Why have we forgotten about free speech?

Apr 19, 2016 | Civil Liberties

Published: The Good Men Project (April 19, 2016)

Last week I had a conversation with Mark Schierbecker, and it has put me in a bit of a bind. I reached out to him for an interview because I care about First Amendment issues and he has, without question, qualifications to discuss them. While covering a student protest at the University of Missouri, a professor named Melissa Click led a mob of students to physically eject him from the area – a clear violation of his constitutional rights as a journalist.

Here is what bothered me, on a deep philosophical level, about that conversation. While I suspect Schierbercker is more of a classical liberal, and I am of a New Left variety, we agree on one key point – that there is never a situation in which the exchange of information, ideas, and opinions should be in any way inhibited. Whenever someone argues that you shouldn’t speak your mind, they set a precedent so dangerous that it must be opposed by all involved. It’s the kind of behavior that is so threatening, it undermines every single other freedom that we can conceivably enjoy in a society worthy of the term “liberty.”

Schierbecker told me a story that illustrated this point.

“In one of my classes we would frequently diverge from the lecture topic to talk about current events – one of the things I actually liked about their class since we engage in frank discussion of hard conversations,” he explained (first during our interview and then in a follow up email). “The Wednesday after I shot the video the big conversation was about me. My classmates wanted to know why I had intruded on the protesters’ space. While this is happening my phone is buzzing every minute. The professor at one point pointedly asked me if my classmates deserved my attention since I kept checking my phone. This same professor later asked me to drop the assault charges against Click. Several students came to me afterward in the following weeks and told me they were disappointed I became a target and felt like they couldn’t defend me without being a target themselves.”

The question we need to ask ourselves is simply this: Is each of us willing to accept that we will be offended, even angered to the point where our blood will boil in rage, because our right to say exactly what we think is infinitely precious? There is no religion, no field of science, no artistic genre or political movement that could ever be safe in a society that doesn’t place an individual’s ability to say whatever he or she thinks without fear of sanction as sacrosanct.

Unfortunately there is a subculture among progressives who want to violate precisely that ideal. When Schierbecker was ejected from that protest, it was because the protesters opposing perceived racial affronts at the University of Missouri didn’t understand that every right for which they are fighting as a group stems from the abstract concept that rights belong to individuals. When organizations like Concerned Student 1950 organize to protest the racial climate on Mizzou’s campus, they exercise their agency as individuals to support a cause which impacts all of them as individuals (in this case based along society’s shared experiences cause by systemic racial discrimination). Schierbecker did likewise – albeit as a lone journalist – when he decided to document their public activities.

All of their rights are equal.

Do we truly believe that, though? How often do we accuse people of being bigoted – racist, sexist, etc. – because we know it will attach a stigma to their freedom of action? Haven’t we learned that trying to silence someone by attaching a derogatory term to them is inherently unjust? That is why the McCarthy era stands out as a terrible period in the history of left-wing politics; as long as someone could find a way to connect the word “communist” to your words or ideas, you were forced to either retreat or face social, professional, and even legal ruin.

Whenever a political movement argues that the act of individuals asserting their basic rights can be in itself dangerous, it is destined to become repressive.  True, political repression is far worse than the social kind, but it is inarguable that what happened to Schierbecker is intensely disturbing. His First Amendment rights were blatantly violated by left-wingers whose diagnoses of America’s race, gender, and class problems are very close to my own… but who are trying to win the argument by stifling debate.

Frankly, I think Schierbecker is quite lucky. Because he had a camera rolling, he was able to share his experience with the world, and that has given him an audience I suspect he will use very well with his newly amplified voice. My concern goes to the entire left-wing movement, where a respected American university can act as one to blatantly undermine the foundation of all freedom – especially so when it comes to the intellectual freedom for which universities once ostensibly stood. This is our movement’s Achilles’ heel, and it weakens the entire body of the ideals for which we stand.

Why aren’t we more worried about this?