On liberals, the left, and free speech: Something has changed, and it’s not what you think it is

When I was in college and in graduate school (so the 1980s and 1990s), the dividing line on free speech debates was, for the most part, a pretty conventional liberal/left divide. (I’m excluding the right.) That is, self-defined liberals tended to be absolutists on free speech. Self-defined leftists—from radical feminists to radical democrats to critical race theorists to Marxists—tended to be more critical of the idea of free speech.

What’s interesting about the contemporary moment, which I don’t think anyone’s really remarked upon, is that that clean divide has gotten blurry. There were always exceptions to that divide, I know: back in the 1980s and 1990s, some radical feminists were critical of the anti-free speech position within feminism; some liberals, like Cass Sunstein and Owen Fiss, were more sensitive to how power differentials in society constrained speech, and thus were more open to more regulatory approaches to speech; some Marxists were always leery of the critiques of free speech. Even so, there was a divide. That divide hasn’t now reversed, but it’s no longer the case that it maps so easily onto a simple and clear divide between liberalism and the left.

From what I see online, a lot of mainstream liberals today are far less absolutist in their defense of free speech, particularly on campuses; indeed, that absolutist position increasingly seems like the outlier among liberals. And parts of the left are now taking the more absolutist position. Once upon a time, a Jonathan Chait would denounce leftist campus critics of free speech, and it all made sense. Today, when he does that, he seems completely out to lunch: a lot of the people he’s talking about are conventional liberals just like him.

(On a related note, there was a funny moment on Twitter yesterday, when the ACLU defended Ann Coulter’s right to speak at Berkeley. Twitter liberals freaked out in surprise: the ACLU, defending Ann Coulter’s right to speak! How could that be? None of them seemed to remember or realize that it was the ACLU that defended Nazis—as in real members of the American Nazi Party—marching in Skokie, a Chicago suburb whose residents included many Holocaust survivors, back in the 1970s.)

Just so we’re clear. Nothing in this post is meant to be normative or prescriptive; I’ve tended to stay out of these debates of late, in part because they mostly don’t speak to my experience of campus free speech. Our challenge at Brooklyn College has never really been how to keep speakers off campus; it has almost always been how to get them on campus.

All I’m doing here is making a simple, and I believe non-normative empirical observation: that something new is happening on the divide between liberalism and the left over the question of free speech. Unlike the recent past, the free speech argument now cuts right across that divide. And to that extent, it takes us back to an earlier moment, in the 1930s and 1940s, when American liberals and the left were also in dialogue, and taking a mixture of cross-cutting positions, on the question of free speech.


  1. Chris Morlock April 27, 2017 at 12:30 pm | #

    Bernie Sanders, Noam Chompsky, even Elizabeth Warren all took free speech stances and criticized banning of Right wing speakers recently. Howard Dean and ilk, the Clintonian neo-libs, have all come out against allowing “hate speech” on Coulter and Yiannopoulos.

    Seeing as how the neo-lib ilk are totally unpopular, still indignant about their colossal loss and humiliation, unable to take on any introspective ability or self-criticism, why are people still listening to them?

  2. Phil Perspective April 27, 2017 at 12:43 pm | #

    Once upon a time, a Jonathan Chait would denounce leftist campus critics of free speech, and it all made sense. Today, when he does that, he seems completely out to lunch: a lot of the people he’s talking about are conventional liberals just like him.

    Has Chait said anything about Fordham lately? If not he’s exposing himself, again, for the fraud he is.

    • Rick Quantz April 27, 2017 at 5:06 pm | #

      Yes in fact he has spoken about Fordham, if tweeting counts: https://twitter.com/jonathanchait/status/857660767264538626

      • Chris Morlock April 28, 2017 at 5:33 am | #

        If Chaint isn’t everything wrong with Liberalism and the left today, I have no idea what is. His latest book, a celebration of Obama, is as tone-deaf as possible. Agreed, he is a fraud and deserves the same fate as Pelosi and Schumer and the husk of the corporate democratic party. Since the window of opportunity has passed on outing these schills, maybe after the Dems get their asses handed to them again in 2018 we might have some movement.

        I knew Chaint was a useless intellectual elitist poly sci guber when he went after Thomas Frank savagely. It’s as if “Listen, Liberal” was written for Chaint himself.

        How can these corporate dems and their intellectual consent manufacturers like Chaint still exist?

  3. Jara Handala April 27, 2017 at 12:56 pm | #

    Thanks for the post, Corey.

    Norm Finkelstein last August successfully explained why restricting speech, either by bans or by denying opportunities for the development of self-expression (so either positive or negative restrictions, say, or either by commission or by omission), cannot be part of the struggle of either freedom-from (emancipation) or freedom-to (liberation).

    Here’s the 97′ vid, a talk on Mill’s ‘On Liberty’, with comments & responses throughout from a largely hostile audience, mainly of people schooled (probably not educated) in a prevalent kind of Marxism:
    https://www. youtube. com/watch?v=Gt3WmzLM5G0 (two gaps added coz of possible spam filter)

    • Jara Handala April 27, 2017 at 1:23 pm | #

      Just seen Norm started a class last month in Brooklyn Central Library, including discussion of whether public speech should be curtailed. There are three vids on it, so almost six hours to help think through the issues. This is the first one:
      https://www. youtube. com/watch?v=J6eeS9EYJXI (again two gaps added)

  4. John K. Wilson April 27, 2017 at 2:01 pm | #

    I’m not convinced that this is true. There have always been the anti-PC liberals like Chait who are treated with skeptical agreement by free speech absolutist progressives (like me). The only change might be people like Ulrich Baer: Administrators tend to believe in administrative censorship, and the growth of the administrator class may be shifting the debate slightly.

    • jonnybutter April 27, 2017 at 4:52 pm | #

      Ugh – here’s the editorial by Baer. It’s so shitty I could get through only about 2/3rds of it. So many slippery rhetorical moves, so much deliberate confusion-sewing. Reading it is like being buried in a mountain of those styrofoam packing pellets.

      I wonder about this too. I’ll be curious to see what people think. I have moved from left-liberal free speech absolutist (80s and 90s) to much further left today, but still free speech absolutist (with the usual caveats). We are talking about free speech with respect to government here – a distinction Baer ignores, I think.

      A problem I have in US free speech practice is that when all focus is on ‘test cases’ (usually involving Nazis), the real point of having free speech is obscured, namely freedom of thought. Point of 1st amendment is not to just provoke for the sake of it. If Richard Spencer is invited to speak in my hometown, I will be out there protesting that; I know what Nazis think already and would feel that inviting him is a bad decision. If he cancels due to hubub, he’s not being ‘censored’ and neither am I. I wouldn’t expressly focus on getting him to cancel, but I also wouldn’t feel bad if he did.

      I think Mill’s most basic argument is that you don’t really understand your own position if you don’t understand the objections to it. And that’s right. But if you *do* already understand the objections to your position, why do you have to keep hearing them over and over? The ‘test case’ (Nazis, almost always) becomes the only case. The 1st A is then like the tv show ‘A Current Affair’ (hello Bill O’Reilly in the 80s) – sensational and devoid of content. So something truly at issue, like BDS vs State of Israel, can be elided with a clear conscience. See? We let the Nazis march…in Skokie!

      • indi April 28, 2017 at 5:17 pm | #

        “But if you *do* already understand the objections to your position, why do you have to keep hearing them over and over?” The statement is problematic. YOU don’t need or want to hear it. Alright. But by denying the speaker, you are also denying others’ right to hear it. And you do not have the right to do so. And really, what you do “know” is different from what others “know” given the same speech or thoughts of the same speaker or person. Again, by denying the speaker, you are imposing your view on others, who have every right to think differently than the way you think.

  5. ron April 27, 2017 at 3:32 pm | #

    Difficulty of public non-profits having a consistent policy is the problem. If you are 3M or Apple you surely can prevent the invitation of hate speech givers from your property. Universities can have a policy and a committee to review who is invited to speak and can then recommend the speaker move off campus to give their hate speech.

    I really don’t see the problem with a school saying you are free to talk nearby here, but not on our property, the reason is we have evidence from your writing and prior talks that you will likely violate our hate speech policy.

    Charles Murray and Ann Coulter are the same as inviting Hitler to give a talk.

    • Dain April 28, 2017 at 12:38 pm | #

      “Charles Murray and Ann Coulter are the same as inviting Hitler to give a talk.”

      Whew, such a creepy window into what’s animating the left’s version of the Westboro Baptist Church. I mean shit, what’s a little concussion for some lady professor compared to getting HITLER to shut the hell up?

  6. Hangaku Gozen April 28, 2017 at 12:21 am | #

    The more I hear “freedom of speech” bantered by the right wing—and it’s especially ironic hearing it from Tea Party politicians and their followers, who shut down Town Hall meetings by Democrat and moderate Republican legislators in the early years of the Obama administration—the more I think about Herbert Marcuse’s “A Critique of Pure Tolerance,” published in 1965. Marcuse argued that tolerance is extended to minority groups only as long as they pose no threat to the state, and many of those groups will remain ineffectual as long as the corporate, military and established party system control the means to power. He also thought that freedom of speech is not a virtue in itself, since it allows for falsehoods and propaganda to be spread: if he was here today, he probably wouldn’t be surprised by the presence of “fake news” on the internet. When the old Cold War professor who taught our classical political thought course at one of the outlier campuses of the UC system noticed I had the book on my desk, he grabbed it and waved it before the class, denouncing Marcuse as “a threat to our democracy” and “Why did we ever let this man into this country?” Many, many years later, I found out this professor had worked for the CIA and aided the junta in the 1967 coup of the Greek government. It made me wonder how much misinformation he had disseminated through his lectures, which he made from the safety of a tenured full professorship. He was no friend to Greek democracy, another huge irony in the context of our course topic.

  7. Roquentin April 28, 2017 at 11:27 am | #

    For what it’s worth, the campus Republicans brought Ann Coulter to speak at Iowa State while I was an undergrad in retaliation for the Democrats bringing in Michael Moore. This was in 2003, during the height of the Bush years and the Iraq War. I didn’t like it, and certainly didn’t go, but it never occurred to me to try and shut it down. If anything, bringing in a ghoul like that to speak exposed the campus Republicans for the assholes they really were. I was way less left wing at that point, still trying to figure a lot of things out too. The contrast couldn’t have been clearer. I do remember my linguistics teacher handing out papers for the Socialist Workers Party after Moore spoke though.

    I’ve rarely felt more ambivalent about an issue than this one. “No platforming” just seems like a really bad idea to me in the bigger picture. I’m actually a little shocked at how few people on the left simply aren’t considering that this will likely be turned against them in the not too distant future, given how weak they are in the US politically. It also gives a bitter air of hypocrisy to things like the George Ciccarello-Maher controversy, and hollows out any talk of academic freedom.

  8. I offer this as materially relevant to the issue because our understanding of “free speech” turns upon our (unexamined) understanding of “liberal democracy”.

    It is from the online news and opinion journal called ‘ROAR’. It is an organ of anti-fascist activism and thought. I learned of the person being interviewed below from listening to WNYC’s weekly radio show ‘On The Media’. This is a transcript of that interview. Host Brook Gladstone interviews author and professor Mark Bray, historian of anti-fascist movements.


    It took me a while to find it. I only did so in stumbling upon it as I was actually looking for something else in the anti-fascist critical genre. I find myself forced to think of this interview when “free speech” involves the speech of fascists. (Yes, I do think Ms. Coulter is a fascist, not merely a “conservative”).

    I have not come to any conclusions yet, but what is explored below is now a permanent part of my thinking when I think of “free speech”.

    Also, given that the topic is “free speech” it would be interesting to consider the case of Steven Salaita (a story that I think is as much about labor relations at least as it is about speech) versus that of Ann Coulter, and the reactions to each and what is to be understood was the place of “free speech” in each of them.

    Prof. Robin says “something has changed”. My reading of recent history points my understanding in a particular direction as to what that “something” is. I am laying down a lot with the cut-and-paste below so I will simply suggest that that “something” is the dynamic tension between “liberal democracy” and its instrumentalities on the one side, and the shifts in real power relations on the other and how this tension plays out in the lived spheres of culture and politics. In light of the interview below, in other words, I offer that what has likely changed is the stakes.

    A boast: I met Corey in person at the Harper’s Forum on Trump! So, there!

    Anyway, here it is (again, apologies for posting so long an entry – but it is truly worth your time, especially since I did not write it!):

    For Antifa, No Platform for Fascism

    February 14, 2017February 14, 2017 Intervention, Interview

    To prevent ‘Alt-Right’ ideas from being taken seriously, the anti-fascist argument is that you don’t even let them start to have a platform in society.

    [Transcription of an interview with Mark Bray from WNYC’s On The Media – Feb. 10, 2017]

    Brooke Gladstone (WNYC): Those who subscribe to liberal values are supposed to “defend to the death the right, not only of their friends, but of their foes to speak their minds.” But anti-fascist protesters, or as they’re more commonly known, Antifa, follow a different path. Mark Bray is a visiting historian at Dartmouth College and the author of Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street. Mark, welcome to the show.

    Mark: Thanks for having me.

    Brooke: Tell me about the origins of anti-fascism – when it first began, I assume back in the 20s?

    Mark: Sure, well, anti-fascism is as old as… fascism. And, so, certainly in the 1920s and 1930s, as fascist regimes in Italy and Germany started to gain political prominence, a number of left political groupings—socialists, anarchists, communists—started to organize primarily self-defense units, initially, because part of the Nazi and the Italian fascist modus operandi was to organize paramilitary units that would terrorize their left opponents. So, the different communist parties and socialist parties would organize their own anti-fascist militias—one of which was called Anti-Fascist Action, the first group to use the name that’s now become common for anti-fascist organizations around the world, and the derivation of the shortened term, Antifa. Moving into the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War and the struggle against Franco spread anti-fascist organizing around the world. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, you have a re-birth of anti-fascist organizing, especially starting in Britain and Germany, as neo-Nazis started to target migrants and other marginalized communities. What we see today is the spread of that to the United States and beyond.

    Brooke: One of the most frequently cited actions in Antifa history is what’s referred to as the Battle of Cable Street, right? Talk about that, because it begins to set the stage for what we’re seeing now.

    Mark: It certainly does. In 1936, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Mosley, organizes a march of a couple thousand fascists through the East End of London which is a predominately Jewish neighborhood. In response to that, a whole group of leftists and Jewish residents of the area and other ethnic minorities organized a militant demonstration against this fascist march.

    Brooke: How many?

    Mark: Between 15 and 20 thousand people. This was a massive response. The police did what they could to defend the fascists from the anti-fascist demonstrators but ultimately were overpowered. The fascists had to cancel the march and essentially back down. So, this Battle of Cable Street is an emblematic example of anti-fascist politics put into practice, in terms of preventing fascists from marching through a Jewish area.

    Brooke: But not just that, right? Antifa is fundamentally against the right of fascists to speak and be heard.

    Mark: That’s entirely correct. So, in your open you mentioned the popular slogan that liberals have adopted from Voltaire that, “I may disagree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Anti-fascists fundamentally disagree with that premise. They argue that, given the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka, the destruction that Nazis have caused, that fascists, white supremacists shouldn’t be granted the right to express their ideas in public, in part because, they argue, had that been done earlier in the 1920s, the 1930s, we might have been able to bypass what ended up happening.

    Brooke: I get that as a tactic, but I’m still not sure how the philosophy of anti-fascism squares with the liberal values of free speech and open dialogue, and I guess it doesn’t.

    Mark: To some extent, it doesn’t. The question is: if we want to prevent something along the lines of what happened in the 1930s and 40s from happening again, how do we do it? And the liberal prescription for doing it is, essentially, free and open debate and dialogue, and if Nazis do something illegal then hopefully the police will stop them. Antifascists recognize that in the 1930s, 1940s, the police supported fascism. The fascists didn’t actually stage a revolution to come to power; they worked within the political system. And all the reasonable dialogue and debate that one could muster did not do the job. The argument is that, if we want such a horrific crime to not reoccur, it needs to be nipped in the bud, through a variety of tactics, but one of which is through violently disrupting Klan rallies, neo-Nazi speeches, and so forth. The other thing to remember is that anti-fascists identify as communists, as anarchists, as socialists, and want to organize for a revolutionary rupture with the prevailing political system, and that this is in-line with that. That’s also another reason why the two philosophies don’t quite jibe.

    Brooke: So, the liberal idea that in a marketplace of ideas the good ideas will rise to the top and the bad will drop out the bottom—they don’t buy that. You don’t buy that either?

    Mark: Well, unfortunately, terrible ideas have risen to the top throughout history. The liberal ideal is that the government is a referee in a game that all parties are invited to play. But, in actual fact, whenever left groups have become threatening, you get Red Scares, you get repression, you get COINTELPRO in the 1960s and 70s. And so, anti-fascists are arguing that we want a political content to how we look at speech and society which is drastically different from a liberal take, and that this entails shutting down the extreme manifestations of fascism and neo-Nazism. We need to recognize that this is not simply a question of whether a fascist government will come to power or not. (I’m skeptical that such an explicitly fascist government would come to be.) But that those who carry out hate crimes, they feel emboldened when their ideas become mainstream. So, the idea with anti-fascist politics is to prevent those ideas from having that opportunity.

    Brooke: But where does it stop? How are we different from our fascist opponents if we both subscribe to the idea that speech should be repressed when we regard the message to be dangerous?

    Mark: Germany has a prohibition against advocating for Nazis publicly. That doesn’t mean that Germany is a closed society where people can’t say whatever they want to say. You can have some prohibitions against speech without going all the way. In the context of an increasing number of hate crimes — the Southern Poverty Law Center cited over 800 such crimes immediately following the election of President Trump — the idea is that the people who carry out these crimes are listening to Richard Spencer speeches, going on Stormfront websites, imbibing this hateful doctrine, and that, to the degree that we can shut it down, we will have fewer people copy-catting them into attacking vulnerable populations. Most people would agree that it was acceptable in the 1930s and 1940s to organize armed resistance to the Nazi regime. The question is: how terrible does it have to be before that becomes legitimate? And the anti-fascist answer is: you need to nip it in the bud from the beginning.

    Brooke: You wrote that [link at the site] “liberals tend to examine issues of sexism or racism in terms of the question of belief, or what is in one’s heart. What is often overlooked in such conversations is that what one truly believes is sometimes much less important than what social constraints allow that person to articulate or act upon.”

    Mark: Right. So, the message that I’m trying to get across with that is that we have a certain set of societal taboos around what one can say and can’t say, and those have shifted over time. The words that are acceptable to use about different ethnic minorities, about women, about all sorts of groups, have shifted over time. The way that I think that we maintain a firm barrier against the ‘Alt-Right’ making racism okay again, making sexism okay again, is to really increase the social cost of presenting oppressive views out in public. So that when someone like Donald Trump says something sexist, we raise a ruckus, we disrupt business as usual, to make it so that it’s not acceptable to raise these views in public. Increase the social cost of that being able to be a public discourse, and push back through politics.

    Brooke: So, what does the American Antifa movement look like? What are its tactics?

    Mark: Under that specific banner, it is still relatively new and it’s finding its way. But a lot of anti-fascist or Antifa groups have formed in different cities around the United States. A lot of what they do is researching information on local white supremacists, who they are, where they live, where they work—sometimes pressuring their employers to get them fired, sometimes making sure that if they organize private events at local venues for white supremacists, they try to pressure the venue owner to try to cancel the event. So, that research and coalition-building with groups that are affected by various forms of fascist or white supremacist violence is a lot of what’s done. What gets more of the headlines is when the demonstrations come out onto the street. And so, as I’m sure you and a number of listeners are well aware, there have been high-profile incidences recently, such as in Berkeley [link at the site] of trying to physically shut down events, that has raised the profile of antifascism.

    Brooke: Physically confronting people, that’s part of the strategy, right?

    Mark: Yes, it is. It’s an illiberal politics of social revolutionism applied to fighting the far right.

    Brooke: In a recent article [link at the site] you advocated for “everyday anti-fascism,” that is, “anti-fascism that goes beyond punching Nazis.”

    Mark: Right. So, there are these glamorous topics—the video of Richard Spencer getting punched got millions and millions of shares. But if we want to think about how to create an anti-racist and anti-sexist society, we need to think about the everyday interactions that we have with each other at our workplaces, in our families, among our friends, and say: if someone is articulating a homophobic perspective, or prejudicial against immigrants, am I doing what I can to try to change their mind? Am I raising some sort of opposition or am I tacitly going along with it because I’m just letting it slide? So, everyday anti-fascism is not having any tolerance for intolerance. It’s not agreeing to disagree about hateful behavior. It’s saying, ‘look, if you’re going to be a part of my life, you need to shape up. You can’t treat people like this; you can’t say things like this.’ And it’s holding people accountable. And sometimes that means you need to end some friendships. Or it means maybe you should boycott the business down the street that’s been rude to Latino immigrants.

    Brooke: You say that our goal should be that, in twenty years, those who voted for Trump are too uncomfortable to share that in public.

    Mark: Raise the social cost of being a bigot. And sometimes that’s enough to make it so that someone doesn’t feel empowered enough to act on it in a way that puts people in jeopardy. But, there is a growing radical sector of the left that is simply not going to take any chances of the possibility of ‘Alt-Right’ politics becoming the mainstream. We have a Breitbart editor and white supremacist in the White House. We’re not that many steps away from a situation where a crisis unfolds, the Trump administration uses some sort of emergency authorization to centralize power. And so, if we want to make it so that ‘Alt-Right’ ideas are not taken seriously, the anti-fascist argument is that you don’t even let them start to have that platform in society. This is the norm of antifascist politics in Europe, where many people remember the legacies of living under the Franco regime, for example, in Spain, and see how it has affected them in their everyday life. It’s not something that classical liberal sympathizers will feel comfortable with…

    Brooke: Or as Jack Shafer refers to me: ‘public radio talk-show hosts.’

    Mark: Maybe, maybe. But that [anti-fascism] is a growing response to the white supremacist presence that has grown in alarming ways in our country.

  9. jonnybutter May 1, 2017 at 11:35 pm | #

    Very interesting Donald. Thanks for posting this.

    I agree with Bray that it’s important to raise the social cost of being a fascist. I just can’t swallow the idea of the usual governments outlawing speech. I have two objections.

    One is that forbidding something tends to inflate or glorify it; it invites rebellion. I’d say the US drug war – particularly pot prohibition – illustrates this phenom very well. That’s not a sufficient objection, but I think it’s a reasonable one.

    I would also worry that a gov. prohibition on speech/thought might not be grounded in durable principle. I notice that Germany can prohibit nazism, but be utterly neoliberal – i.e. exploitative – all the same. This doesn’t prove that such a prohibition isn’t necessary, but it does show that the problem isn’t speech. Fascism is apparently a product of liberal democracy itself, so prohibiting speech is just treating a symptom, and you can easily imagine the treatment being not worth it.

    If you establish a durable government based on humanistic and radically democratic principle – real socialism – then ppl can decide to prohibit viral hate speech. Seems dicey to do the second w/out the first. But maybe I’m just stuck in my civil libertarian ways.

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