Where Do We Liberals Really Stand When It Comes to Free Speech?

From Wikipedia, a Théodore Chassériau portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville, who may have known Americans better than we know ourselves.

Several commenters have asked Brainstorm bloggers to weigh in on the firing of Naomi Schaefer Riley. My conflicted opinion on the matter kept me silent for a while—perhaps no better than Hamlet’s dithering. In any event, with the dust now somewhat settled, I’d like to say something.

I found Ms. Riley’s two Brainstorm posts on Black Studies programs so sloppy, arrogant, repugnant and indefensible as arguments that they pushed to the very back burner the issue of free speech in general and, in particular, Ms. Riley’s rights or privileges as a Brainstorm blogger. All I could focus on was that Ms. Riley had violated the fundamental responsibility of any writer—especially one who is involved in higher education—namely, the obligation to back up her opinions, however briefly and colloquially stated, with reasonable argumentation. On this count, Ms. Riley failed miserably.

The Chronicle’s contract with its Brainstorm bloggers forbids libel; she libeled no one. The contract forbids posting any unlawful material; she posted no unlawful material. On the other hand, the contract also clearly states that Brainstorm bloggers are not employees of The Chronicle, but rather independent contractors, and that The Chronicle reserves the right to terminate its contract with any blogger at any time and for any reason. The Chronicle, then, was fully within its legal rights to rid itself of Ms. Riley.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us standing in the vast, ill-defined wilderness known as “free speech”—a territory where Ms. Riley found herself vulnerable.

Anyone who regularly reads my posts knows that I tackle a wide range of topics, that I make no bones about the fact that I am a liberal, and that I espouse liberal causes: e.g., a single-payer health-care system, gay marriage, affirmative action, Title IX, radically restructuring the tax system so that the wealthy pay much more than they currently do, strong banking regulations, public support for public education (at all levels), seriously addressing global warming by enacting stringent laws, going green in general, and abolishing the whole hideous enterprise known as factory farming. I’m also exceedingly liberal when it comes to cultural issues. But I’ve also admitted in print to a prudish side—I am deeply uncomfortable with prostitution, pornography, and gambling, for example. Finally, as a liberal, I believe in strengthening the best in modernity and post-modernity—including opening up and broadening what has been a rigid and narrow meta-narrative about what constitutes Western history and culture.

For me, Ms. Riley got her just and sufficient desserts in the avalanche of negative comments that followed her posts. Brainstorm’s going so far as to fire Ms. Riley, however, was, in my opinion, a mistake. I think it was wrong. It was also, I think, strategically ill-advised. As a consequence of her firing, Ms. Riley emerges as a conservative martyr, able to point the finger at us liberals in academe and say, “See? We told you so all along: Liberals are for free speech until the moment one of their own oxen is gored.”

I ask that we—especially we liberals in the world of higher education—take a step back to consider the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, who famously warned that the rise of democracy would be accompanied by a new phenomenon. A new kind of tyranny would come about not from a single despot at the top, but from the majority below. The “tyranny of the majority” was an original concept to describe a brand new problem emerging in a democratic age, where conformity would result from deeply felt emotional reactions, not all of them in accordance with reason, rather than be enforced from on high. Heads would no longer physically roll, but a more insidious form of control would emerge. Tocqueville writes,

In America, the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.

Tocqueville goes on to observe this:

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.

I hope The Chronicle will find a conservative commenter to replace Ms. Riley on Brainstorm.  I know they are out there. We need one. Soon.


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