‘Professor, why are you so conservative about free speech?” Several students have asked me versions of this question recently, which speaks volumes about universities right now. I’m a liberal and a Democrat: I’m pro-choice, pro-ObamaCare and vehemently anti-Trump. But I’m also a strong supporter of free speech, which marks me as a right-winger on campus.
That’s because my fellow liberals have largely abandoned free speech to conservatives. Turn on Fox News, and you’ll see “cancel culture” decried in bright lights. But in the liberal press—and most of all in the liberal academy—free speech has become a rhetorical third rail. Sure, we’ll invoke it when Republican state lawmakers try to ban critical race theory. But in our own house, free speech is seen increasingly as a tool of repression rather than liberation.
Here’s how the argument usually goes: White people love free speech, because it lets them say any hateful thing they want. But the real burden of it falls on racial minorities, who are forced to absorb constant slights and slurs against their very existence. That’s why we need to police racist speech: to protect its victims.
The problem is that people will inevitably differ about which speech qualifies as racist. The term has become our own scarlet letter, an all-purpose way to prohibit ideas you dislike. So we need to defend the free-speech rights of everyone, even avowed racists. The best response to hateful speech is to raise your own voice against it, not to ban it.
Once you decide to swing the censorship hammer against racist speech, almost anything can look like a nail. A business-school professor who discusses a Chinese word that sounds like an American slur. A law-school professor who says that her African-American students underachieve academically. A math professor who criticizes diversity training. And so on.