Speech and Fascists on Campus

On U.S. campuses it is increasingly clear that fascist strategy is to hypocritically use notions of free speech to support a racist, reactionary agenda.

On U.S. campuses like UVA (Charlottesville) and Berkeley it is increasingly clear that fascist strategy is to hypocritically use notions of free speech to support a racist, reactionary agenda while viciously attacking those on the left brave enough to challenge such discourses and their material consequences. It is no accident that this is happening on U.S. campuses, and it is no coincidence that the ostensible justification lies in “free speech.”

It is still possible on U.S. campuses to broaden young adults’ narrow horizons with social analysis, historical study, and organized struggles. Yet, with Ann Coulter, for instance, forced to cancel an appearance at Berkeley due to organized opposition, how can a principled antifascist left give an account of the value and limits of free speech? How, in other words to exclude fascists and marginalize capitalist influence through forms of struggle that, in politicizing a new generation of students, also help create a society in which the freedom to dissent is protected. Of course, it would be wonderful if accepting norms of peace and universal free speech reduced attacks from the right, but there’s little evidence of that being the case. Claiming otherwise amounts to victim-blaming in deeply unproductive ways. The most obvious case in point is the fact that colleges and universities are dominant sites for the right’s cultural project which includes relying on sloppy understandings of free speech to increase tension and violence.

Fortunately, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel in thinking about how the left can combat the right’s agenda on free speech while remaining true to a larger social project of liberation. Exactly 50 years ago Hal Draper developed a fine model. And with growing organization and effective protests at U of I Chicago, Middlebury, UCLA and, of course at Berkeley, we’d do well to re-explore Draper’s three ways of thinking about how an organized left could relate to the right and its craven free-speech universalism:

  1. Demonstrations that violate the “right of free speech” through disruption should all be silenced;
  2. Demonstrations that violate the “right of free speech” through disruption are good and should be encouraged when the cause is just because some causes are so valuable that they trump the right to free speech;
  3. Some demonstrations do not violate the “right of free speech” because the question is not one of speech, but of a specific kind of tactic in a larger fight.

This third position is, of course, Draper’s preferred model. And it is completely compatible with the idea that free speech is an important right worth preserving. But it is also compatible with the thought that free speech is not worth any paper (or university mission-statement website that it’s) printed on. The only thing needed to motivate the third category is the thought that not every single word that comes out of someone’s mouth is speech that is or should be protected. In other words, we don’t need to assume that the right to free speech applies absolutely to everything that is said: some words are fighting words, and some words are themselves part of a fight.

So Draper provides a rough outline, but we’ll need to go further. A lot hangs on when speech is the kind of thing that is best understood as rightfully protected or when it is best understood as a tactic in a fight. When speech is the kind of thing that contributes to a fight, it might well be responded to not with protection (as if it were participating in a neutral exchange or battle of ideas), but at its own level, that is, with some kind of fight. To be sure, the line between mere words and speech that is part of the right’s strategy to bring its destabilizing fight to campuses is very fuzzy. Because of this fuzziness the division should not be determined by any single college professor, dean, student organization, president, or board of directors. No one can alone make that decision. Of course, more often than not, those at the head of organizations have the opportunity to put forward their views on the matter as if they were the only legitimate viewpoints. Yet, precisely at this moment, it is crucial to consider who gets to decide the kind, scope or extent, and duration of speech that is protected and the kind of speech that may be challenged.

Any legitimate answer would require democratic input from all stake-holders including, in particular, students and faculty. After all, students and faculty are themselves subject to but do only rarely participate in defining the fuzzy boundaries of “free speech” on their campuses. Only when the bounds of free speech itself are democratically determined can its institutional protection and the results that flow from it be truly valuable. A defence of the “right to free speech” which relies on and tries to promote an ideal of democratic deliberation that does not subject itself – this right and its scope – to such deliberation bakes existing oppressions into the hidden foundations of a fine ideal, and then forgets about what lies submerged.

That’s at least part of the reason why pro- Palestinian organizations and anti-racist social media presence are subject to such repression. It is then important to grow networks within and across schools to defend against such attacks while also setting the stage for legitimate, democratically determined free speech. Beyond defensive letter-writing and petition-signing, when the next reactionary is invited for a lecture, or when the next leftist is attacked for principled anti-racism, student and faculty-organized resistance should take the lead by linking up with or organizing demonstrations every time fascists and their apologists show up. This should include rejecting Koch-funded version of “free speech” while offering our own principled alternative.

Coordination such an effort should be premised on two clear commitments. First, speech cannot be free and protected if it is racist, misogynist, transphobic, or advocates any other form of exclusion that would curtail the democratic power to determine free speech. Second, to abide by their highest ideals, schools must never curtail the freedom to criticize fascists’ speech and the actions that normalize it. Unless both principles are held together as political goals, universities and colleges will continue to accept, protect, or at least pretend to be blind to the connection between violent speech and the physical violence growing on campus. Neither principle is about whiny, sheltered, PC-loving students trying to cocoon themselves in safe spaces so as to avoid the difficult work of being intellectually challenged. Nor do such principles open the door to the right’s repression of left freedom of speech. In reality, such principles would challenge the coddled and sheltered mental attitude and fascist, white-supremacist, transphobic policies of those whose spaces have, for far too long, been all too safe.

They would be just one way to push back against the American Enterprise Institute-funded, Breitbart-writing, Fox-News commenting promoters of the worst misogynistic, anti-immigrant, and racially punitive discourses. And these discourses have real consequences. At the macro-level Charles Murray’s violence is clearest in how it provided intellectual cover for eugenics and Clinton’s welfare disaster, while at a more personal level the neo-Nazi James Fields Jr. who killed Heather Heyer with his car joined the fascist gathering in Charlottesville which itself took cover behind the banner of “free speech”.

Trump’s success is itself in no small part a result of such discourses tapping into and inflaming fears of cultural loss. Beyond the state and seemingly isolated vigilantes (Fields Jr. was in fact tied to Vanguard America), more white-power movements arm up and take their cues from such speech. Yet through their own mobilizations, many have already taken the freedom to help determine the scope of free speech on campus. In many places already the response to violent discourse has demonstrated that people know they were responding not only to speech, but to clear threats. After all, UIC undergraduates shut down a planned Trump rally because they (68% non-white) knew that they and their families would be the first to suffer if, and then when, Trump was elected. After UVA, (Charlottesville), it is easy to see how the right and libertarian collusion around a brutally universalist notion of free speech actually serves a retrograde politics rather than a realization of the freedom through exchange of ideas.

Given that the most “academic” of fascist apologizers would never pass peer-review, it is tempting to dismiss campus visitors as charlatans: better ignored than bothered over. But as cheerleaders for the right, they use the privileged stages of academia to add a veneer of credence and respectability to agendas that are directly at odds with the democratic self-determination universities at their best make possible. They also seek to discredit or silence one of the few social places of growing left power. In doing so they adopt an ahistorical or faux-neutral libertarianism, the logical structure of which tends to cast aspersions on many sides. Highlighting the threat fascist speech poses can thus be defensive: it can be part of a larger strategy of protecting freedom for individuals and organizations. Yet, highlighting the threat can also be more than defence. The ground for recognizing the threat is, at the same time, an alternative conception of free speech which is broadly valuable for the democratic goals of the left. In this way, offering an alternative conception worth fighting for while also undercutting the libertarian justification of fascist speech improves on Draper’s schematic and can provide a principled ground for left struggle on campuses.

Indeed, a more democratically-determined right to free speech can be offered as a key part of just this anti-fascist struggle. The first steps would be tying the violent tendencies in and round campuses to the complicity of libertarian versions of free speech, and offering a broadly democratic and anti-fascist alternative. As UVA tragically demonstrated, lives depend on it.