On Selective Concern for Free Speech

In publications from the nominally liberal Atlantic to the arch-conservative National Review, people who call themselves journalists lampoon student protesters for their “intolerance” and “illiberal streak” instead of focusing on the racism and discrimination that exist on college campuses against a backdrop of racialized police violence. On Facebook, Twitter, and in student publications, observers of the protests shriek about “left-wing authoritarianism.” Everywhere you look, there is someone outraged about perceived threats to their First Amendment rights. But the black students protesting at Yale and Mizzou aren’t threatening anyone’s freedom of speech. And the selective, sudden concern for free speech exposes the racism of those who respond to black students’ pain with complaints about political correctness.

In the New Yorker, where the editors seem to have kept racist writers in check, Jelani Cobb writes, “that these issues have now been subsumed in a debate over political correctness and free speech on campus—important but largely separate subjects—is proof of the self-serving deflection to which we should be accustomed at this point.” Cobb highlights how observers and writers, particularly white observers and writers, express far more concern about non-existent threats to freedom of speech than about the very real racism and discrimination that students of color experience on a daily basis. “This,” he writes, “is victim-blaming with a software update.”

Freedom of speech is protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…or abridging the freedom of speech or expression, or of the press” and so on. The key words here are “Congress shall make no law.” Making journalists leave a protest meeting, as students did at Missouri, or demanding that an administrator resign or apologize for insensitive remarks, as students did at Yale, are not First Amendment issues. No one’s right to freedom of speech is in jeopardy; no legislature has passed any law. No police have been mobilized to enforce the protesters’ will. The sad irony about the current debate is that none of the supposedly freedom-loving writers seem concerned by the fact that the black students protesting against racism are the ones whose rights—to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—are constantly threatened by structural racism and police violence.

These same self-appointed defenders of free discourse are silent about the actual limits to free speech and expression at universities, especially private universities like Princeton and Yale. If someone pitched a tent and camped out in front of President Eisgruber’s office in protest of his administration’s policies, either public safety or the police or both would swiftly remove their tent from the scene. If someone who wasn’t a Princeton student were to do something similar, they would be arrested and charged with trespassing or worse. And yet none of the fair-weather First Amendment zealots react to these kinds of restrictions of speech and expression with apoplectic op-eds about the death of freedom of speech in higher education. No one publishes screeds describing university administrations as “intolerant” or “authoritarian”—though it would be completely reasonable to do so—for maintaining and justifying very real limits to free speech.

The selective concern for free speech exists on the national level, too, where constitutional rights are really at stake. When protesters and the press were targeted by the government and the police, the anti-PC civil libertarians were silent. Where were the ardent First Amendment defenders when police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and smoke grenades at people in Ferguson? Where was the outcry when the Ferguson police arrested journalists trying to cover the protests? In 2011, where were the multiple articles in the Atlantic decrying the violent removal of nonviolent protesters from Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street? These instances of police violence were all violations of people’s constitutional rights.


“Tolerance,” Herbert Marcuse wrote in 1965, “is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.” Western society, Marcuse argues, tolerates unspeakable atrocities every day and no one says anything. Administrators, professors, and students tolerate the workers’ rights violations the university pays for abroad and overseas. Administrators, professors, and students tolerate drone strikes that murder civilians, even American citizens without trial. And for years, administrators, professors and students have tolerated a racial state that systematically imprisons and murders African American people. But somehow, when the most marginalized and oppressed groups speak out against the injustice they face, university administrations and faculty suddenly find it necessary to defend themselves against charges of prejudice and negligence.

When students of color protest against the racism they experience on predominantly white campuses, the self-proclaimed defenders of free speech criticize them with vitriol. These free speech warriors would never denounce racism and racist policies as vociferously as they denounce the black students protesting them. The hostility shown to black students is totally absent from any of the discussions, if they even happen, about the restrictions of free speech and expression that universities, public and private, actually maintain. The selective free speech warriors that cry “free speech violations” intend to shut down conversation about the real issues at hand. Changing the subject to the issue of free speech has a much greater “chilling” effect on discourse than the allegedly “intolerant” student protests. It drowns out the voices, already straining to be heard, that are speaking out against racism. We must not allow these voices to be silenced by those who fear the power of their words.


  1. April Gardner says:

    If you were charged with prejudice and negligence, would you defend yourself?

    Are you capable of stopping drone strikes? If so, why do they continue? If so, are you guilty of prejudice and negligence?

    Does “Eastern Society” tolerate atrocities? If not, list nations encompassed in “Eastern Societies” that do not tolerate atrocities. Also, define an atrocity.

    Finally, if America is so horrific…Why do thousands of peopl want to move here? Why would they not flee to Yemen, Mongolia, or Russia? (Just three examples.) Especially since in a place like Mongolia, you would be paid over 4x simple interest in a basic savings account.

    I live in NJ. In fact, very near to Princeton. I am a Senior Citizen. I can personally reflect on many issues you read about. I hope youwill reflect and respond to my response to your essay.

    Thank you. April Gardner

  2. Cory Alperstein says:

    This is an excellent article and it is heartening to see The Princeton Progressive publishing on campus and speaking to issues it is all too easy to ignore in such rarefied air. I think the BJL protest goes to the heart of what this university should be asking, and challenges students to engage in a way they have not since the 1970s when there was a bit more activism on campus in response to the University’s collusion on the issue of Apartheid. At the time, I remember being told as an activist on Divestment that we were in a protracted struggle. The Board of Trustees would not even agree to discuss divestment, and we left the administration building bowed by the degree that injustice could prevail. I have always believed that as a privileged institution Princeton has a special obligation to make itself answerable, and at the least should require of its students a commitment to participation in dialogue that challenges the status quo. It is particularly difficult to challenge that status quo while being so inextricably linked to a power structure that largely serves the 1%. How can a university be at once an elitist institution and an agent for change? I remember hearing Chris Hedges at a book reading at Labyrinth Books in Princeton several years ago declaring it is simply impossible. Maybe, but students this week took a stand and the outcome is promising. Administrators listened and an important conversation took place. It was a beginning, and I hope will be followed with the persistence worthy of this diligent institution.

    I believe Princeton can do much more to require of its students and faculty a commitment to dialogue and an engagement on a range of subjects including systemic racism, systemic poverty, systemic barriers to education, systemic sexism, systemic violence, and systemic environmental injustice, to name a few. When Tulane University had to regroup after Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of flooding in New Orleans, and decide whether and how to renew its role as an educational institution in the heart of a deeply damaged and politically polarized community, it decided to engage in the social, political and educational challenges of the 21rst Century by being up close and personal in the education of its students. The TIDES freshman seminar was introduced with a mission of bringing every student into context — interdisciplinary engagement with the community of the city of New Orleans is required as an introduction to academic life. Also, since 2006, each student must complete a community service course in order to graduate.

    I think Princeton can do plenty to shift its priorities in the 21rst century, even if it is located in a comfortable and affluent community, by requiring a similar kind of engagement. Even in Princeton there is a disenfranchised community of undocumented citizens, and race is still a reliable predictor of success or failure in the town’s public schools. Princeton is situated between Newark and Trenton, and there is plenty to learn from the challenges facing these two troubled cities. Maybe it is not enough to open doors to engagement and dialogue if only those who already understand its importance are walking through.

    I am very concerned that much of the reaction to the BJL protest on campus ranges from perplexity to hostility. Perhaps we need a different kind of student at Princeton if the subject of historic and systemic racism seems irrelevant. In fact, like another urgent, pressing issue we face today, the response to accusations of racism for most is an “inconvenient truth” best left to be faced by those who have no choice about their engagement. I am encouraged by the response of Eisgruber, Dolan and Calhoun, and hope more students will take notice and gain courage who did not stand up to be counted on this occasion. With everyone engaged I am sure this institution will find its way to proactive progress, and that in turn will mean hope for an embattled world.

  3. “Where were the multiple articles in the Atlantic decrying the violent removal of nonviolent protesters from Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street?”

    Here: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/07/14-specific-allegations-of-nypd-brutality-during-occupy-wall-street/260295/

    and here: http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2011/11/occupy-wall-street-faces-evictions/100189/

    and here: http://www.theatlantic.com/video/archive/2011/11/the-raid-on-zuccotti-park-set-to-new-york-new-york/248677/

    Like, I’m all for the prospect of this article, and generally agree with its central arguments, but for the love of God, when you make a claim, please do your fuckin’ research to make sure it’s true. It literally took me 15 seconds to Google “the atlantic ‘zuccotti park'” and all three of these articles were within the first ten results.

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