The path of free expression is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the Donald and the tyranny of social-justice warriors.
Donald Trump made headlines advocating “open” libel laws, promising, “when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them…when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money.”
To Trump’s chagrin, it is difficult to prove libel. It requires demonstrating that a statement is deceitful with malice aforethought – that the writer knowingly lied to ruin someone’s reputation. The purpose of this restriction is protecting free expression – specifically, the right of writers to make controversial statements, sarcastically mock, and even be embarrassingly wrong about public figures. Stacking the deck in court against politicians is its exact and valuable function, the cries of thin-skinned overgrown brats notwithstanding.
With that in mind, look at the language in Trump’s statement. He never claims the attacks against him are intentionally deceitful. He only once said “false.” He mostly bemoans journalists writing negative things about him. Of course, like Indy shooting the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark, coming up with true negatives on Trump is so easy, it’s exasperating. Trump would criminalize such dissent by ensuring that criticism with a shred of deniability, such as of his sham “university,” would merit a lawsuit. This is in accordance with his authoritarianism, and tops the Brobdingnagian pile of reasons to reject his candidacy.
Recently, Trump met the mirror image of his own censoriousness in a campus clash between his supporters and language-policing protesters. Reading about this was like watching USC and Michigan play each other in football: I was just rooting for injuries.
Last week at Emory University, protestors reacted to the chalking of “Trump 2016” at various locations by claiming to be “traumatized,” with one saying, “I legitimately feared for my life. I thought we were having a KKK rally on campus.” The term “special snowflake” is often used derisively in reference to our generation’s exaggerated self-esteem and hypersensitivity. If “Trump 2016” makes you fear for your life, you make a snowflake look like a titanium-encased diamond woven into a bulletproof vest.
The protestors made sure to emphasize that they were not advocating direct censorship in the sense of banning support for Trump, but they did accuse the chalkers of intimidation and demand expansions to the university’s “bias incident reporting” apparatus and response – which means the reporting of offensive speech to the administration, who can then decide whether to enroll offending students in re-education diversity training. That this would produce a chilling effect on speech amounting to soft censorship should be obvious, but for student protestors, who straight-facedly argue that words constitute violence and there exists some “right not to be offended,” provided you have the proper sensibilities, that is the point.
It is worth pointing out that these students have the right to make demands, and Emory is a private university that can enforce whatever rules it pleases. However, directly discouraging messaging for a presidential candidate, who unfortunately commands support from a wide spectrum of views, contradicts the spirit of free inquiry at the heart of university education. It reminds me of the protestor who, in reaction to a Brown University debate between feminist Jessica Valenti and libertarian Wendy McElroy on sexual assault, sought a “safe space,” complete with – not a joke – “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies,” because, “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.”
Well, we can’t have that.
Part of the purpose of college is being confronted – “bombarded,” even – by ideas challenging one’s beliefs. This is how we grow. It prepares us for a lifetime of listening and discussion. It only works if one learns to argue intelligently, with reasoning, rather than running to the hug box and engaging in histrionics to attract sympathy. There are no safe spaces after college. There are no administrators to tell you everything is alright and no mean people will say their mean opinions.
One counter-argument is that because the First Amendment only restrains the government, offensive speech can and does have negative consequences in civil society, and a college choosing to impose similar consequences, such as a loss of financial support, on, say, a fraternity caught singing racist songs, is not censorship. Fair enough, but it does not grant carte blanche for language policing. The idea that support for a presidential candidate, or contrarian arguments about a widely discussed phenomenon based on academic research, are anywhere near a student organization endorsing lynching betrays superhuman insularity.
College students are adults. They do not need to be protected from opinions. When they graduate, they should be prepared to defend their own. To this end, discourse in college should be more free and open than in wider society, not less. Protecting students turns college into an extension of childhood.
Free speech is precious because it guarantees our right, whether we are Trump supporters or social-justice activists, to advocate proposed figures and policies. By the same token, it prevents either of those groups from seeking retribution against opponents. On campuses, it allows the exploration of all sides of an issue in search of truth, rather than political goals. This is why it is inconvenient to unprincipled political actors on both sides, and why it is vitally important to protect it from all of them.