The Progressive Argument for Free Speech

A reader sent me a link to this critique, sort of, of free speech in the Daily Princetonian.  I say "sort of" because I thought the thinking and logic of the article was pretty muddled, so much so that I am not even totally sure what point they are trying to make, exactly, though it clearly is meant as a critique of Conservatives defending free speech.   Frankly I was pretty depressed that a Princeton philosophy major couldn't write in such a way as to make even their thesis clear.

Anyway, the comments are closed and I still feel enough of a connection to Princeton that I wanted to at least try to engage the students, so I wrote this back:

I didn't find your Daily Princetonian article of 9/25 particularly compelling, in part because you don't engage with defining an alternate regime if you toss out free speech.  "we don't need to hear any more form group x or y" is a fine policy for setting up your personal Twitter block list, but how does it work in a democracy?  Everyone assumes when they advocate for such controls that they and their fellow believers will be the ones controlling, but do you really believe that?  After the last election?  What if a President Lindsey Graham (god forbid) were to take your rules advocating for getting rid of hate speech and define hate speech as advocating for abortion rights?  The ACLU didn't famously defend the speech rights of the American Nazi party because it liked Nazis -- it defended them because they were justifiably afraid that the precedent of speech limitation might someday be used to restrict speech far more dear to them.

This is why I think Progressives are making a huge mistake in opposing free speech, on their own terms.

Speech codes are written by and for the privileged.  They are written by the oppressor to shut up the oppressed.  George Wallace did not need the First Amendment, black kids trying to go to the University of Alabama needed it.  So the progressive opposition to free speech (e.g BLM shouting down the ACLU over free speech) is either 1) completely misguided, as the oppressed need these protections the most or 2) an acknowledgement that progresives and their allies are now the privileged, that they are the ones in power, and that they wish to use speech codes as they have always been used, to shut up those not in power.  In our broader society the situation is probably #1 but on university campuses we may have evolved to situation #2.

The folks who wrote the first amendment were thinking about this dynamic.  Had they instead decided to write a speech code, it likely would not have been good.  It might well have banned the criticism of slavery, for example, if Jefferson and his Virginians had anything to say about it.  But they didn't create a speech code, thank god.  In fact, I am trying to think of any time in history I would have been comfortable with the ruling elite locking down the then-current norms of their society into a speech code, and I can't think of one.  What gives you confidence, vs. the evidence of all history, that you can do so today with good results?


  1. The_Big_W:

    Ok, I'm looking at the article and..... the first paragraph is so damned bad that its jarring.

    The question at the end "what is free speech?" Just washes you over with that nearly vomit inducing feeling that an idiot progressive millennial quisling is now going to lecture US on what free speech really is. What a pompous ass.

    Well, even though my gut feel is, don't even bother to finish reading this piece, I will get back to it and hope I can persevere through the drivel....

  2. The_Big_W:

    Well, dammit, the second paragraph is full on complete condescending progressive drivel. I'm out.

    The kid who wrote this is a flaming moron...

  3. GoneWithTheWind:

    The left, (not surprisingly because the left is Marxist socialist communist) believes in free speech for "me" but not for thee.

    The left lost the discussion of ideas decades ago. They cannot tell the truth about their ideas and they cannot defend what they say be it either the truth or their propaganda, so they must instead stop the discussion. They do this by shutting up the other side and accusing them of all manner of social crimes (racism, sexism, capitalism, etc.) and yelling over them if they try to speak. Percussion wins all arguments.

  4. jimc5499:

    A long time ago I took a Psych class in college. We discussed a thing called "Transference" where a person or group accuses another person or group of doing certain things that the accusing person or group are actually doing. This is about the best example of it that I have ever seen.

  5. Agammamon:

    Someone's getting taken off the alumni get together list. But not the 'beg for donations from alumni' list, of course.

  6. jdt:

    This is where I had to stop reading:

    If conservative arguments were strong, they would be convincing, and if they were convincing, they would not meet political opposition. If conservative arguments were strong, they would stand without desperate appeals to the idea of “free speech.”


  7. joe:

    Reminds me of 1992 when Hillary was stating on the campaign trail - that Bills administration would be the most honest and transparent in history

  8. DanSmith:

    Ryan may be a philosophy major but his minor seems to be Critical Theory. I imagine his dorm room has posters of Marx, Lenin and Che.

  9. CC:

    But of course without free speech one can never be exposed to conservative arguments, which is what they want.

  10. Ike Pigott:

    This argument, if taken literally, leads to the following postulate:

    "Any argument that meets opposition is automatically weak and flawed and wrong."

    How in the f--k does a kid like this get into Princeton???

  11. me:

    The regressive argument re: free speech appears to be that anything that is different from the tribal opinion is fake news and that fake news outlets should be losing their licenses, I am not convinced that's any better.

  12. Zachriel:

    Coyote: I say "sort of" because I thought the thinking and logic of the article was pretty muddled, so much so that I am not even totally sure what point they are trying to make, exactly, though it clearly is meant as a critique of Conservatives defending free speech.

    The essay is a bit muddled, but not indecipherable. The key is that opposition may include "disinvitations, protests, and boycotts", and that conservative calls for free speech often attempts to preclude these valid forms of opposition.

  13. ErikTheRed:

    Well, clearly your CIS-white brain cannot comprehend the philosophical juggernaut that is modern Princetonian thought. /sarc

  14. Matthew Slyfield:

    "What gives you confidence, vs. the evidence of all history, that you can do so today with good results?"


  15. Scott Robinson:

    Probably wrote a similar essay.

  16. rxc:

    "What gives you confidence, vs. the evidence of all history, that you can do so today with good results?"

    The same logic that says that socialism is certain to work, because the theory says so, in spite of 160 years of failure, in all cultures, at all scales, across societies with all sorts of different cultures and resources.

    "We will do it right next time, or else."

  17. Pave Low John:

    "Because, shut up, you homophobic fascist."

    I wish I could say that the sentence I wrote was just snarky hyperbole, but that really is the retort you receive when debating some people these days (especially on college campuses). I'm old enough to remember when liberals were at least the side that seemed to value intelligence and witty banter. Not anymore.....

  18. Pave Low John:

    To quote Pauli, that sad excuse for an essay isn't right; it's not even wrong. That's how bad progressive thought is these days, it doesn't even rise to the level of reaching the wrong conclusions....

  19. John M. Chludzinski:

    Reading about this Prince Op-Ed and the discussion surrounding it, I get sadder and sadder thinking about what my late, great university has become - a haven for preening, sneering arrogant twerps that cannot make a rational argument. I am so tired of the students and alumni who are just parroting the progressive victimology du jour. Class of 1985.