It’s beginning to become hard to ignore how woefully ignorant a burgeoning generation of Americans seems to be in even the bedrock philosophical tenets upon which the United States was founded. You might think that a principal notion so central to the American identity as the freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly – rights so essential the Founders made it the first – would enjoy at least modest respect if not veneration from all citizens, young and old. Increasingly, the next generation seems to view First Amendment protections not as a bulwark against the dangers of tyranny, but as a threat to their comfort and preferred intellectual isolation.
The looming catastrophe that could befall a nation that no longer respects its most basic freedoms was exposed once again as an acute crisis this week amid the disruptions on the University of Missouri campus. There, amid vague and poorly substantiated claims of endemic racist antipathy toward African-Americans, students and faculty alike engaged in a protest that regarded the presence of citizen and student journalists as a sinister development. One particularly aggressive faculty member abetted this abuse of public property was even shown calling for “muscle” to remove from the premises one of the student photographers.
When asked if she thought this response was justified, the vice president of the Missouri Students Association crystalized the crisis afflicting Western education. “I personally am tired of hearing that first amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here,” she said. If only this poor soul were an outlier, but anecdotal evidence that Americans are becoming less comfortable with the Constitutional right to free speech is increasingly matched by more scientific support.
The results of a McLaughlin & Associates survey of 800 college students around the country are disconcerting for those who appreciate their right to free expression:
By a margin of 51 percent to 36 percent, students favor their school having speech codes to regulate speech for students and faculty. Sixty-three percent favor requiring professors to employ “trigger warnings” to alert students to material that might be discomfiting. One-third of the students polled could not identify the First Amendment as the part of the Constitution that dealt with free speech. Thirty-five percent said that the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech,” while 30 percent of self-identified liberal students say the First Amendment is outdated.
It was only seven years ago that the political left embraced dissent as one of the most noble and basic of American freedoms. The left’s about-face on the value of unimpeded free expression is, in fact, a rational outgrowth of the consensus opinion that the Obama era has failed to achieve what its supporters had most fondly hoped: Namely, that this presidency would transform America into a center-left nation. Republicans now occupy more elected offices than at any point in almost 100 years. The cultural right, far from being dispirited, turned out in force in November to register their dissatisfaction with cultural touchstones like transgendered bathroom access, legal recreational marijuana use, and sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants.
As the unmet expectations of the Obama presidency mount, liberalism – an ideology disproportionately popular among the young – is taking out its frustrations on the freedom to discuss those disappointments. In 2014, every Democratic member (and the independents who caucus with the party) of the Senate chamber they still controlled voted to advance a constitutional amendment that would limit the freedoms in the Bill of Rights, specifically those pertaining to speech and political expression. They sought to roll back the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, but the consequences of their amendment would have been much more far-reaching. Though the ACLU argued that the amendment would “lead directly to government censorship of political speech” and might “endanger civil rights and civil liberties for generations,” Democrats including Hillary Clinton expressed unreserved support for the measure.
The invented scourge of “hate speech” is another cause for which the left is convinced the Constitutional protections on expression must be undermined. Even those who make their living speaking into a camera, like CNN anchor and brother to New York state Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, Chris Cuomo, appear convinced that “hate speech is excluded from protection.” He made this contention in the wake of a thwarted terrorist assault on a deliberately provocative cartoon drawing contest in Texas which, successfully as it happens, sought to replicate the offense that led to the slaughter of an office full of French satirists in January. Cuomo isn’t alone in his equivocation in the face of terror. A YouGov survey taken last October found that 51 percent of Democrats would support a law that made it a crime for anyone to make “public comments that advocate genocide or hatred against an identifiable group based on things such as their race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation.”
Not only is the right of free speech seen by the left as subject to a gross level of abuse, as though such a thing were possible beyond willful and premeditated incitement to violence, but fewer and fewer seem to understand even what constitutes free speech. Writing in The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb went to bat for a Yale University student who was caught on camera amid a group of like-minded peers screaming at an administrator over the school’s decision not to police student Halloween costumes in the name of subjectively defined cultural sensitivity. Cobb noted that this student’s obnoxious behavior resulted in a backlash from her peers and even anonymous death threats. “Surely these threats constitute an infringement upon her free speech — a position that has scarcely been noted amid the outraged First Amendment fundamentalism,” Cobb wrote. How bizarre. Not only does the First Amendment not protect death threats, those threats in no way limit this adult’s ability to seek legal remedy for this abuse nor to continue to express herself as she sees fit.
Later, we learn that Cobb’s intention is not to defend this anxiety-stricken student, but to write an exposition in favor of censorship. “The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered,” he averred. “The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.” God save the republic if this is the standard we as a country apply when evaluating what expression deserves legal protections.
At the heart of the collective liberal angst over the pesky burden of free speech is the nagging perception that they have lost the argument. There is no great progressive era about to dawn; we may never see a more liberal presidential administration than this in our lifetimes. While the dangerous impulse to silence their critics is merely sad in fully-formed adults, it is terrifying to witness in the generation just coming of age. When asked if he had built for ensuing generations of Americans a republic or a monarchy, Dr. Benjamin Franklin was said to quip “A Republic, if you can keep it.” That is a proposition set to be tested like never before.
An earlier version of this post suggested that the professor who was aiding the University of Missouri protesters and calling for “muscle” had lost her job. Rather, she resigned her courtesy appointment to the school’s journalism program but retains her teaching position in the School of Arts and Sciences.