The Scandal of Free Speech
A year from now none but the unfeint of heart will still be with Charlie.
By Bret Stephens
Jan. 12, 2015 6:53 p.m. ET
Last May, sex-advice columnist Dan Savage gave a talk at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics in which he used a term so infamous that it caused members of the audience to walk out “in a state of distress.” Later, a petition was put forward to demand that the institute apologize “for failing to stop” Mr. Savage from using the term, and to “assert a commitment to preventing the use of slurs and hate speech in the future.”
The word in question? To adapt the old joke: I could tell you but they’re going to kill me.
Well, OK, here goes. The word is “tranny,” meaning a transgender, or transsexual, or transvestite person. So hideously offensive is this word nowadays that, when I arrived at an Institute of Politics event a few weeks later, a group called Queers United in Power—or QUIP, minus the humor—held a protest outside and handed out fliers denouncing (without spelling out) the use of the “T word.” I had to ask around to find out just what the word was; I got the answer in a whisper.
Attention all of you logicians of Hyde Park: If words are to be forbidden, must they not first be known?
I was reminded of this small episode following last week’s massacre of journalists in France, after which it has become fashionable to “be” Charlie Hebdo. Sorry, but QUIP is not Charlie Hebdo: QUIP is al Qaeda with a different list of moral objections and a milder set of criminal penalties. Otherwise, like al Qaeda, it’s the same unattractive mix of quavering personal sensitivity and totalitarian demands for ideological conformity.
To which one can only reply: tranny-tranny-tranny; Muhammad-Muhammad-Muhammad; de-da-da-da. Free speech—at least speech that is truly free—is always a scandal to someone or other. Chill out and deal with it.
But deal with it we won’t. People forget just how radical is the idea of free speech. For more that 2,000 years—between, say, the executions of Socrates and Giordano Bruno —the story of the West was the story of killing blasphemers. Enlightenment began when we started to repent the practice; modernity survives under the shield of the First Amendment and equivalent laws in the free world. But the arrows always keep coming.
I doubt the Charlie Hebdo murders will do much to shake loose the array of campus speech codes or change the incentive structures for their enforcers in sundry administrative offices and multicultural-affairs departments.
I doubt the European Union will end its campaign to enforce the “right to be forgotten,” which requires companies like Google to delete publicly available personal information—like newspaper articles containing references to past criminal convictions or other embarrassing details—so that people may more easily escape the shadow of their own past.
I doubt the campaign at the United Nations to proscribe “Islamophobia,” or outlaw the so-called “defamation of religions” (including stupid religions), will abate lest it serve as a pretext for further assaults on free speech.
And so on. Instead, in the months ahead the healthy absolutism of “Je Suis Charlie” will inevitably yield to ever-more-compromised opinions, like free speech being a right but not the only right, or sonorous invocations of the importance of “dialogue” and “respect.” A year from now, none but the unfaint of heart will still be with Charlie.
Does that mean the terrorists will win? Watching Sunday’s mass demonstrations in Paris, I began to worry that they already have. Within the space of two days, French society seemed to move from undiluted recognition of the barbarism of the enemies of freedom to a more anodyne celebration of solidarity and togetherness. I sincerely hope I’m wrong.
As it happens, a day before the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the University of Chicago released a report from its “Committee on Freedom of Expression,” led by law Prof. Geoffrey Stone. The committee was appointed “in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.” After Charlie Hebdo, they are only more apposite:
“The University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. . . .
“As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”
I’m glad to see at least one university in the United States that still stands for something. Happier still that I’m an alum. Send your kids there; all QUIPs aside, they might yet turn out all right.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.