The Right’s Profound Misunderstanding of Free Speech 5 March 2006Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Political Commentary, Politics.
It's no surprise that the ever-charming David Horowitz has latched on to Colorado High School teacher Jay Bennish's being placed on administrative leave after comparing the Bush administration with Hitler's. But Horowitz' recent rant on MSNBC reveals paranoia and a willful refusal to engage in rational debate, as he asserts that 50,000 tenure-track or tenured professors in America are "terrorist sympathizers" who must be stopped. Mediamatters.org has done a great job of addressing the worst of his errors, but I find myself growing exhausted with this wingnut right-wing obsession with the academy and its basis in a faulty understanding of the mechanics of free speech.
Horowitz is the man behind the "Academic Bill of Rights" which argues that students should be allowed to say anything they want in class without being "censored." Unfortunately, this goes against the very nature of education, not because it's political, but because it assumes that all opinions are of equal value. Unlike a Presidential debate or campaign advertisement, classroom speech must be rigorously scrutinized. The purpose of academic speech is to move toward the truth, to analyze objects of study critically (that is, to seek to understand how and why something works, substantiating one's findings with evidence), and to eliminate as you move along ideas that do not stand up to the scrutiny. Even in a literature class, in discussions of aesthetics, arguments must be substantiated and have the force of rationality. Academic discourse is not a free-for-all. [For an excellent print-debate on these issues between David Horowitz and Stanley Fish and an accompanying article, see the Chronicle of Higher Education, February 13, 2004.] Again let me repeat, all ideas and opinions are not of equal value.
Indeed, this is where the right-wing gets it all wrong. Individuals and groups like Horowitz's argue that if they make a statement and someone argues with them, it's a violation of their right to free speech. In other words, the right-wing wants a kind of free speech where anyone can say anything they want [with them so far], but where no one gets to respond [whoa Nelly!]. That kind of free speech is useless to society and to democracy. While it is true that a (radical) free speech allows an individual or group to say, print, or express any sentiment they want to; it does not and, indeed, should not prevent other individuals and groups from responding and engaging. The right-wing often frames this error by then claiming that there are "two sides" to any issue, such that "both sides" must always be allowed to speak. Aside from the obvious absurdity that all issues boil down into some easy dichotomy of ideas, the problem here is that it assumes that "both sides'" opinions are of equal value. Merely to state "both sides'" position is not the end of free speech. In politics, the sides must respond to each other; in journalism, the sides must be scrutinized for error. To repeat, scrutiny is not a violation of free speech; and because all ideas are not of equal value, all ideas must be scruitinized.
John S. Mill explained the basic usefullness of free speech over 100 years ago in On Liberty, where he argued that the ultimate social good of free speech is that it frees society up to have complete and profound exploration of any topic or idea, to push collectively our ideas and thinking toward truth. Mill believed that ultimately this would lead society closer and closer to truth, or in practical matters to the best possible social policy given the information at hand. This is why he believed that nothing except harm should ever infringe on the right to speech. John Dewey argued that this was an on-going, never-ending process, where truth per se is never acheived and where the best policy is always itself a topic of speech and debate even after its implemented. In this way, free speech enables socially and politically the scientific assumption that there is always more to learn. But for both Dewey and Mill, this process only works if people engage each other in rational debate, if they respond to each other's ideas, poke at them and explore their implications. Only through debate and dialogue does the social discourse move toward its end-in-view of truth.
And so the right, and especially Horowitz, gets free speech precisely wrong. In the public sphere, anyone may express whatever idea they want (barred only by the harm principle), but then others have an obligation as citizens to respond. It is absolutely not a violation of free speech for someone to argue back and call 'bullshit' on your irrational, unsubstantiated ideas, or to add facts or arguments to move or change your opinion or to prevent your wrong-headed ideas from becoming social policy.
And more to the point here, students may express any idea they want to in the classroom, but they must do so with argumentation and giving rational and substantial evidence for their positions. Then others, classmates and professors, are obligated by academic responsibility to argue back. Indeed, one of the primary roles of the professor is to guide students through the process of learning to carry on such debates.
The one area where both right and left need to rethink the way they debate is that of values. Values obtain in most issues of social and cultural import and must therefore be as rigorously examined as any point of fact would be. Value propositions are always that: propositions. Values should never be merely given; they should always be open to debate and revaluation. Value propositions should be made through rational argument and substantiated with evidence every bit as much as any other kind of proposition. It is both legitimate and necessary to engage each other in value debates and to criticize the value propositions behind other kinds of arguments. This is an area where both academicians and politicians alike fall short of having useful debate.
 Okay, okay, it's a hyperbolic position at best. But John Stewart notwithstanding, there are rational and legitimate comparisons to be made among historic regimes. To argue that a comparison with Hitler is out of line merely because it is exagerated is not a rebuttal, but a refusal to engage. In other words, while George W. is obviously not Hitler, it is a legitimate enterprise to compare present democratically elected administrations with historic ones to see what the similarities and differences are. And in the case of Bennish's statement to his class, it was an area of legitimate discussion to ask if the Bush administration is functioning in ways similar to the Hitler administration, namely in secrecy and through a propagandistic PR machine.