly intense role” of secularized education simply means the banning of mandatory school prayers in American schools, which occurred in the Sixties. And, as the chart below shows, the real increase in “nones”—those lacking affiliation to a church or feeling that they have no religion—has occurred after 1970. When I went to secondary school in the sixties, there was already no school prayer, and yet since then the loss of religion has skyrocketed. If the author’s argument is correct, nonbelief should have begun increasing in the 1960s, not as late as 1975, and of course there would be no reason for a continual increase.



2.) In fact, the decline of religiosity is imputed almost solely to a “more secular schooling” rather than people becoming less religious because they either give up faith or were raised in a less religious home. The New Atheists take a hit:

That education would have something to do with secularization fits with what we know about when secularization happens. Contrary to the New Atheists’ heroic pose, the rise of the “nones” is not driven by the mature decisions of adults but by habits being formed (or not) in childhood. “The story of secularization in America is not mostly a story of lots of people who were raised religious leaving their religious faith as adults,” Stone explains. “It is a story of fewer people having a religious upbringing at all.”

Yes, but why are people having less religious upbringings? Even if this were the case, It must be a case of the priorities of the parents, not the absence of prayers in schools.

3.) Further evidence for the importance of religion in schools comes from—get this—countries where religious school systems shift to secular ones:

Stone points to test cases in France and Turkey where secularization followed not just from expanded access to education but from shifts from religious to secular schools. “If educational attainment drives secularization, then spending two more years in school should reduce religiosity, even if that school is a religious school,” he theorizes. In fact, longitudinal studies have found that attending a religious school is associated with greater religiosity later in life.

But of course when you’re immersed in religious education during the whole day, and that’s taken away, you’re not going to be as wedded to faith. But that’s different from having a two-minute school prayer once a day: the frequent drill in America in the Sixties.  In religious schools you’re marinated in delusion all day.

3.) Equally dubious is Andrews’s argument that if you can’t pray in school, kids see that as abnormal, a taboo. And that makes them less religious.

But if the AEI report is right, there is something irreplaceable about those hours between nine and three. The atheist’s knockdown argument against school prayer — that there are plenty of other hours in a day to pray in — was based on a fallacy. Society either teaches its children that religion is something normal or something taboo. Banning prayer from schools teaches them that religion is not normal.

Seriously? If there’s no mandatory prayer in school, people are going to think religion is taboo? I doubt they’d think of it at all. And if they asked “why can’t we pray in school”, they could get an answer from Andrew Seidel of the Freedom from Religion Foundation: you are allowed to pray in school on your own time; it just can’t be mandated. You can pray in the cafeteria, at recess, on the playground, and so on, and no teacher is going to stop you! In fact, they wouldn’t be allowed to stop you.

Andrews is making a desperation argument based on the unstoppable secularization of America. But she’s not going to get her school prayer, and the “nones” will continue to increase. So it goes.

h/t: Barry

Supreme court set to further erode the First-Amendment wall between church and state

January 31, 2020 • 10:45 am

In the past few years, federal courts have continued a slow erosion of the church-state wall specified by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, often ruling that religious symbols or monuments can remain on public land, or be flaunted by government agencies, because they’re not really religious but simply part of our “tradition.” Now the Supreme Court is set to speed up that erosion, and I suspect that, given the preponderance of conservative Justices, they will decide to allow more of the religious camel into America’s secular tent.

On January 22, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a “landmark” case—that is, it could be a landmark case if the Court decides to further bash the First-Amendment wall between church and state. This is the case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, whose arguments can be seen on the Supreme Court’s blog below (click on screenshot), and are summarized in the New York Times article below that.

This is a complicated case, with the details and issues not at all clear from newspaper reporting (even the NYT), so I had to call the Freedom from Religion Foundation to get clarification (h/t to Attorney Patrick Elliott).

What’s at stake here is whether the government is obliged to fund religious schools, something that’s previously been off limits in most but not all states. This case represents an appeal following a case in Montana, where the state’s supreme court ruled against a scheme that allowed such funding. At the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s website, constitutional lawyer Andrew Seidel summarizes the case so I don’t have to:

The case involves a neo-voucher scheme adopted by the Montana legislature. Taxpayers owe taxes to Montana. They are relieved of that obligation [JAC: not completely relieved; they get a tax break] if they divert the payment to a scholarship organization that funds private education. It’s a dollar-for-dollar match. One dollar to a scholarship fund is one dollar off your taxes, and 94 percent of these scholarships fund private religious education. Montana appropriated $3 million to cover the anticipated shortfall from forgiving those obligations. The Montana Supreme Court struck down this neo-voucher program because the Montana Constitution says that the state “shall not make any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies, or any grant of lands or other property for any sectarian purpose or [school].” The court ended the entire neo-voucher scheme, for all private education, religious and nonreligious.

Plaintiff Espinoza brought suit against the state’s ban because she has daughters in a Christian school and want the state program to be maintained to allow them to stay there.

According to another NYT piece, 13 schools were served by these vouchers, 12 of which were religious—and all of the latter were Christian schools. Seidel continues:

Conservative Christian parents want the U.S. Supreme Court to save the program by declaring that they have a right to public funds for their private religious education. If the Supreme Court agrees, it will be overturning a crucial legal principle. Without that principle, states could compel all taxpayers to fund religious worship and religious education. So, yes, this case does threaten religious freedom. Because the right to be free from that compulsion is religious liberty. The right is possessed by every Montana citizen and taxpayer, not just a select segment of Christian parents. That is the right at issue before the Court today.

Well, the law as I read it doesn’t compel taxpayers to fund religious education; after all, you don’t have to contribute to the “neo-voucher” fund. Nor does the state government directly issue vouchers to give money to religious schools. But in effect, the Montana state government was subsidizing religious education, for tax monies that could go to secular schools were diverted, though the program, to private schools, and in Montana that means religious schools. That’s why the Montana courts completely dismantled that program: what was happening was an “indirect appropriation” used for religious purposes: a violation of the state constitution.  The issue might be clearer if the law said that if you gave money to a fund that supported churches, your state taxes would be reduced by that amount. Now that is clearly a violation of the First Amendment. Well, it’s no different with religious schools.

Now half of what the plaintiffs are arguing is that the Montana court decision violates the “equal protection” clause of the U. S. Constitution (which is why this is before the Supreme Court, which has no power to interpret a state constitution). But that argument is bogus because the program that funded both secular and religious schools was eliminated by the state. So the issue of protection has disappeared. If the Supreme Court had its wits about it, it would reject this contention. But many people think that conservatives on the court will accept any argument to further religion.

Besides constituting a government subsidy to religious schools at the expense of public ones, the prospective voucher system also weakened the public school system.

Apparently several other states have voucher programs that support religious schools, but some other states have forbidden them. In a ruling two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that eliminating such programs actually violated the First Amendment by barring religious schools from participating in programs along with other private schools. And the basis for that ruling is “religious freedom”: the second contention of Espinoza in the Supreme Court case. Apparently religious people think that the First Amendment entitles them to not only have religious schooling for their kids (a right they have already), but also should have government support for that schooling. That, too, seems to be a backwards interpretation of the First Amendment, which is supposed to prevent entanglement of the government with religion.

The religious plaintiffs and their defenders, which of course include the Trump administration as well as various conservative and religious groups, are arguing that freedom of religion demands subsidies to religious schools if there are subsidies for secular private schools, for otherwise, excluding them under a voucher system is discrimination against religion.  But, as New York Times court reporter Linda Greenhouse wrote:

There is so much about this case that is simply backward. The administration argues in its brief that “the constitutional violation in this case is especially egregious because it involves the education of children.” But to the contrary, that’s exactly where the wall of separation has to be maintained with the greatest care. Religious education serves a purpose, inculcating religious values and preserving religious traditions. A parochial school is not just another neighborhood school down the block.

What is the FFRF and secularists worried about? Apparently that if the Supreme Court overturns the Montana decision, then all voucher programs must also include religious schools. As Greenhouse writes:

Certainly, parents are constitutionally entitled to choose a religious education for their children. And under a 2002 Supreme Court decision, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, states are free to offer parents the choice of using vouchers to help pay for religious education. That was a bitterly fought 5-to-4 decision. The administration now would go further: not only that a state may include religious schools in a voucher program, but that it must include them, if it wants to have a voucher program at all.

But it could be worse than that. It’s not beyond the Court’s purview to confect a ruling that requires all states to allow government funding of religious schools, though it’s not clear how that would work. In other words, they could not only reinstate Montana’s original voucher program, but make it mandatory for every state to have such a program. And that would represent the most serious erosion of the First Amendment.


Is free speech killing us? An op-ed from the New York Times answers “yes”

October 5, 2019 • 12:30 pm

Well here we have an intersectionalist article: the intersection of New York Times wokeness with the intersection of New Yorker wokeness. For Andrew Marantz, who wrote this NYT opinion piece (if you read it, it looks like a Sunday Magazine piece), is a New Yorker staff writer whose bailiwick, according to his profile, is “technology, social media, the alt-right, and the press [and] comedy and pop culture”.

I read the piece several times, and am not sure what he’s getting at. First he notes that speech can be damaging, then admits that forms of damaging speech are already prohibited by the courts, then adds that he’s not in favor of ditching the First Amendment. He then complicates matters by claiming that “hate speech” on social media should be regulated, and then ends by implying that yes, perhaps the First Amendment itself should be modified by taking into account the Fourteenth Amendment—the amendment that guarantees all citizens will receive equal protection of the laws. In other words, he’s calling for revisiting the courts’ construal of the First Amendment. If you don’t think so, look at the title of his piece, though that title may have been confected by an editor.

Marant’s op-ed what they call a “hot mess” (see photo below), and suffers severely from not specifying what counts as “hate speech”, as well as a slipperiness as he tries to avoid saying explicitly what I think he really means.  Click on the screenshot to read it:

Marantz begins, as is usual with these pieces, by saying that words can be harmful.

Having spent the past few years embedding as a reporter with the trolls and bigots and propagandists who are experts at converting fanatical memes into national policy, I no longer have any doubt that the brutality that germinates on the internet can leap into the world of flesh and blood.

The question is where this leaves us. Noxious speech is causing tangible harm. Yet this fact implies a question so uncomfortable that many of us go to great lengths to avoid asking it. Namely, what should we — the government, private companies or individual citizens — be doing about it?

Yes, they can be harmful if you consider “tangible harm” to encompass someone being offended, but they can also be harmful if they inspire violence, foster child abuse via promulgating child pornography, spread lies that damage a reputation, constitute personal harassment, or make false claims, as in advertising.

Fortunately, the courts have considered all these forms of harm, and have taken them into account as limiting freedom of speech—save that the only abrogated speech that leads to violence should be speech “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” that is “likely to incite or produce such action”. (See here for a list of First Amendment exceptions.) I see this list as pretty comprehensive, but extending it to cover “hate speech”, a slippery concept that has been seen as including all kids of speech that we see as debatable but permissible—affirmative action, immigration, abortion, the use of pronouns, how transgender people should be classified in sports competitions, whether Israel should exist, and so on—is not something I favor.

But Marantz doesn’t discuss any of that tangible stuff. He simply makes dark noises about how free speech should be balanced against other rights:

Free speech is a bedrock value in this country. But it isn’t the only one. Like all values, it must be held in tension with others, such as equality, safety and robust democratic participation. Speech should be protected, all things being equal. But what about speech that’s designed to drive a woman out of her workplace or to bully a teenager into suicide or to drive a democracy toward totalitarianism? Navigating these trade-offs is thorny, as trade-offs among core principles always are. But that doesn’t mean we can avoid navigating them at all.

Earth to Mr. Marantz: driving a woman out of her workplace or bullying a teenager into suicide have ALREADY been ruled by the courts as limitations of free speech that violate other rights. As far as “driving a democracy toward totalitarianism”, does Marantz seriously think we should place limits on that kind of discussion? When I was at Williams College two days ago, I was asked by a student why, as a determinist, I should favor democracy as the best form of government, as people’s wills (and, I presume, votes) are so easily manipulated by others, distorting their own “free will”. I could have said, “Well, yes, sometimes a benevolent despotism might be better”. And even though I don’t agree with that, for of all imperfect forms of government, democracy is the least imperfect, Marantz implies that such a statement might be construed as “driving a democracy toward totalitarianism”. You could also characterize people campaigning for Trump as falling in that class. Give me a break! If our democracy can’t stand criticism and calls for authoritarianism, what kind of democracy is that?

Then Marantz pulls back a bit:

I am not calling for repealing the First Amendment, or even for banning speech I find offensive on private platforms. What I’m arguing against is paralysis. We can protect unpopular speech from government interference while also admitting that unchecked speech can expose us to real risks. And we can take steps to mitigate those risks.

He then offers some modifications, like Facebook hiring more “content moderators” and paying them better. Yes, that sounds good, but what content should be moderated? Marantz alludes to white supremacists, Alex Jones, and Milo Yiannopoulos. But companies already have the right to ban such people. Who doesn’t is the government, for that’s what the First Amendment is all about. Granted, I think that all universities, whether private or public, should adhere to the courts’ construal of the First Amendment, but remember that the First Amendment says this:

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. . .

Congress shall make no law. That says nothing about Facebook, Instagram, or even this website. And if that is all that Marantz is calling for—judicious examination of the speech policies of private entities—well, fine. I think that people should be careful about restricting speech, but private corporations and establishments have a right to do that, by and large. I, for one, have no problem with Milo Yiannopoulos having a Facebook account. After all, he’s never called for violence against people, and what violence has resulted from his words, as occurred in Berkeley, has come from those who have rioted in opposition to his appearances. In other words, the violence came from people opposed to free speech.

At the end Marantz hints, without saying so directly, that maybe the First Amendment needs to be reined in a bit. For example, he seems to agree with John Powell, a law professor at the University of California:

[Powell] thinks that some aspects of our current First Amendment jurisprudence — blanket protections of hate speech, for example — will also seem ridiculous in retrospect. “It’s simpler to think only about the First Amendment and to ignore, say, the 14th Amendment, which guarantees full citizenship and equal protection to all Americans, including those who are harmed by hate speech,” he said. “It’s simpler, but it’s also wrong.”

Okay, if Powell thinks that “hate speech” should be prohibited, and if Marantz agrees, what forms of hate speech should be banned? Who shall do the banning? And what do they mean by “harm”? Psychological harm? Hogwash! Physical harm? That’s already something that the courts have ruled on.At the very end Marantz’s mask slips a bit more:

I should confess: I used to agree with the guy I met in the coffee shop, the one who saw the First Amendment as an all-or-nothing dictate. This allowed me to reach conclusions with swift, simple authority. It also allowed me to ignore a lot, to pretend that anything that was invisible to me either wasn’t happening or didn’t matter.

In one of our conversations, Mr. Powell compared harmful speech to carbon pollution: People are allowed to drive cars. But the government can regulate greenhouse emissions, the private sector can transition to renewable energy sources, civic groups can promote public transportation and cities can build sea walls to prepare for rising ocean levels. We could choose to reduce all of that to a simple dictate: Everyone should be allowed to drive a car, and that’s that. But doing so wouldn’t stop the waters from rising around us.

And there is the implied call for more government regulation of speech. Why?  Because “the waters are rising around us”, i.e., free speech as construed by the courts is harming America.

You know, if Marantz would be more upfront about what he meant, he’d be easier to analyze. But because he pretends that he’s in favor of the First Amendment and yet the same time that’s he’s not in favor of the current construal of the First Amendment, his argument is slippery. But of course if you must use code words like “harmed by hate speech” to change the Constitution, you can’t afford to be more explicit.

h/t: Tom, Cate