Against Censorship

Glenn Reynolds writes that, while the right could now use the Department of Education to censor speech the way Obama has done, that should really be avoided.
Some folks on the right may feel that turnabout is fair play. The left, lately, has gotten into the habit of treating words it disagrees with as if they’re somehow wrongful acts to be punished. The meaningless term “hate speech” — which just means speech that lefties don’t like — has been used to attack the free speech of, well, people that lefties don’t like.

But as satisfying as some might find it to turn those tactics around, the truth is that we all benefit from people’s ability to speak freely. One reason why the Democrats were blindsided by Trump’s victory — and why the British establishment was gobsmacked by the Brexit vote — is that people didn’t feel they could speak freely on those subjects. A society in which people are forced to hide their views is a society in which a lot of things remain hidden.

And the very notion of having to watch what you say lest you lose your job, get expelled from school, or face social ostracism is offensive, more evocative of communist hellholes like North Korea or Cuba than of a free society.
If he's right that the reason we were blindsided by Trump's victory is that many supporters did not feel free to express or discuss their support, that's significant. For one thing, it will have prevented some of the debate in which the worthiness of a candidate is tested. Instead of facing considered arguments against their candidate, supporters will have simply remained silent rather than face charges of racism (and possible firing).

Not that any amount of considered criticism would have caused me to vote for Hillary Clinton. That's the other part of that discussion, which mostly we are not having. Democrats who want my vote had better give me a candidate I can vote for in good conscience. Giving me the choice between two bad candidates is not enough.

To return to the main point, I'm all about doing the right thing. Under no circumstances should we try to censor speech in the way our speech has been censored. But I would like to see some DoE programs aimed at explaining to the opposition just why their efforts constitute censorship, and not -- as they would prefer to believe -- "cleaning up hate from the public space" or something similar. I think they continue to believe that we are evil, and feel perfectly righteous about suppressing our thoughts and words. They are only sorry not to have gotten away with it.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

This is the environment I work in. I did not attend Grand Rounds today because it was about understanding transgender patients, and was more of a political than clinical exercise. I was very careful who I even raised an eyebrow to.

E Hines said...

...many supporters did not feel free to express or discuss their support....

I'm not convinced it was one-way. I've seen a number of reports of folks variously refusing to talk to pollsters or journalists or giving them carefully misleading answers deliberately to skew their reporting--which in the case of journalists already was, proudly and loudly, skewed.

Eric Hines

Tom said...

I agree with your points.

However, I don't think the Sage of Knoxville was talking about government censorship. He specifically opposes the Professor Watchlist, which is a private endeavor to "expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom." (Or so it claims.)

I'm not sure he's right about private efforts like this. He says:

"On the not-so-good side, we have a list of 'anti-American” college professors on a site called 'Professor Watchlist.' The making of lists is itself an exercise of free speech, of course, but unlike the veterans’ protest above, this seems punitive. As an editorial at The American Interest notes, 'If Orwellian left-wing speech codes are wrong, then McCarthyist speech codes are wrong as well.'"

It seems punitive to him ... I don't know. Is it punitive? Or is it a fair warning a non-lefty student is unlikely to get until it's too late to withdraw?

What about lists of companies who support causes we disagree with, possibly for the very punitive purpose of aiding boycotts against them?

I am utterly opposed to government censorship, but that's not what Reynolds seems to be talking about in this article.

Grim said...

I can't evaluate that particular aspect of Reynold's argument, as the site listed doesn't speak to any university I know personally. The only university in Georgia mentioned is North Georgia, which is an actual military college. They found one professor who was opposed to campus carry, which is the limit of his supposed left-ism.

Well, almost every professor is opposed to campus carry. They're wrong, but it's a nearly universal opinion. And I kind of understand it: they deal with kids every day whose rationality and clearness of thought they have very solid reasons to question! College kids nearly always fail to impress, but they're young. I can kind of get how professors fear the idea of investing them with concealed firearms.

I'm not a fan, anyway. Let people speak their minds.

Tom said...

Sure, let them. I don't know that I like the idea of this list, even though of course it is free speech. The danger I see is that such lists may well oversimplify and create their own injustices.

However, to the extent that it actually pursues its stated mission and serves to warn students away from professors who discriminate against (not just disagree with) conservative students, that doesn't seem bad.

That's a big if, apparently. Your example doesn't seem to fit their mission. If we're going to list all the lefty professors, an easier way would be to just assume anyone with a Ph.D. is left-of-center until proven otherwise.

Murph said...

I had understood (but I don't remember where I read it) that this professor "watch" list primarily [only?] linked to interviews/statements that each professor had made publicly. In effect, "categorized" as a lefty or progressive by their own words.

I was sort of looking at it as analogous to an ingredient listing on a box of food: if you don't want to spend your money on a food that may be contaminated with, say, peanut, then listing that ingredient (or a note that "this product is produced at a facility that also processes peanuts") is a useful thing.

But maybe I've misunderstood the whole thing....

Gringo said...

However, I don't think the Sage of Knoxville was talking about government censorship. He specifically opposes the Professor Watchlist, which is a private endeavor to "expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.

I would prefer that classrooms be de-politicized. I do not recall a professor of mine expressing a political opinion. My taking mostly STEM courses may have been a reason for that. When a professor interjects his political views,especially when those views are not related to the class topic of the day, he is imposing his political views on a captive audience and implying that those who openly disagree with him will be risking their grades.

Not long ago, a professor at a college that I once attended was caught on a student's cell phone ranting about how Republicans were going to bring back slavery etc. The video got widely publicized The professor got a lot of flack for that and made a mealy-mouthed apology. As far as I am concerned, he deserved the negative feedback he got. Professor, don't impose your political views on me. I would like professors to be on notice: interject your political views - of any party- into the classroom- especially when the expressions of political views is gratuitous and has nothing to do with the topic at hand- and you will pay for it. Bring back neutrality. Back in the day I had no idea how my professors voted, and I didn't want to know.

Tom said...


The website does say that, but I don't think a website that simply lists professors who have made left-wing statements is useful. The vast majority of Ph.D. holders in the US are on the left. What's useful is to identify professors who discriminate based on political beliefs.

I think that's a difficult thing to do, though. Just making left-wing statements outside of class doesn't mean the professor discriminates in class. Professors have the same 1A rights we all do.

On the other hand, how could you document discrimination in class? Catching the professor ranting on video would work, but grading bias could be hard to prove since a lot of grading is subjective.

In theory, the list could be a good thing, but it looks difficult to do properly.

Tom said...


I agree. The professor ranting that way during class is a form of discrimination, and I would be OK with a site that noted these events as a warning to students who might take classes with that professor. That said, there is potential for abuse as well.

I've taken classes with professors I knew were very left-wing because I knew them outside of class. But you couldn't tell from the content of the course, the readings, the lectures, the class discussions, etc. When conservative students spoke up and expressed conservative views, these professors were respectful and acted just as we would all want a professor to act. These professors shouldn't be on a list to warn conservative students away.

I've also taken classes that the professor's bias was open and where I didn't feel free to disagree. (Sure, I could have, but possibly at the cost of my grade.) A warning would have been nice, although in my case these were required courses, so I didn't have a choice in the degree program I was in.