The ACLU unconvincingly denies accusations of “mission creep”

June 10, 2021 • 10:45 am

Three days ago I highlighted a New York Times piece, “Once a bastion of free speech, the A.C.L.U. faces an identity crisis“. (This was a news report, not an op-ed.) It obviously hit home at the ACLU, because on the organization’s website their legal director, David Cole, has written a long piece defending the ACLU against the accusation that it’s undergoing mission creep by moving from defending civil liberties to engaging in social-justice work.

Click on the screenshot to read.

Cole argues strenuously, and gives examples, that the ACLU is still actively engaged in defending civil liberties—often of people or groups despised by the Left, including the NRA, Milo Yiannopoulos, Donald Trump, and so on. He gives a list of five years of civil-rights lawsuits that the ACLU has brought—from 2017 to 2021.

And, as I’ve said before, he’s got a point here: the ACLU is indeed continuing its mission. My point, and the New York Times’s was that it’s diluting its classic mission by engaging in social justice work, which isn’t in itself bad, but because some of that social justice work is not even-handed but one sided in terms of rights. Further, there are many other organizations doing social-justice work, but only the ACLU (and now the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE), has the resources and chops to defend the civil liberties of the despiséd.

In other words, the ACLU is doing what the Southern Poverty Law Center has done: taken its classic mission and, by branching off into questionable social justice activities (damning Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali for the SPLC), diluted not just its mission, but also its credibility.

I’ve written at length about the dubious stuff the ACLU is engaged in; and here’s a partial list of posts:

The ACLU backs off defending free speech in favor of promoting social justice

New improved standards proposed for adjudicating sexual misconduct in college; ACLU opposes them for “inappropriately favoring the accused”

The ACLU defends the right of biological men to compete in women’s sports

ACLU continues defending the right of medically untreated men who claim they’re women to compete in women’s sports

ACLU joins lawsuit allowing biological males to compete in women’s sports

My beefs fall into four areas.

First, the ACLU is on the side of diluting the changes in Title IX made by Betsy DeVos to guarantee a fair hearing to college students accused of sexual misconduct. Nearly all these changes brought college hearings closer to court hearings, at least in terms of guaranteeing fairness. As I’ve said, these changes are one of the few positive things accomplished by the Trump administration, and the ACLU should have favored them. Instead, as you see in one piece below, they were characterized as “inappropriately favoring the accused.”  If you read the changes, I suspect you’ll agree that the ACLU should have been in favor of them, not opposed to them.

Second, the ACLU is on a big-time movement to ensure that transgender women can compete on a level playing field (i.e., competing under their gender identity) with men in sports. This is a complex issue (see here for one possible solution), but becomes less complex with the ACLU’s claim that medically untreated transgender women (that is, biological males who have undergone neither surgery nor hormone treatment but claim a female identity) should be able to compete in sports against biological women. This is a very bad call as it’s the equivalent of biological men competing against biological women, and this violates the very reason why we separate men’s and women’s sport. Further, even with medically treated transgender women, there is an issue of fairness to biological women, since transgender women may retain strength, bone density, and muscle mass that gives them an average advantage over biological women. The ACLU’s kneejerk reaction here does not take into account the “rights” of biological women. It is an ideological stand that deviates far from the ACLU’s mission to assure civil rights for all.

Third, in tweets by ACLU branches and attorneys, they have favored censorship of books like Abigail Schrier’s, and accused cops of murder who were, by all reasonable accounts, doing their jobs. How is this fulfilling their mission of extending civil rights to all? (Chase Strangio is the ACLU staff attorney in charges of transgender issues.)

Fourth, as I discussed in a post a while back, the ACLU circulated a document in samizdat that explicitly said that they now have to consider diluting their mission when defending speech involves defending “hate speech”. As I wrote at the time (my words are indented in regular type; the ACLU’s words are indented further and italicized):

The ACLU is committed to the fundamental rights to equality and justice embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment and civil rights laws. See Policies #301-332. We are determined to fight racism in all its forms, whether explicit or implicit, and the deep-rooted institutional biases that continue to reify inequality. We are also firmly committed to fighting bigotry and oppression against other marginalized groups, including women, immigrants, religious groups, LGBT individuals, Native Americans, and people with disabilities. Accordingly, we work to extend the protections embodied in the Bill of Rights to people who have traditionally been denied those rights. And the ACLU understands that speech that denigrates such groups can inflict serious harms and is intended to and often will impede progress toward equality.

Note that they now claim that speech that denigrates groups—including religion!—can “inflict serious harms” and “impede progress toward equality”. Here is the beginning of the slippery slope of “hate speech”. Is criticism of the Vatican, or the excesses of Islam, sufficiently harmful that the ACLU will not defend it? What about religionists who demonstrate for the right of bakers and others not to serve gays?

And remember when the ACLU defended the Klan when it wanted to march through the Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois? Well, no more.

We recognize that taking a position on one issue can affect our advocacy in other areas and create particular challenges for staff members engaged in that advocacy. For example, a decision by the ACLU to represent a white supremacist group may well undermine relationships with allies or coalition partners, create distrust with particular communities, necessitate the expenditure of resources to mitigate the impact of those harms, make it more difficult to recruit and retain a diverse staff and board across multiple dimensions, and in some circumstances, directly further an agenda that is antithetical to our mission and values and that may inflict harm on listeners.

Yes this document, which was leaked and is now publicly available, is characterized by Cole this way in his post of yesterday:

I led a committee representing a wide range of divergent views within the ACLU in developing guidelines for selecting cases where they present conflicts between values that the ACLU defends. We reaffirmed in that document that “As human rights, these rights extend to all, even to the most repugnant speakers — including white supremacists — and pursuant to ACLU policy, we will continue our longstanding practice of representing such groups in appropriate circumstances to prevent unlawful government censorship of speech.”

At the same time, we acknowledged the costs that can come with that representation, including to other interests and work of the organization, and outlined ways to address and mitigate the costs when we do decide to embark on that representation. That can mean making clear in public statements that we abhor the speakers’ views even as we defend their right to express them, supporting counter-protesters, and investing any attorneys’ fees we obtain in connection with the work to advance the views that the speaker opposed and that we support. Some saw even this document’s acknowledgment of the complexity of such work as an abandonment of principle, but we saw it as an honest effort to confront the challenge of being a multi-issue organization.

Read the document yourself, and see if you think that’s a fair summary. Their “mitigation of costs” completely ignores the implication in the document that they might reject cases that they’d normally take because it involves hate speech that can cause “harm”.

At any rate, there’s also been negative reaction from other quarters to what I saw as a fair report in the NYT (see this piece in The New Republic).  The TNR piece is misguided in the same way the ACLU’s mission creep is misguided: they do not prioritize free speech over hate speech.  You cannot pretend that free speech will never be construed as “hate speech”—it’s nearly always seen that way by the speech opponents.

But thank Ceiling Cat for organizations like FIRE whose principle of promulgating free speech in higher education has not been diluted.

h/t: Ginger K., Enrico

John McWhorter vs. Ibram X. Kendi on whether American schools are structurally racist

January 31, 2021 • 10:00 am

Truly, I don’t understand why author John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Columbia University, hasn’t yet been the subject of a social-justice campaign to demonize and erase him. While he’s black, he’s also strongly opposed to what he sees as the “religion” of anti-racism promulgated by people like Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Robin DiAngelo, and McWhorter speaks plainly and passionately. The first piece below is an example of his strong and uncompromising views and language.

I suppose McWhorter is still afloat because his arguments against the more extreme forms of anti-racism, as evinced in the following two pieces, are both clear and hard to refute. He’s fiercely smart and writes really well, and if you come up against him with ammunition consisting solely of offense and outrage, you’re not going to fare well. This week, McWhorter published two pieces worth reading, one on his Substack site and the other at The Atlantic, where he’s a contributing writer.  Ibram X. Kendi struck back at the second piece on Twitter, accusing McWhorter of distortion and confusion. I’ll maintain that Kendi didn’t read McWhorter very carefully.

Both pieces characterize recent anti-racist protests and strikes on campus as examples of “performances”—presumably rituals of the religion that McWhorter says anti-racism has become.

First, here’s a free article at McWhorter’s new Substack site, It Bears Mentioning. Click on the screenshot to read:

This piece recounts the suspension of a law professor, Jason Kilborn, at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Kilborn’s crime was citing the n- and b-words on an exam this way: “n*****” and “b****”. We all know what those redacted symbols stand for, and Kilborn was not using them to incite students, but as examples in an exam question about an employment discrimination case.

Kilborn has used this kind of expurgation on exams for a long time, but, the Zeitgeist being what it is, this year’s outcome was predictable: a group of students got highly offended and protested strongly. Kilborn was suspended from his class as well as from some of his university duties. He’s also now banned from campus because he supposedly poses a physical threat to the students:

One black student claimed that they experienced heart palpitations upon reading the words. During an hours-long Zoom talk with a black student representing the protesters, Kilborn made a flippant remark to the effect that the law school dean may suppose that he is some kind of “homicidal maniac” – upon which the student reported to the dean that Kilborn indeed may be one. Kilborn is no longer teaching the class, is relieved of his administrative duties, and because of the possible physical threat he poses to black students because of the Hyde-like tendency he referred to, he is barred from campus.

McWhorter goes on to say what few would dare to say, even though the point is worth arguing:

But let’s pull the camera back, take a deep breath, and look at something like this pillorying of Kilborn with clear eyes. If a black student is traumatized to such a degree by seeing “n*****” on a piece of paper, then that student needs psychological counseling. We all understand the history and power of the N-word, but we all also understand the simple issue of degree. That student who got heart palpitations needs help, and what the suits at the University of Illinois in Chicago should have done as gently direct this student to the proper services, which the school surely provides, for people who have fallen away from the ability to cope with normal life. . .

. . . To be a modern enlightened American is to have internalized a kind of cognitive shunt or patch upon our processing of cases like this. We are to pretend that until slurs of this kind no longer exist, we must accept it as ordinary and perhaps even healthy for smart young people to fall to pieces at the mere of sight of one even in writing and carefully expurgated. . .

. . .  in all of this, we are taught not to make sense. We are taught to suspend our rational faculties in favor of larger, abstract, and often incoherent imperatives valued as demonstration of our moral fitness. In other words, we are taught to think about race issues religiously.

And has the following interpretation not crossed people’s minds—not just with protests against black racism, but protests against nearly all form of presumed “bigotry” on campus? It’s the overreaction of the offended that is so striking:

Yes, I am taking the students too seriously. As in, I am only pretending to take them seriously at all. As all of us can detect on some level, black students who purport upset of this degree, at passing things that their very equivalents just some years ago never even noticed, are faking it.

They are acting. It is a performance. The issue here is not “black fragility,” which is why there is a question mark after the title of this post. Such students are not fragile; they are histrionic. They are pretending to be hurt.

McWhorter, though, tries to empathize, and in fact he seems angrier at white people who bow to these protests than to the African-Americans who make them:

The formal expression is one of anger and injury, but behind this is a balm, the sense that you are worthy on some level of a cookie or a pat on the head just for getting through your days and weeks. It gives a person a sense of significance. It gives you a sense of significance as a member of a group on a fraught but epic trajectory towards justice. You, in times when civil rights can seem so much less dramatic a thing than it was 50 years ago and before, have a sense of being part of that “Struggle,” as it used to be put. That doesn’t make a person a monster.

It goes on, with McWhorter ending by saying that people who sympathize with people so easily offended should not only refer those people to counseling (that’s incendiary enough!), but, by refusing to call the students out, are themselves being racists:

Protests of this kind test us on how committed we really are to assessing black people according to the content of their character. Normal people don’t fall to pieces when seeing “n*****” on a piece of paper, regardless of their race. The neoracists who have barred Jason Kilborn from campus in pretending this isn’t true are operating upon an assumption that black people are morons. This is a rather fascinating rendition of “antiracism,” and to treat it as “allyship” is nothing less than a cultural sickness.

I doubt that you could get away with writing words like that in a magazine like The Atlantic; they’ll have to be on your own website. But surely hyperfragility—which is not new; remember Haidt and Lukianoff’s 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure? (See my post on it here.) That book advances the thesis that modern parents and educational institutions have instilled three guiding principles in the young: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people.”  It’s a book well worth reading, and explains a lot of the outrage and claimed hyperfragility (indeed, it’s not just claimed, it’s often internalized) among the young.

But I digress. This week’s fracas is between McWhorter’s piece in The Atlantic (below), and Ibram X. Kendi’s response on twitter. Click the screenshot to read:

I can be briefer here, as McWhorter summarizes anti-racism protests that I’ve described many times on this site: protests at Princeton (here and here), Bryn Mawr, New York City’s private Dalton School, and Northwestern University. (There are others that McWhorter doesn’t mention, including Smith College, Harvard, Middlebury College, and, of course, the poster boy for knee-jerk offense, The Evergreen State College.

What the anti-racism protests have in common at these schools is that the students have indicted the institutions for pervasive, ubiquitous and clear “structural racism”, despite the fact that none of the schools are really that way at all. (Neither is the University of Chicago, which hasn’t yet been shaken by nationally-publicized accusations.) Yes, of course some people are racists at these institutions, but one would be hard pressed to find “structural racism”: that is, policies and practices embedded in the institution that predictably lead to discriminatory outcomes. In fact, all of these schools, my own included, are deeply engaged in trying to admit students and faculty of color and to create programs that give support to minority students.

McWhorter is evenhanded on the issue, but will not admit that such schools have a deep problem with racism (and, as far as I can see, he’s right):

As extreme as these documents and actions seem, they would qualify as legitimate if these campuses actually were bastions of social injustice. This is doubtful.

My colleague Conor Friedersdorf has documented that even some of the faculty who signed the Princeton petition were not necessarily united in adherence to its specific demands, or in agreement as to the depths of the university’s depravity. Many wanted, simply, to deliver a nebulous acknowledgment that some anti-racist efforts would be beneficial. Although racism surely exists at Princeton, as it does throughout American society, Princeton is not the utter sinkhole of bigotry and insensitivity that the letter implies. American universities have long been more committed to anti-racism than almost any other institutions. Princeton is where, for example, Woodrow Wilson’s name was recently removed from the name of the School of Public and International Affairs in acknowledgment of his implacably racist beliefs—albeit in response to student pressure.

The issue, as so often, is degree. Most liberals will acknowledge that it is useful and even urgent for institutions such as Princeton to be vigilant against subtle biases in attitudes and procedures. The question is whether, despite this modus operandi having been well established in such places for a few decades now, they remain so infested with entrenched racism that transformational manifestos such as the Princeton letter constitute progress as opposed to manipulation.

Dalton and Princeton in particular have, even before the recent protests began, been examining themselves for racist practices or policies, and have made substantial changes in the last decade. Indeed, all  of those schools have.

You can read McWhorter’s Atlantic piece yourself, but his message, at it was in the Substack piece, is that administrators and rational people must stand up to irrational protests and demands, for there is never any end to them. Demands that are reasonable, of course, should be accommodated, but every list of “demands” that I’ve seen is at least 60% “unreasonable.” The point is that if you cave into unreasonable demands, as Bryn Mawr, Evergreen State, and the Dalton School has (or is set to), the protestors learn that making demands is not just a way to assert power, but to institute both the programmatic and ideological changes they want. As McWhorter concludes,

The writers of manifestos might classify resistance as racist, denialist backlash. But the civil, firm dismissal of irrational demands is, rather, a kind of civic valor. School officials must attend to the fine line between enlightenment and cowardice—for the benefit of not only themselves, but the Black people they see themselves as protecting.

That was too much for Ibram Kendi, who, in a series of nine tweets in this thread, highlights and attack’s McWhorter’s piece. Here you go.

In fact it is Kendi who misrepresents McWhorter. As you see above, McWhorter notes that all these campuses probably have some residual racism; but they’re not festering hotbeds of structural racism where crosses get burned on a regular basis.

Kendi argues, for example, that McWhorter praises a professor who said that student and faculty demands will lead to a “civil war on campus.” Here’s what McWhorter said about that professor.

Thus the model must be classics professor Joshua Katz at Princeton, who last summer took issue with the Princeton letter in a Quillette article, pointing out that the demands would lead to “civil war on campus,” and calling out a Black student association that serially harassed several Black students who disagreed with its philosophy. (Inadvisedly, he referred to the association as a “terrorist” group.) Predictable calls on social media for his dismissal were not successful because his tenure would have made it difficult, but in September, the American Council of Learned Societies withdrew his recent appointment as one of the federation’s two delegates to the Union Académique Internationale, on the basis of the social-media response to his article.

This is not McWhorter agreeing that there will be a civil war at Princeton, but quoting Katz, and even disagreeing with him about calling the black student association terrorists. McWhorter does agree that continual bowing before extreme anti-racist demands will eventually destroy the reputation of colleges (see his piece), but that’s all, and that’s his point. Evergreen State has already gone down the tubes, and I suspect that Smith and Bryn Mawr are circling the drain.

Kendi adds that “white supremacist violence is being fomented” by pieces like McWhorter’s. That’s the same kind of hyperbolic overreaction that we see in the students themselves. Remember that McWhorter is a black man and certainly not a white supremacist. But even so, I defy you to read his piece and point out places where he’s fomenting “white supremacist violence.”

Kendi argues that all the institutions have “widespread and pervasive inequities and injustices,” and that McWhorter overlooks these. Well, as far as the “inequities” are concerned, yes, there are inequalities of outcome (that’s my definition of “inequities”), but those are surely the results of historical injustice that have set back African-American, not of present “structural racism” at these schools. And what are the injustices? I can’t think of any, though I’ve tried. Remember, they have to be “pervasive.”

In a later tweet, Kendi unfairly lumps McWhorter with Trump and “white supremactists” when asserting that bowing to anti-racist demands will destroy or damage universities. But it will surely damage them, just as it’s fatally damaged Evergreen State. Perhaps places like Harvard and Princeton won’t go down completely, for their names are so revered, and the education there is still top notch, but eventually this kind of catering to student demands—and here I mean the unreasonable ones—changes the mission of American universities from allowing students to learn and debate freely into engineering social justice along the lines of critical theory (Critical Race Theory, in fact). Even as I write, curricula are being molded to the tenets of Critical Theory, and that will eventually create a culture of ideological conformity and an output of students not trained to either argue or think for themselves. The universities may endure, but they won’t be the places of learning that have attracted students from throughout the world.

The problem with Kendi is that he thinks one has to accept the whole hog of Critical Race Theory, and if you don’t you’re a racist. And if colleges don’t, they are racist. In response, McWhorter probably thinks that Kendi himself is a racist by adhering to the soft bigotry of low expections and the assumption that minorities are hyperfragile in a way that must to be catered to. Kendi simply can’t grasp McWhorter’s contention that these issues are “matters of degree,” which is true. To Kendi and his minions, you’re either a Kendian antiracist or a racist; there is no in between.

And so the debate continues, and it’s fascinating. The important thing is that it remains a debate (and one in which I’m participating). Many students and faculty, however, would construe McWhorter’s words as “hate speech” and demand that they be censored. And that would end the debate. And that’s what they want when they hedge about “free speech”. The last thing the “free speech, but. . .” crowd wantw to hear is McWhorter’s claim:

The neoracists who have barred Jason Kilborn from campus in pretending this isn’t true are operating upon an assumption that black people are morons. This is a rather fascinating rendition of “antiracism,” and to treat it as “allyship” is nothing less than a cultural sickness.

If anything would be construed by the Offended as “hate speech”, that is it. But it isn’t: it’s a strong claim that McWhorter buttresses with evidence.

And so the debate goes on.

Are students immune from criticism because of their identity?

January 27, 2021 • 8:45 am

I always take care when criticizing the public writings of students at my own university. After all, I am on the same campus, may encounter the student, and, although I no longer teach, I’m cognizant of a perceived power imbalance that may intimidate students whom I criticize.

On the other hand, the ideas of a student who writes a public op-ed in a newspaper, as did one undergraduate in a recent issue of the Chicago Maroon (a student paper directed at the University community), constitute a fitting object for criticism—especially if you go after the ideas and not the student’s character.  After all, the Maroon has a comment section, and our University is renowned for encouraging a give-and-take of ideas.

Ergo, I wrote a response to the editorial, for it was something that bothered me: an undergraduate who wanted to do away with free speech on campus because it supposedly propagates hate and white supremacy. Indeed, the student maintained that modern liberal education, as well as the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, were designed to buttress a status quo of bigotry (“By following the Chicago principles, the University effectively legitimizes and encourages students who may share similar bigoted ideologies.”)  This is disturbing, for it seems to be the view of many undergraduates, and I’m not a little worried that one modern trend, especially on the Left, is to dismantle the traditional liberal ideal of free speech as enshrined in the First Amendment.

Today’s post demonstrates what you can expect when you criticize the ideas of an undergraduate of color. This morning I found a comment (posted here only) from one “Olivia.”  The appended email was “fuckoffasshole@gmail.com”, and the IP address indicates that it comes from—get this—Columbia University.

The comment:

She’s literally 18 years old you fucking freak. You’re letting all these people attack a literal college freshman. A fucking teenager. You wrote an article entirely targeting this one girl and are encouraging her public critique as if she’s not EIGHTEEN. You put a student of color on the stage and are effectively putting her in danger and letting weird adult “intellectuals” villify [sic] and attack her. You’re a fucking weird, fully-grown white guy attacking an asian eighteen year old and saying her experiences as a marginalized person is [sic] not correct because of your dumbass views as a white heterosexual who doesn’t face oppression in those facets. You’re a fucking freak and I hope you rot in hell.

Note four points here. First, the commenter says not a single word about my argument, which was about the need to retain free speech on this campus and others. Ideas are no longer important: identity and power differentials are paramount. What was apparently “targeted” was a student, not her ideas.

Further, the commenter implies that I have no right to comment publicly on a publicly-written editorial because of a status and color differential. The woman was “a fucking teenager”, ergo she should be immune from criticism by someone older—and white. I would have thought that a student writer would welcome engagement with a professor, so long as it was a meaningful engagement in which the student’s ideas are taken seriously.  When students arrive at college, they should be treated as adults and their ideas treated as adult ideas. That’s what college education is all about. Imagine a professor who deferred to the views of her students because they were young! Instead, though, I let “weird adult ‘intellectuals’ engage with the ideas” —exactly as they do in the comments section of the Maroon. (And what are “weird adult intellectuals”?)

Most important, the central point of the comment is an identitarian one: the subject was an “asian eighteen year old”. (I didn’t know how old the woman was, and I don’t really care.) Because of her identity and mine—as a “fully-grown white guy”—she should be immune from criticism. In a way, “Olivia”, as unhinged as he or she may be, is making the student’s point for her: I was engaged in “hate speech” and therefore should “rot in hell.”  And no, I didn’t say that the student’s experiences as a marginalized person were not correct; the argument is about whether people should be censored for speech that others don’t like. That is an “idea”, not a “set of experiences”.

Finally, the writer claims that I have effectively “put the student in danger.” I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. If you feel “endangered” when someone criticizes your published ideas, then you shouldn’t publish your ideas in the first place, especially under your name. This is the conflation of “criticism” with “harm” that we see so often in arguments against free speech.

“Olivia”, in his/her intemperate and rude diatribe, inadvertently demonstrates many of the features of those who oppose free speech: some people have the right to censor others;  that privilege depends on your position in the hierarchy of oppression, in which those on the lower rungs are deemed immune from criticism but able to criticize everyone “higher up”; that hate speech causes harm, which is reason enough to ban it; and, finally, it’s okay to completely demonize one’s opponents (“you’re a fucking freak and I hope you rot in hell”). That last bit reminds one of the criticism atheists get from religionists, which, I suppose, is what people like Olivia resemble. They are ideological fundamentalists.

It’s telling that “Olivia” from Columbia University won’t divulge his/her name. That’s yet another lesson: social media brings out the worst in people, especially when they are allowed to speak anonymously. Aggressive cowards hide behind pseudonyms.

I stand by my arguments in favor of free speech at The University of Chicago, and urge “Olivia” to learn how to debate ideas rather than identities.

University of California professor issues vile anti-Semitic tweets, university is investigating

January 3, 2021 • 9:15 am

Abbas Ghassemi is a “teaching professor” of chemical engineering at the relatively new campus of The University of California at Merced.  He’s also a nasty piece of work: the most blatant form of anti-Semite who, between June and December, tweeted the most shopworn stereotypes about Jews on his 18-month-old Twitter account.  His activities, now under investigation—though I contend they shouldn’t be—are recounted in the Times of Israel (below; click on screenshot), the Jewish News of Northern California (JNNC) and The San Francisco Chronicle (paywalled).

The skinny:

A teaching professor in the UC Merced School of Engineering is the owner of a Twitter account that had a pattern of antisemitic posts, J. [JNNC] has discovered. The content was described by the Anti-Defamation League as “repulsive” and promoting “antisemitic tropes.”

On June 14, Abbas Ghassemi tweeted “… reality bites!!!!!!” along with a photo of a “Zionist brain” with labels such as “frontal money lobe,” “Holocaust memory centre” and “world domination lobe.” That same image can be found on the website “Jew World Order,” which peddles antisemitic conspiracy theories.

On Dec. 8, in response to Joe Biden’s election win, Ghassemi retweeted another Twitter user’s post and commented, “Surprise, surprise!! The entire system in America is controlled by [the] Zionist. Change of president is just a surface polish, change of veneer. Same trash different pile!”

Many of Ghassemi’s tweets used “IsraHell” in place of “Israel.”

On Dec. 13, he retweeted something and added the comment, “the Zionists and IsraHell interest have embedded themselves in every component of the American system, media, banking, policy, commerce … just a veneer of serving US interest and population — everyone pretends that is the case.”

Ghassemi tweeted similar posts about Zionists and Israel controlling certain components of the United States another eight times between October and December.

He deleted his account after JNNC made inquiries, though a few of his tweets got captured. A particularly invidious one is below:

The whole thing. This is about as stereotyped as you can get.

Yes, the stuff is absolutely repugnant. In response, the Chancellor and Provost of his university wrote an open letter to the community decrying the hatred of the account (Ghassemi wasn’t named) and saying that an investigation has been started. An excerpt from the letter:

The opinions presented in this Twitter account do not represent UC Merced or the University of California. They were abhorrent and repugnant to us and to many of our colleagues and neighbors; they were harmful to our university, our students, and our years of work to build an inclusive and welcoming community.

The Twitter account, now deleted, was called to our attention by the media. We have now confirmed the account was in fact associated with a member of our faculty. The professor’s dean subsequently emailed faculty and staff in the school on Dec. 23 calling the tweets “reprehensible” and affirming that they in no way represent UC Merced. We have called upon the dean and department chair to work with the Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Personnel to conduct an inquiry into potential violations of our standards, the UC Faculty Code of Conduct or other policies of the university, to determine what consequences are appropriate.

We have heard from some students who have raised concerns about this faculty member’s online statements about their heritage. These concerns will be addressed through the Offices of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students.

We are also directing the Office of the Associate Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to develop programming for the spring semester that addresses free speech, hate speech and anti-Semitism in academia and promotes ways to challenge discriminatory insinuations when and wherever they emerge within the university community.

Ghassemi’s tweets almost certainly violated Twitter’s “hate speech” rules, and his account would have been deleted. He’s also been criticized by the Anti-Defamation league. All that is legal. What may not be legal, and to my mind violates Ghassemi’s First Amendment rights (remember, Merced is a public university) is to conduct a university investigation. Unless there’s evidence that Ghassemi broke other university rules—and I can’t imagine what rules would prohibit him from speaking as a private citizen on social media—he has the right to say whatever he wants in public. Twitter may shut him down, but he could bawl his anti-Semitic drivel on the state capitol steps in Sacramento, for all I care, and he’d have the right to do that.

As for the putative “programming” that the University will develop that “challenges discriminatory insinuations,” well, that comes perilously close to violating Ghassemi’s First Amendment right as well. (He’s apparently retained a lawyer.)

Should the University have decried his speech as “abhorrent and repugnant”? I don’t think so. If Ghassemi pulled the same stunt at the University of Chicago, the response from the administration would almost surely be, “Professors have the right to say whatever they want in the public sphere.” Period. The University should not be in the business of decrying “hate speech” publicly, as that’s a slippery slope that could lead to their decrying debatable things as well, like criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement. As our Kalven Report dictates, the University of Chicago should make public pronouncements on politics only when they deal with issues that immediately deal with the running of the University.

Look, I’m a secular Jew and have a soft spot for the Jewish people (though not the religion). I’m always accused of being a Zionist, and I suppose that’s true as I support the state of Israel existing as it is (though not necessarily all the settlements). But as far as anti-Semitic “hate speech” goes, bring it on. We can fight back with counter-speech, as as long as the haters don’t try to incite immediate and predictable violence, what they have to say is allowed. As is the speech of Professor Ghassemi, who should not be punished by the University.  The students can (and should) avoid the knucklehead, or contest his speech in every appropriate venue. But he shouldn’t be punished officially.

What interests me about this is the lack of coverage of Ghassemi’s activities. Jewish and Israeli papers have covered him, as have the local papers. But you won’t find it mentioned in liberal media like the New York Times, Washington Post, or of course the HuffPost. Anti-semitism is not something they usually report on, for the Left is imbued with it, though they call it “anti-Zionism.” (This is why Bari Weiss had to leave the NYT.) But imagine the coverage if Ghassemi posted anti-Black or anti-Hispanic racism as nasty as that which heaped on the Jews. It would be a national scandal!

In the end, Anti-Semitism is one thing, free speech another. If the latter permits the former, then so be it. We’re in no danger of gas chambers in America, and one of the best defenses against anti-Semitism is to allow its purveyors to out themselves, and then fight back—with words.

Here’s a poll, which I’ll try just to roll out our new polling plug-in:

Should Abbas Ghassemi be investigated (with the possibility of punishment) for his anti-Semitic tweets?

View Results

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Editors of Princeton student newspaper: dump the school’s policy of free speech when it protects hate speech

December 8, 2020 • 11:00 am

It’s time for both universities and their students to recognize that the principle of free speech can and often will conflict with the principle of “inclusivity”, for any time someone is offend by what another person says—or if a statement  conflicts with someone’s ideology or values—that person feels “excluded”. Nowadays, of course, exclusion in this way, synonymous with “offense”, is equated with “harm”—or even “violence.” That’s a false equivalence, degrading the meaning of the latter two terms.

And when we have a conflict like this, most thoughtful people have decided that freedom of speech must trump “inclusivity”, most often abrogated by what students call “hate speech.” For anybody can claim offense about anything, and, as I’ve often said, one person’s “hate speech” is another person’s “debatable speech”, i.e., free speech.  A few examples: criticism of abortions, of Islam, of affirmative action, and of the claim that transgender people are absolutely identical to members of the biological sex whose gender they’ve adopted. All of these have been deemed “hate speech.” Should they be banned? Not on your life.

Now I hasten to add that I find racist speech abhorrent, and would do what I can to counteract it, but through counter-speech, not through banning speech I don’t like. Should a student be able to call Jews “Hebes” or “Yids” and accuse them of being money-grubbing power-mongers seeking to take over the world? Yes, of course they should be allowed, even though I’m a secular Jew. Those words are offensive to me, but I wouldn’t for the world suggest that the person who said them be punished. I’d just say he’s an idiot. Ditto with someone saying “Gas the Jews.” That is legal speech, for it doesn’t present an imminent and predictable danger of real harm.

But the editors of the Princeton student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, don’t agree. They say that a university that fosters diversity and inclusivity must ban “racist speech” (which is of course undefined). The editorial is signed by all the members of the Princetonian editorial board save a brave dissenter: one Zachariah Sippy.

Their intent is clear: punish people who exercise their free-speech rights to say things considered racist by others. (All quotes from the paper.)

We have received many messages professing the University’s commitment to the ongoing fight for racial equality in the United States. But actions speak louder than words. What does it mean to increase faculty and staff diversity, as President Eisgruber announced he intends to do, if the community they join does not stand against racism they may encounter?

. . .These ideas cause demonstrable harm to students of color who make up the University community. They force students to question their place on our campus, because they suggest Black people’s intellectual or behavioral inferiority make them incapable of succeeding in higher education.

. . . Those who use free speech to defend racist ideas are essentially saying that it is acceptable for Black students to exist in a perpetual state of discomfort, leaving them vulnerable to numerous traumatic experiences, in the name of an abstract principle that is prioritized over the well-being of our community members.

I would suggest that any time you see the word “harm” in a piece like this, you should mentally substitute the word “offense”.

Read the editorial, published a month ago, by clicking on the screenshot:

To try to sneak around freedom of speech, the editors suggest that Princeton already bans hate speech in its own regulations.  From the paper:

Time and time again the University has acted as an enemy to justice, abusing its powers by deploying free speech language when addressing charges of racism. So it is time for a shift in power. Written in the free speech policy is the stipulation that speech “directly incompatible with the functioning of the University” can be restricted.

But if you look at that free speech policy (which isn’t by the way, linked to the article, you find that speech incompatible with university functioning is the same type of speech that courts have ruled is not protected by the First Amendment.

From Princeton’s Statement on Freedom of Expression:

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

This is in fact word-for-word identical to the University of Chicago’s Principles of Free Expression:

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

So no, just as Chicago wouldn’t ban racist speech, or any legal speech, so Princeton wouldn’t, either. This has gotten the editors’ knickers in a twist.

To further underscore the editors’ misunderstanding of free speech, they conflate sit-ins that block Princeton’s access to buildings, and are against University regulations, with free speech:

Yet, Nassau Hall’s [the Princeton administration building] supposedly unwavering conviction that free speech — even that which makes one uncomfortable — is our institution’s lifeblood fell apart when administrators were made to feel uncomfortable. In the fall of 2015, the University threatened student activists from the Black Justice League  with disciplinary consequences. The administration further denied these students secure accommodations, even when they received death threats. That is the very definition of suppressing speech.

No, you chowderheads! The activists were threatened not because they were saying anything particular, but because they were illegally staging a sit-in in Nassau Hall. You have the right to say what you want, but you don’t have the right to occupy University space against regulations. That is known as civil disobedience, and comes with the stipulation that you have to suffer the legal or disciplinary consequences. I have a right to protest Donald Trump’s policies, but I don’t have the right to do so by entering the Capitol and expatiating from the Senate floor.

The students don’t seem to understand that a University can be opposed to racism, and enact policies to prevent it, and to foster inclusion, diversity, and equality of opportunity, yet at the same time foster a strong policy of free speech. The university doesn’t promulgate racism (I seriously doubt that Princeton is “structurally racist”), but it doesn’t punish speech deemed racist—unless it constitutes personal and repeated harassment. But that kind of harassment is already illegal.

I thought Princeton students were supposed to be smart. I guess they are, but these editors are also ignorant. One would think that, of all people, editors of a newspaper would understand the meaning of “freedom of speech.”

 

McGill students demand end to free speech on their campus

December 6, 2020 • 11:30 am

I have long since been disabused of the notion that Canadian universities—indeed, Canadians in general—whom I used to see as more sensible than Americans, are also less woke than Americans. Indeed, some of the biggest abrogations of freedom of speech (even though Canada doesn’t have the equivalent of the American First Amendment) have been at Canadian schools. Remember how Lindsay Shepherd was treated at Wilfred Laurier University?

Well, McGill is about to match Wilfred Laurier, at least in the anti-free-speech rhetoric espoused in a new “open letter” on the Students’ Society of McGill University site  (click on screenshot below). The letter is signed by The Students’ Society of McGill University Executive Team, The Anthropology Students Association, The Anthropology Graduate Students Association, World Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies Association, Black Students Network, Muslim Students Association, Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights and the Thaqalayn Muslim Association.

Their statement explicitly demands the cutting back of freedom of speech, which, it says, conflicts with the right of students to be free from “harm”. (This, of course, is the usual trope.) They cite research that supposedly shows the harm that “microaggressions” (read “offensive speech”) are supposed to cause, but because these data involve self-report, I’m dubious. Now there’s no doubt that someone can be offended or even get depressed a bit when hearing speech they don’t like, but in my view, the benefits of free speech outweigh the “harm” caused by speech (often a pretended harm, I think, voiced to gain status). And, as Salman Rushdie said, “Nobody has the right not to be offended.”

The opening paragraph of the letter (the first three excerpts below) is about as explicit a statement as I’ve seen about why we can’t have complete freedom of speech. The bold bits are mine. You’ll recognize many of the tropes, like the claim that McGill was built on a “history of oppression”:

It is no secret that, like many other academic institutions,  McGill University was built on a history of oppression, its existence made possible by profiting off of the labour of enslaved and marginalized peoples. This regrettable history not only tarnishes the University’s past but also continues to influence how the University operates today. Scholars have abused their right of free speech and academic freedom to defend acts of rhetorical violence against marginalized communities on campus, shielding racist, sexist, and transphobic speech behind the term “controversy.”

Sorry, but rhetoric is not violence; equating the two simply debases the meaning of the word “violence” and serves to chill speech. Now the speech these students decry is speech that is racist, sexist, and transphobic, which they want to ban because it causes “harm.” While they’re not specific about what kind of “hate speech” they want banned, we’ll see some examples in a minute. The letter goes on:

Freedom of expression is traditionally considered central to permitting the free exchange of ideas and debate and fostering the university environment. Free speech, however, does not exist outside of its social context. David Gillborn, a critical race theorist at the University of Birmingham, suggests that the terms of what is considered ‘legitimate’ speech are dictated by whiteness, since “[w]hiteness operates to invest speech with different degrees of legitimacy, such that already debunked racist beliefs can enjoy repeated public airings where they are lauded as scientific and rational by many White [sic] listeners, who simultaneously define as irrational, emotional, or exaggerated the opposing views of people of colour.” Moreover, evidence from psychology, social work, and medicine suggest that microaggressions, including racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic speech, have numerous and significant impacts on the health, wellbeing, and educational success of marginalized people.

The idea that speech deemed “legitimate” is only that speech emitted by whites is nonsense. For if anything is true, it’s that many people of color are speaking out loudly and frequently, both in person and on the Internet. In fact, this letter itself is an example of what the authors consider legitimate free speech. The “white free speech” they decry is touted as bigoted speech whose airing apparently gives some “scientific” credibility to racism. But that’s also nonsense if you believe that a prime tonic for speech you don’t like is counter-speech. And there is plenty of counterspeech against speech considered bigoted, hateful, and transphobic. I offer as one example the tons of speech offered in response to what was seen as J. K. Rowling’s “transphobic” writings and tweets, which of course weren’t transphobic at all. The volume of counterspeech, many by marginalized people, must have exceeded Rowling’s own words by a factor of hundreds.

Finally, if you look at the link to the claims that “microaggressions” are harmful, they aren’t all that convincing, as they are based on self-report, and also neglect the possibility that people who are more easily offended, and more readily claim harm, may also be more willing to discern microaggressions in their quotidian environments.

The paragraph continues (these three bits are from a single opening paragraph):

The defence of discriminatory dialogue at the expense of the safety, security, and wellbeing of people of colour reflects the power of whiteness in determining what is and is not considered acceptable speech. Upholding free speech at the cost of marginalized groups permits racist talk with real-world impacts; it teaches future generations that perpetrating this kind of harm is acceptable. These harms are not hypothetical; they have been and will continue to be felt by marginalized communities on campuses across the country.

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, comrades and friends: an explicit claim that free speech cannot be permitted because it creates harm in marginalized groups. They make this even more explicit further down:

While material featuring harmful language can be used prudently, the use of bigoted material, whether ableist, transphobic, racist, or otherwise discriminatory, is unacceptable, and McGill University has made no effort to resolve this tension. The University’s Statement of Academic Freedom defines no limitations for academic freedom, failing to address the responsibility of professors to use their freedoms responsibly. Equity and academic freedom need to be addressed as intertwined issues and McGill University falls short in this regard. . .

. . . When the voices of students are sidelined and disregarded, the solution is not and cannot be active listening and dialogue, as the Principal argued. While inclusiveness and academic freedom are both invaluable principles, they cannot always coexist. Thus, when the University refuses to define limitations to academic freedom, the safety and wellbeing of marginalized students become inherently secondary. This is best exemplified by the University’s decision to first underline their respect for “free speech” when bigoted dialogues do make their way onto campus. The message McGill sends is all too clear; when equity and academic freedom come into conflict, they are more than ready to “abandon one principle in favour of another.”

As they should! We’ll see shortly the kind of speech these student organizations consider to be bigoted, ableist, transphobic, racist, and discriminatory. But it’s amply clear from the above that counterspeech and “active dialogue” won’t suffice. They want speech to be BANNED.

Of course, the determiners of what kind of speech is unacceptable—The Deciders—will be these students, who will try to get McGill to ban it. (Let’s hope they don’t succeed.)

But what kind of speech do they want McGill to prohibit? They give some example when damning the writings of emeritus professor Philip Carl Salzman, an anthropologist.  After the two paragraphs below, they demand that McGill remove Salzman’s Emeritus Professor status. This tells you the kind of speech that’s considered harmful—microaggressions. I invite you to read the links to see for yourself:

In the past year, several articles have been posted on public forums by Professor Philip Carl Salzman, a retired Professor Emeritus of the McGill Anthropology Department. In one recent example, Salzman goes on to write that “the Middle East is a place where doing harm and being cruel to others is regarded as a virtue and a duty.” Salzman goes on to condemn multiculturalismimmigrationgender paritycultural equalitysocial justice, and the Black Lives Matter movement, along with dismissing the existence of rape culture and systemic racism.

Despite their editorial nature, Salzman’s opinions are presented as though they are objective facts. Meanwhile, his affiliation with McGill lends him credibility that would not otherwise be afforded if not for his status as a Professor Emeritus of a respected institution such as McGill University. In providing such commentary while presenting himself as an affiliate of this University, Salzman’s recent publications in public fora demonstrate a lack of consideration for his responsibility as an academic.

For example, the link to Salzman’s supposed denial of gender parity is a discussion of how different preferences of men and women—differences that may be based on biology—may lead to a lack of equity (representation) in various fields. While you may dispute his claims, it’s certainly not “hate speech”, and may well contain more than a grain of truth.  As for “rape culture”, I myself would deny such a term as it’s often used. While one rape is too many, and it’s a vile and horrible crime, we do not live in a “rape culture” that sees rape as okay, that is experiencing an unprecedented wave of sexual violence on campus, and that society strives to let rapists off the hook.

In all of the examples above, what the McGill students see as “hate speech” is speech that is at least debatable—though I by no means agree with all of Professor Salzman’s claims—and should be debated.

Along with whatever woke classes McGill University has on tap, they should add to them a class of “free speech”, and one taught by someone like Geoffrey Stone, not one of these McGill students who sees all speech they don’t like as not only harmful, but worthy of censorship.

Facebook considers Holocaust denial as “hate speech”, removes it from the site

October 13, 2020 • 11:00 am

Facebook’s Vice-President for Content Policy has posted a new notice saying that, as part of the firm’s fight against “hate speech,” they’re removing any content that “denies or distorts the Holocaust.” Click on the screenshot to see the full announcement:

An excerpt:

Today we are updating our hate speech policy to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust. . .

. . . Following a year of consultation with external experts, we recently banned anti-Semitic stereotypes about the collective power of Jews that often depicts them running the world or its major institutions.

Today’s announcement marks another step in our effort to fight hate on our services. Our decision is supported by the well-documented rise in anti-Semitism globally and the alarming level of ignorance about the Holocaust, especially among young people. According to a recent survey of adults in the US aged 18-39, almost a quarter said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, that it had been exaggerated or they weren’t sure.

Institutions focused on Holocaust research and remembrance, such as Yad Vashem, have noted that Holocaust education is also a key component in combatting anti-Semitism. Beginning later this year, we will direct anyone to credible information off Facebook if they search for terms associated with the Holocaust or its denial on our platform.

Now Facebook, as a private operation, has the right to ban whatever it wants. And I can see some rationale for banning vicious stereotypes of any group (they also ban white supremacists), though it’s not clear from the announcement above if the anti-Semitic stereotypes they ban are only those that show Jews controlling the world. (What about big-nosed Jews fondling dollar bills or sticking pitchforks into Palestinians?) But with Facebook, as with universities, I favor speech as free as possible—ideally, speech that is “free” as U.S. courts have interpreted the First Amendment. That means all speech is permissible save that speech which harasses individuals, is defamatory, constitutes false advertising, promotes immediate and foreseeable violence and so on.

In other words, I think that the speech permitted on Facebook should be speech that is permitted at the University of Chicago. And that includes both varieties of hate speech noted above.  One advantage, for instance of allowing anti-Semitism is to either out those purveying it, or to realize how widespread the problem really is. One cannot grasp, for instance, how much hatred of Jews is officially purveyed by some Arab states until you see the stuff for yourself.

One can make an even stronger case for Holocaust denialism—that is, to allow it. I speak from personal experience, for it was only by reading Holocaust denialists, and seeing how superficially convincing their arguments were, that I was motivated to do additional reading of those who addressed and attacked the denialism.  And that led me to the strongest denial of Denialism I know: Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman’s 2009 book Denying History (below). Shermer and Grobman not only powerfully refute Holocaust Denialism, but also use the case as an example of “pseudohistory” (which resembles “pseudoscience”) and further analyze the psychology of the denialists and those who follow them.

So I can appreciate Facebook’s aim, which is to prevent hate, but they are setting themselves up as the arbiters of what is “hate speech”, and it’s dangerous for anyone to do that, as Christopher Hitchens often remarked. (He also defended the rights of Holocaust Denialists who had been arrested.) How can you answer those who purvey lies if the lies themselves are censored? Further, is banning something a good way to suppress its message? There is, as we know, the Streisand Effect.

I write this as a secular Jew who despises anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism. I am not a “self-hating Jew”. But my cultural affinity with Jews is not as strong as my support for freedom of speech.

But let’s take a poll (please vote).

h/t: Ken

Wesleyan University president purports to comport intellectual diversity with “hate speech” ban; the result is still censorship

September 20, 2020 • 9:45 am

A friend affiliated with Wesleyan University sent me the New York Times article below, saying that I should be aware of the school’s efforts to “encourage a diversity of opinion in public debates on campus while barring hate speech and so on.”  Intrigued but doubtful, I read the article by Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth, which took me to two related articles he wrote.

First, what is a “kakistocracy”? I thought this was a new word, but Wikipedia defines it as “a system of government that is run by the worst, least qualified, and/or most unscrupulous citizens. The word was coined as early as the seventeenth century.” Well, yes, we have one now, but let’s move on to the piece.

Roth’s Wikipedia page reveals him not only to have had some unexpected views for a college president, like supporting Israel and refusing to support BDS (he’s Jewish), and the two articles he refers to in the piece below ( “On intellectual diversity” at the Wesleyan site and “Don’t dismiss ‘safe spaces’” at the NYT ) are not that bad.  But the articles, and especially this one in today’s NYT, despite calling for more freedom of speech than accepted by many other schools (though not my own), suffer from specifying exactly what kind of “hate speech” is to be banned. 

Click to read:

Now Roth has instituted some good programs to foster intellectual diversity at Wesleyan, like an initiative to accept military veterans as students and another to promote Wesleyan departments to “expose students to ideas outside the liberal consensus,” like “the philosophical and economic foundations of private property, free enterprise, and market economies.” Another program will bring senior military officers to campus to teach courses on the relationship between “military institutions and civil society.”

This is all well and good, and is to be applauded. But there’s a limit to Roth’s tolerance. Apparently he regards “intellectual diversity” as encompassing just acceptable politically conservative points of view, and not more “fringe” areas like discussions of creationism or Holocaust denialism. Here are some statements by Roth that make me think that, to him, “hate speech” is speech that is either hyper-conservative, politically extreme, or ideologically out of bounds to most Leftist students:

These days when I make a plea for greater intellectual diversity, I’m asked not about teaching Aristotle, but whether I want to invite fascists and racists to campus. My answer, of course, is no: As I have argued before, universities should be “safe enough” places for all students.

. . . When I talk about the tradition of conservative thinkers, I have in mind those who were skeptical of the powers of a central government, those who felt that a well-ordered society depended on a notion of transcendence, and those who were concerned that even well-intentioned policies to improve peoples’ lives could have unintended consequences that are ruinous. I have in mind traditions of natural law and of religious belief. I have in mind thinkers who point out that theories of how people should organize society often depend on frightening powers of organized violence.

These streams of thought offer powerful, alternative perspectives on enduring questions.

. . . In higher education, there is no contradiction between standing up to the fascist tendencies of racist authoritarianism and working for greater intellectual diversity.

I think he’s wrong here. He wants mainstream conservatives but not provocateurs like Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, or perhaps even conservatives of a Trumpian stripe like Steve Bannon. He presumably won’t tolerate Holocaust denialists, who can be seen as racist authoritarians. And no fascists? What does he mean by “fascist”? It would have been good had he proffered examples, but we have to read between the lines. Would he have promoted a talk by the late Christopher Hitchens on the evils of Islam? Roth doesn’t say. So often administrators don’t specify what they mean as hate speech, and that makes the slope very slippery indeed.

From the Wesleyan site article:

We are not interested in bringing in ideologues or shallow provocateurs intent on outraging students and winning the spotlight. We want to welcome scholars with a deep understanding of traditions currently underrepresented on our campus (and on many others) and look forward to the vigorous conversations they will inspire.

That’s a bit more specific but still not very helpful. Who is to specify and decide which “ideologues or shallow provocateurs” should be banned? Apparently Roth himself is to be the Decider, since he’s speaking for all of Wesleyan here.

And so, while Roth is miles above leaders of censorious schools like Williams College, Middlebury College, and The Evergreen State College, he’s still trying to rule some speakers out of bounds. He hasn’t taken as hard a line on free speech as say, the University of Chicago (although, as I’ve noted lately, we’re developing our own toxic strains of ideological conformity and acceptable speech).

If some organization at a university wants to invite a creationist, Ann Coulter, a Holocaust denialist, or a white supremacist to a campus, they should have the right to do so. Though you may say that these speakers purvey “hate speech” (and that’s justifiable for many such folks), it cannot be banned speech. Wesleyan, though a private school, should adhere to the strictures of the First Amendment as embodied by the Chicago Principles, also from a private school. After all, part of free speech is the principle of counter-speech. Are Wesleyan students so timorous that certain speakers would be so hateful that they could not abide hearing them, much less hearing a response?

Let’s look at how Roth’s views have played out in practice—on the Wesleyan campus. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gives Wesleyan an overall “yellow light” rating:

Wesleyan University has been given the speech code rating Yellow. Yellow light colleges and universities are those institutions with at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.

More FIRE explanation of the yellow-light rating.

A “yellow light” institution is one whose policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression. For example, a ban on “posters containing references to alcohol or drugs” violates the right to free speech because it unambiguously restricts speech on the basis of content and viewpoint, but its scope is very limited.

Alternatively, a policy banning “verbal abuse” could be applied to prohibit a substantial amount of protected speech, but is not a clear violation because “abuse” might refer to unprotected speech, such as threats of violence or harassment as defined in the common law. In other words, the extent of the threat to free speech depends on how such a policy is applied.

It looks as if Roth’s own ambiguity has worked its way into Wesleyan’s speech-code regulations. (Note that several aspects of the school’s policy get the approved “green-light rating as well.). And in 2016, Wesleyan was among the “Ten Worst Colleges for Free Speech,” while Roth had already been President for nine years (see details here). Now the school may have cleaned up its act since then—I think it has, to some extent—but it still needs to go the extra mile to get that overall “green light rating” from FIRE.

“Hate speech” is indeed a slippery slope, and, as I’ve often said, one student’s “hate speech” is another’s “free speech” or “speech that warrants discussion.” Roth goes too far in setting up certain categories of impermissible speech. As Hitchens, Mill, and others have said, it is the most odious and offensive speech that must be heard most urgently.