The First Amendment guarantees everyone the right to free speech and express their opinions, no matter how abhorrent or “problematic.” In the wake of Charlottesville and fearmongering over the rise of the so-called alt-right, The Washington Post published a piece Tuesday by history professor Jennifer Delton calling for liberals to reconsider their stance on free speech.
Delton argues that the same right that gives her the privilege of expressing opinions on the Post is a dangerous “political weapon,” which she claims is being used as “part of a strategy, deployed first by conservatives and perfected by the alt-right.”
Crediting Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer with popularizing the alt-right movement, Delton claims that these opponents of “liberal cultural hegemony,” which “they think, is perpetrated in the United States by the mainstream media and on college campuses” are baiting universities into weaponizing free speech against itself.
She acknowledges that academic institutions brought the hammer down on themselves by extreme speech policing and tacit support for protesters who shut down speakers like Yiannopoulos, but claims that the “alt-right and conservatives are using ‘free speech’ to attack and destroy colleges and universities,” which she argues promote “different variations of the internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism that marks the thinking of educated elites of both parties.”
To curtail these activities, the Post contributor, who is only able to share her views on the publication thanks to her right to free speech, is calling on liberals to recall the 1940s, when they “were forced to sidestep First Amendment absolutism to combat a political foe.” She refers to the age when New Deal liberals purged communists from U.S. politics.
Citing New Deal liberals and unionists like President Truman, Hubert Humphrey, and other anticommunists, Delton praises their efforts to disenfranchise communists or communist sympathizers from their unions, organizations, jobs, and universities.
“They did so because communists were a disruptive force that was baiting and dividing the liberal left,” she says, validating these actions with arguments by liberal activist Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who said that communists hid behind the First Amendment to attack liberal democracy.
These arguments later became points of contention for liberals, who acknowledged how it opened the door for McCarthyism, allowing the Red Scare to flourish for decades and the subsequent impact it had on free expression and creative agency in the entertainment industry.
Delton states that the supposed rise of the alt-right, the inauguration of Donald Trump into office, and the “actions of alt-right provocateurs” adds merit to the legitimacy of the arguments of old, if only to protect marginalized people.
“Quoting Voltaire is not going to preserve anyone’s liberties — least of all those populations most vulnerable to vicious racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic attacks,” she says.
Delton concedes that the reason the right has “been able to so effectively exploit ‘free speech’ is because campuses have become places where the free exchange of ideas has been curbed by peer pressure, self-policing and a self-righteous call-out culture.”
However, she fails to offer solutions to dealing with outrage culture and the proponents of “social justice,” whose policing of speech demands dissent.
Ironically, Delton does not mention how contemporary student activists and progressive academics who share her views on ending free speech are vocal proponents of socialism and communism. These same individuals are largely in control of college politics, and even hold sway in corporations as powerful as Google, whose actions support the curtailment of the free speech to restrict classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives from airing their views.
Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken media critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.
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