Free expression under attack...in the U.S.
The bloody jihadist attacks in Paris a week ago generated a lot of talk about free speech. But it's important to understand that freedom of expression is under assault here in America, too. The attacks aren't carried out by gun-wielding fanatics. Rather, they are carried out through protest, legal action and government fiat:
Today’s threats to free speech are more likely to come from “social justice warriors” on the left who say they are defending the feelings of those deemed to be crushed under the weight of supposedly systemic racism and sexism. The movement is most evident on college campuses. Twenty years ago, the ACLU inveighed against the rise of campus speech “codes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.” Whatever the intention, the ACLU argued (and still does), such rules end up policing and punishing thought, which should be anathema anywhere but especially at a university. As the student rights group (FIRE) documents on an appallingly regular basis, the ease with which colleges infringe on expression and association is unceasing.
More recently, under the guise of protecting victims of sexual assault, the federal government tied higher education funding to creating on-campus legal proceedings that stripped defendants of due process rights. The silencing of defendants’ rights under federal guidelines is so egregious that even the overwhelmingly progressive faculty of Harvard Law School called the government’s actions beyond the pale. Then there’s the move toward “trigger warnings,” mandatory announcements that reading and discussing material such as The Great Gatsby may cause post-traumatic stress disorders, and the creation of a whole new range of offensive and thus actionable speech called “micro-aggressions.”
Before we wag our fingers too aggressively at the leftists on campus for attempting to criminalize just about every form of expression, conservatives have also strayed badly on the issue:
Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, it tended to be the right, especially the religious right, that sought to shut down art and expression that it found distasteful, obscene, and irreverent. That Jesse Helms harped on the minimal taxpayer funding underwriting Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ barely disguised conservatives’ larger game in shutting down art they found sacrilegious or distasteful. But it wasn’t just the right, or conservatives, who were forever being literally and figuratively pissed off. In 1989, when a student at Chicago’s Art Institute created an exhibit that invited the audience to step on an American flag, the Senate voted 97-0 to criminalize putting flags on the floor or ground.
We are under no obligation to condone speech we find offensive. The proper response isn't criminalizing such speech, but push back against it with more and better speech (and ridicule...the left really can't handle that). So far, we have avoided the spectacle of watching our fellow citizens being murdered because they said something offensive, off-color or downright rude. In that regard, we're truly fortunate. But we must never forget that the forces trying to undermine what we can say right here at home are still at work, using their favored tools, to muzzle speech they don't like.