A leaflet is seen stapled to a message board near Sproul Hall on the University of California at Berkeley. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)

Samantha Harris is the vice president of policy research for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Censorship as a way to protect free speech? Not so fast.

Ann Coulter announced Wednesday that she will not be speaking at the University of California at Berkeley on Thursday, out of concern for her safety. This is the latest in a series of incidents, at Berkeley and elsewhere, in which violence or threats of violence have shut down controversial speech on college campuses.

At the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where I work, we have been increasingly hearing this kind of mob censorship justified as a protection of the right to free speech, rather than a violation of it. A recent editorial in Wellesley’s student newspaper, for example, argued that “[s]hutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech.”


Samantha Harris (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)

New York University professor and vice provost Ulrich Baer presented a lengthy exposition of this increasingly popular — and dangerous — argument in Monday’s New York Times. Baer wrote that certain “topics, such as claims that some human beings are by definition inferior to others, or illegal or unworthy of legal standing, are not open to debate because such people cannot debate them on the same terms.” He said that protests against such speech — including the recent violent protests against Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos — “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship.”

Under this view, some enlightened group of people, claiming a monopoly on the truth, decide which viewpoints are permissible and which must be shut out because they “invalidate the humanity” of others. In Baer’s case, these impermissible views include not only Holocaust denial and white supremacy, but also opposition to illegal immigration and transgender rights, among other things.

The Wellesley editorial defending mob censorship, for its part, appeared in response to a speech at Wellesley by Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis — a liberal feminist who has criticized what she views as a culture of “sexual paranoia” on campus.

Baer argues that we have undergone a “generational shift” in which people’s lived experiences and personal narratives are now properly given the same weight and legitimacy as objective argument. He posits that when people are required to “produce evidence of their own legitimacy” in response to arguments to the contrary, they are effectively shut out of the marketplace of ideas.

But Baer assumes, quite dangerously, that we can know in advance whose stories and experiences are “legitimate” and whose are not.

What about, for example, the lived experiences of genuine dissenters from marginalized groups — people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose arguments about the treatment of women in Islam have been the frequent target of calls for censorship because of their perceived insensitivity to Muslims, though Hirsi Ali was herself raised as a Muslim and subjected to female genital mutilation?

Would Baer and others like him consider her criticism of Islam’s treatment of women to be a legitimate personal narrative, or is it one of those topics that should be off-limits because reckoning with Hirsi Ali’s argument might force other Muslims to defend their humanity? Or is it both? And if it is both, how do we decide — and who decides — which aspect should prevail?

Down the rabbit hole we go.

And what about people like Jonathan Rauch, a gay man who thinks that unfettered free speech is actually critical to minority rights? What if Rauch — and not those who believe that minority rights require the suppression of “hate speech” — is correct?

In a 2013 article for Reason magazine, Rauch described growing up gay in an era of terrible prejudice, and observed how the right to free speech was critical to the success of the gay rights movement.

He wrote about the early pioneers of the gay rights movement, who talked about and argued their positions — positions that many people had never heard before — with those who disagreed, and how this lead not only to “empirical learning” but also to “moral learning” as well:

You cannot be gay in America today and doubt that moral learning is real and that the open society fosters it. And so … I feel more confident than ever that the answer to bias and prejudice is pluralism, not purism. The answer, that is, is not to try to legislate bias and prejudice out of existence or to drive them underground, but to pit biases and prejudices against each other and make them fight in the open. That is how, in the crucible of rational criticism, superstition and moral error are burned away.

John Stuart Mill wrote in “On Liberty” that “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” Those who argue that some viewpoints must be suppressed because they diminish others assume precisely this kind of infallibility. They believe not only that they alone know which arguments are too dangerous to be heard, but also that they alone can speak for entire communities of marginalized people (assuming, quite patronizingly, that such communities have one monolithic opinion).

By choosing censorship rather than Rauch’s “crucible of rational criticism,” they hand their ideological opponents a devastating weapon.

The argument advanced by Baer and others has become increasingly popular not only among academics, but also among students seeking to silence their political adversaries on campus.

It is an argument that many people find compelling — but censorship is always alluring, especially when it flatters the censor’s individual morality.

If we allow a group of self-appointed arbiters of truth to determine the parameters of legitimate discussion on campus and beyond, these guardians of virtuous thinking will inevitably abuse their power, threatening democracy and obscuring our comprehension of the world beyond our nose.