Using Free Speech Rhetoric to Silence Opponents

There is a recent case at the University of Iowa. A conservative Christian group sued for its right to demand that the university financially support their activities in excluding gay people. They thought it unfair that the university discriminated against their right to discriminate against others. Only they have the right to discriminate in their bigotry, but others don’t have a right to discriminate against their bigotry.

The university administration didn’t disallow the group to exist or to operate on campus. The only decision made was that they didn’t want to use state resources, as it is a state college, to directly support and promote anti-gay activities. Still, the anti-gay group was free to privately fund their anti-gay activities and even to be openly anti-gay on campus without any problems with university administration. It was simply about whether the government should support specific religious beliefs on a college campus that are hateful and harmful to other students.

This is what goes for ‘freedom’ on the political right. It relates to the whole ‘free speech’ outrage. It’s not enough that an anti-gay group has the right to speak freely about their prejudice against gays, on campus and elsewhere. Their freedom of speech requires we the taxpayers have to pay for a platform for their hate speech. By the same logic, we the taxpayers also have to fund campus groups that are white supremacist, pro-pederasty, misogynist, and on and on. Everyone who has an opinion, no matter how distasteful, can demand public funding.

That is as long as they claim it is a central part of their belief system. This is the argument this Christian group made. The claim was that they couldn’t be required to not hate gays because the Christian tradition they inherited taught them to hate gays. Their homophobia wasn’t a belief they invented but came from God. Supposedly, this justifies their prejudice. So, I guess Neo-Nazis simply have to claim that God told them to discriminate against Jews and every college across the country would be required to use our taxpayer money to promote antisemitism.

The right-wing argument is that freedom means a society enforces no moral standards or social norms. It’s a Social Darwinian free-for-all. It’s actually worse than that. Not just freedom to speak but a demand to be heard. Everyone must be given a platform, whether or not the audience wants to hear it, much less be forced to pay to hear it. Taxpayers don’t have the right to determine how their own money is spent. What if a majority of Iowans don’t want to financially support an anti-gay group with money out of their own pockets? Does that matter? Or should an anti-gay group be free to reach into the taxpayer’s pocket and take that money from hardworking citizens no matter what anyone else thinks?

It goes even further. James Damore was upset that a private corporation decided not to support his misogynistic prejudice. He thought it was his right to speak freely and use a corporation as his personal platform. Like it or not, corporations aren’t democratic institutions. Corporate suppression of democratic rights has been happening in far worse ways for generations to left-wingers (most Cold War oppression came from the private sector, not from the government). And many right-wingers used to believe that censorship and other forms of oppression was as American as apple pie. But suddenly there is a supposedly populist movement on the political right that is concerned about freedom and liberty for all.

There is still a law on the book that makes belonging to the communist party illegal. In the right-wing media, there is talk about enforcing this law to silence opponents. Some petitions have been started for this purpose, specifically in the hope that Trump will back this attack on the political left. It’s nonsense, of course, and wouldn’t hold up in court. But I have yet to hear of any conservative, right-wing, or alt-right free speech advocate complain about, much less protest against, these authoritarian right-wingers. It’s the same reason why conservative colleges can get away with far more egregious silencing of free speech than can mainstream colleges, even though those conservative colleges also receive public funding.

Censorship of speech was far more dangerous and damaging in the past when it mostly targeted the political left. And censorship continues to target the political left, targeting workers, students and professors. If you don’t hear about censorship against left-wingers in corporate media, that is because corporate media is the mouthpiece of capitalism and doesn’t tend to bend over backwards to create a platform for Marxists, communists, and their fellow travelers (e.g., Palestinian rights advocates).

Those on the political right act as if there is a conspiracy against them, as if they are the only Americans who know oppression. They pretend that white conservatives are the ultimate oppressed minority in a country that is and always has been majority white and majority Christian. They apparently have no clue about the harsh realities that others face on a daily basis or else they are pretending to be ignorant. It’s mind-boggling. How could they be so obliviously ignornant to not know about the prejudices and hate crimes directed at minorities, the difficulty of being a Muslim or Middle Easterner (or mistaken for one), the professors who lose their jobs when they defend the rights of Palestinians and such, the historical and ongoing attack on left-wingers?

Sure, free speech is under attack, as it always has been. But it is a psychotic disconnection from reality to genuinely believe that this is all about the political right. Why the constant playing of the victim card when the tactics the political right has used against others are turned back the other way?

They should learn some history. Even in the past, some right-wing groups found themselves on the wrong side of political and corporate power. The government didn’t only systematically attack communist partisans, anti-war protesters, black radicals, and hippy drug users? The Second Klan was destroyed by the FBI, although the KKK had become quite corrupt at that point and was flaunting its own power through such things as political bribery and tax evasion.

The point is that those in the centers of power will always seek to silence and eliminate any individual or group that too effectively challenges the status quo or otherwise becomes problematic to establishment agendas and interests. That is true of those in power within the private sector. A company like Google would have been misogynistic in the past as most companies were in the past because misogyny was the norm, but times have changed and so all companies increasingly support gender equality because it is all about what is good for business (studies show that diverse companies have higher levels of innovation, profit, etc). Even the University of Iowa has as its president a guy from the business world, not some left-wing political activist. Colleges these days are run like businesses and having an anti-gay group causing trouble on campus isn’t good for business.

We live in a capitalist society, after all. Everything is about the flow of money. That pretty much sums up the entirety of American history.

As for all the protesters and counter-protesters, that also is nothing new. America has a long history of public outrage going back to not just protests but riots and revolts even before the American Revolution. We Americans are a vocal people about our opinions on public matters. And it occasionally turning to violence is even less of a shock. Actions committed by individuals and groups in the past, more often directed at left-wingers and minorities, were far more violent than what tends to be seen these days. If anything, it is amazing how non-violent of a time we live in, at least in the Western world (ignoring the violence we export to the rest of the world).

Besides, the most violent actions in recent history have not come from the political left. There is no American left-wing equivalent to generations of right-wing violence — the bombings, arson, assassinations, driving cars into crowds, etc (if you are unaware of this recent history, just ask some blacks, gays, Muslims, clinic doctors, etc about it and they can enlighten you). Not even the Weather Underground, terrorist bombers as they were, ever targeted people as there bombings were carefully planned to avoid human casualties. The government has officially labeled certain environmentalist groups such as Earth First! as terrorists, despite there never having killed a single person nor ever attempted to do so.

For decades, health clinics and doctors were targeted by anti-abortion militants. Even right-wingers in the mainstream media promoted this violent movement such as Bill O’Reilly’s helping to incite the murder of Dr. George Tiller, and O’Reilly never apologized or expressed remorse, much less got fired from his job. Sure, since Fox News backs this hateful bigotry, then those who spew it have their free speech protected. But what about the free speech of the victim who was silenced with a bullet? And what about all the thousands of other victims of prejudice, oppression, hate crimes, and right-wing terrorism?

Here is another point that gets lost in all of this. No matter how often the political right repeats its ignorance and lies, the conflation of liberals and left-wingers remains false and misleading. Going back to the early 20th century, there has rarely been love lost between these two ideological groups. Some of the gravest attacks on left-wingers have come from liberals or those pretending to be liberals. That is what Phil Ochs was going on about in his satirical song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”. Some of the most vocal and strident Cold War warriors were liberals, having done everything in their power to destroy the political left.

Even though the Cold War has ended, liberals continue to attack everyone to the left of them which is why the right-wing ‘liberals’ such as the Clinton Democrats are always seeking to eliminate and discredit all left-wing challengers, from Ralph Nader to Bernie Sanders. Where was most of the political right in defending Sanders’ free speech when Hillary Clinton and big biz media sought to silence him and keep him out of public awareness until late in the campaign season? And that isn’t even to get into how the alliance between big gov and big biz silences all of us Americans, not just outsider candidates… while the corporatists arguing for corporate ‘free speech’. As for campuses, left-wingers are no more safe there than anywhere else.

The only reason that Americans don’t hear more about oppression and censorship of left-wingers is because corporate media in a corporatist society, whether supposedly liberal MSNBC or conservative Fox News, rarely reports on it. But it not being regularly discussed in the mainstream is not the same thing as it not happening. Capitalist realism is the dominant ideology of our entire society and as such is taken as a given with protest against it being almost impossible — in the words of H. Bruce Franklin: “It is now easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” We can’t have the freedom that we can’t imagine and we can’t fight against the oppression what we can’t see, which is why oppression of the mind is the worst possible oppression. That is what this is all about, the right-wing attempt to suppress all alternatives by censoring public debate, which first requires controlling the frame of allowable debate.

This touches upon the difference between negative liberty and positive freedom, the former allows for censorship of the powerless while the latter promotes free speech for all. The political right in the past advocated the one and dismissed the other, but now they are coming to realize or pretending to care that maybe positive freedom matters after all, at least when they portray themselves as oppressed and victimized minorities (that is why the anti-gay student group at the UI didn’t merely argue for negative liberty to be able to speak freely on campus but a positive freedom in demanding the university and taxpayer support and promote their free speech by giving them an official platform). A genuine public debate about free speech and freedom in general is needed. Unfortunately, that isn’t what the political right wants. It is simply a political game about power and influence, amplifying one’s own voice at the cost of others.

Even more problematic is that the same political and economic elites who own our government are seeking to own every aspect of our society, including colleges that because of loss of public funding have increasingly turned to corporate funding. The right-wingers funding the campus ‘free speech’ movement are also those who operate think tanks, lobbyist groups, front organizations, etc that promote the corporate ‘free speech’ of Citizens United, the neoliberal ‘free trade’ agreements of big biz corporatism, the  protection of ‘freedom’ through voter ID laws that suppress voting rights, and the ‘freedom’ of the right-to-work which means the right for workers to have no protections. The whole point is to make ‘freedom’ a meaningless word.

The sadly amusing part is how these very powerful right-wingers are spreading conspiracy theories about how the political left is trying to destroy our rights and freedoms, to take away our guns and freedom, to attack free markets and the God-given American way of life. And unsurprisingly they spread these conspiracies precisely to hide the actual conspiracies they are involved in. There is no better place to hide a conspiracy than behind a conspiracy theory. One thing is certain. This has nothing to do with free speech.

* * *

Never let it be said that being anti-free speech is an explicitly left-wing college thing
by Becket Adams

At least, that’s one takeaway from a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, which found a distressing 46 percent of self-professed GOP respondents said the government should “have the power to revoke broadcast licenses of major news organizations it says are fabricating news stories about a President and his administration.”

Thankfully, the overall number of respondents who said the federal government should have this power is quite small. Only 28 percent of total survey respondents said they would support the federal government quashing the rights of the free press. Fifty-one percent said they would oppose it, and 21 percent of respondents said “don’t know” or “no opinion.”

But of the 28 percent who said they would support it, 46 percent of them were self-described Republicans. Twenty-three percent were self-avowed Independents, and only 17 percent were Democrats.

* * *

Framing Free Speech

Does Your Right to Free Speech Extend to the Workplace?
by Amirah Bey

The Stereotypes About College Students And Free Speech Are False
by Nathan J. Robinson

Is the Threat to Free Speech on Campus Overblown?
by Jonathan Marks

Debate on free speech alone means little for minorities
by John Budarick

Why Berkeley’s Battle Against White Supremacy Is Not About Free Speech
by Meleiza Figueroa and David Palumbo-Liu

Political Conservatives Suddenly Embrace Free Speech On Campus
by Geoffrey R. Stone

Weaponizing Free Speech
by Victor Ray

Inside the Bizarre Right-Wing Political Correctness Movement That Threatens Free Speech
by Zaid Jilani

There is a campus war on free speech — but it’s not being waged by “snowflake” students
by David Masciotra

How the Right Stifles Speech With Threats and Violence
by Aaron R. Hanlon

I’m on the ‘professor watchlist.’ It’s a ploy to undermine free speech
by Anthea Butler

Masking Oppression as Free Speech: An Anarchist Take
by Tariq Khan

The Campus Free Speech Battle You’re Not Seeing
by Peter Moskowitz

The Real Free-Speech Threat
by Radhika Sainath

Towards A Real Defense of Free Speech
by Daphna Thier

Charges Against Muslim Students Prompt Debate Over Free Speech
by Jennifer Medina

An Illinois College Sued Over ‘Free Speech Zone’
by Associated Press

Who’s behind the free speech crisis on campus?
by Dorian Bon

Making free speech a crime
by Nicole Colson

The free speech of fools
by Danny Katch

Silencing protest in the name of free speech
by Alex Buckingham

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