Free speech and protest

May 1, 2009

THE PAST several weeks have seen two highly visible and controversial protests against right-wing speakers on American college campuses.

On April 9, at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, approximately 45 protesters met academic witch-hunter David Horowitz with heckles, chants and posters that held him accountable for his hate-filled rhetoric and cynical campaign against left-wing academics. While Horowitz completed his speech, he frequently baited protesters, calling them "little fascists," and threatened them with arrest.

Several days later, on April 13, 150 protesters at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill staged a demonstration against a speech by anti-immigrant zealot and former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo. He was hosted by the chillingly named student group "Youth for Western Civilization." UNC police forced protesters out of the building with pepper spray, while Tancredo opted not to speak.

The fallout from these two protests has been a troubling confluence of right- and left-wing figures who have chastised protesters for violating the speakers' "free speech."

While such a response from the right is predictable, opposition from figures who would otherwise forcefully oppose the hateful ideas of Horowtiz, Tancredo and their ilk represents the need for an important debate on the left regarding protest and free speech.

Shortly after his UT appearance, Horowitz wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal titled "Campus leftists don't believe in free speech." Similarly, right-winger Michelle Malkin described the Tancredo protest as an indication that, in the "age of Obama, there's no room for...nuance and inconvenient truths."

However, reactionaries were not the only ones chastising protesters who chose to confront Horowitz and Tancredo. A slew of liberals and leftists--most of whom agree that Horowitz is leading a deceptive and dangerous crusade against progressive professors, and that Tancredo represents the worst extremes of anti-immigrant bigotry--rushed to these speakers' defense on the grounds that the protesters were violating the spirit of free speech.

For example, in an editorial for the Daily Texan, UT's student newspaper, Mary Tuma wrote, "I'm vehemently opposed to conservative author Horowitz's views, but as a proponent of free speech, I restrained myself from protesting his right to advocate his beliefs."

Others at UT claimed that, by confronting Horowitz, protesters were unwittingly giving him the attention he craved. Janel Beckham, a Chapel Hill activist, wrote in an open letter to her "activist brothers and sisters" that the fallout surrounding the Tancredo protest constituted "a moment to pause and reconsider how we choose to perform our politics."

Although she believes the Youth for Western Civilization is "a group that traffics in hate," she continued, "Activism must involve more than the assumption of a moral and ethical high ground. We must critically and intellectually engage those with whom we disagree."

THESE ARE but two examples of a wide range of criticisms coming from liberal and left sectors following these protests. Such a position, however, mischaracterizes the role of free speech in contentious politics, and dangerously underestimates the threats associated with speakers like David Horowitz and Tom Tancredo.

First, precisely who is posing a threat to free speech in these situations? If Horowitz had his way, campus police guarding each exit would have dragged out the protesters. Yet he had the audacity to call the group "little fascists" when, ironically, he was the one leveraging armed cops.

The situation was even grimmer at Chapel Hill. As Students for a Democratic Society documented in a public statement following the protest, campus police shoved protesters against a wall, sprayed pepper spray directly into demonstrators' faces, and taunted them with tasers.

A subsequent protest involving another anti-immigrant speaker drew fewer protesters, but far more police. Not only were there six on-site arrests, but several students were arrested after the event, because police spotted them on surveillance tapes. While the protests that met these two hateful speakers undoubtedly made their campus visits a little less pleasant, at no point were they prevented from practicing free expression. The same cannot be said for the demonstrators.

In addition to misrepresenting the balance of power at these protests, liberal and left critics of confrontational protest create a moral equivalency between bigots and those who seek to confront them. By focusing so narrowly on the rights of such speakers to spew their hateful messages, these commentators sidestep the urgent need to critique such messages.

David Horowitz's long campaign against radical and progressive intellectuals has begun to seriously threaten the careers of respected academics like Norman Finkelstein, Ward Churchill, Nagesh Rao and Loretta Capeheart. It is nothing less than an assault on actual academic freedom.

Tancredo is but one of many anti-immigration zealots who helps nurture a climate of hate that further forces immigrant families--both documented and undocumented--into the shadows, making them more vulnerable to exploitation and violence.

The left has a stake in saying, plainly and boldly, that such views are dead wrong and incompatible with the aims of a just society. Horowitz and Tancredo are not interested in debating us, and we should harbor no illusions about rationally engaging such hate-filled rhetoric. They are solely interested in spreading their message of hate to anybody who will listen.

If we are seriously invested in the ideas of open debate and free thought, not to mention safety and justice for all, we should be resolute in our desire to confront such speakers wherever they are. There is far too much at stake to do otherwise. As Billie Murray, a graduate student in Communication Studies at UNC, powerfully wrote, "Why...should we be tolerant of a rhetoric that in no way promotes the goals of a democracy and that creates a culture of fear and hate? Hate speech silences free speech."

Since the election of Barack Obama as our first African American President, the prospects for struggle and change are greater than in many of our lifetimes--certainly mine. However, amid an economic crisis that is taking a devastating toll on working people, the risk that the kind of putrid hate David Horowitz and Tom Tancredo seek to stir-up will find expression in the anger of ordinary people is quite real.

For this, and many other reasons, activists have a compelling interest in abandoning romantic notions of dialogue with those that hate, choosing instead to confront speakers like Horowitz and Tancredo precisely because we long for a more just society in which free expression is not only a lofty ideal, but a reality.
Bryan McCann, Austin, Texas

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