When Free Speech Becomes Unfree Speech - Higher Education

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When Free Speech Becomes Unfree Speech

by Ibram X. Kendi

I read the headlines. I formed my opinion. I planned to board the bandwagon urging student activists to stop censuring student newspapers for printing racist columns. Over the last month or so, journalists, professors and administrators have been ridiculing these student activists at Wesleyan University and now Brown University as overly sensitive, emotional, ill-equipped to debating, and the ultimate heresy of all—anti-free speech.

On September 14, Bryan Stascavage maintained in The Wesleyan Argus that the Black Lives Matter Movement “is not legitimate, or at the very least, hypocritical.” Stascavage’s column sparked an outrage among antiracists at Wesleyan University, who called for a boycott of the newspaper until it effectively diversified its staff and content. These protests fired the engines of the reactionary bandwagon, which shifted the discourse of critique from Stascavage and The Argus to those activists reportedly suppressing free speech.

A less public but somewhat similar turn-of-events occurred at Brown University last week where antiracist students were irate about the two racist columns printed on successive days in the Brown Daily Herald by M. Dzhali Maier. Maier followed up his biologically racist musing on Monday with his culturally racist musing of Europe’s cultural superiority in Tuesday’s column. Instead of protesting Columbus Day, “all” Native Americans should “celebrate Columbus Day” since it honors the history of the “Old World Europe” civilizing “the New World.”

I had no problem with the activists’ demands to diversify the staff and content of their student newspapers. But as a staunch defender of free speech and those mediums that bring into the public light those racial debates that regularly occur in private, I had serious problems with these activists condemning the newspapers for printing these racist columns. But as my eyes traveled from the headlines to the news stories, from the news stories to the activists’ position papers, I changed my viewpoint. I came across an open letter to the Wesleyan community from “A Group of Concerned and Unapologetic Students of Color,” issued in late September. “Freedom of speech, in its popular understanding,” the group penned, “does not protect Black Lives Matter advocates who are trying to survive in a racist world, but instead protects the belief systems of dominant people—despite the extent of their heightened ignorance.”

Indeed, these students were correct—not just about free speech, but about notions of American freedom. No one can deny that some Americans have used the “freedoms” of the Bill of Rights to substantiate their efforts to take away the freedoms of others. Generations of American slaveholders defended their freedom to enslave. All year long, advocates of gun control and marriage equality have heard the cacophony of “freedom to bear arms” and “freedom of religion.” I had to admit that my fellow free speech defenders were somewhat similar to those National Rifle Association members and those homophobic Christian discriminators.

I thought I was defending the free speech of those column writers and newspaper editors, when, in fact, I was merely defending unfree speech. Just like we should not have the freedom to enslave people, we should not have the freedom to publish untruths about people. When the press publishes false or unproven racist ideas in news stories or columns without informing readers there is no truth to those claims and tales, that is not an exercise in free speech. That is unfree speech. For example, Stascavage’s column in The Wesleyan Argus was based on the false idea that the Black Lives Matter Movement was increasing violence toward police. Neither Stascavage nor the editors provided the data that show that police shootings are down this year. It was almost as ridiculous as his other unproven claim: that “there are only a few bad apples” on police forces. Again, the data say otherwise.

Circulating racist falsehoods, without warning, have long been the occupation of unfree racial speech, constraining constructive thought. Lies enslave the mind and harm human life. As the Wesleyan activists stated, “By focusing on the freedom of speech instead of students’ lives and ability to safely exist on this campus, you are practicing censorship and you are partaking in racism.”

To change this, to provide safety for all of our students’ lives, we do not have to necessarily prohibit any and every racist column. Just as companies can sell harmful products as long as they clearly label them to consumers, so too should periodicals have the freedom to publish any spuriously racist ideas as long as they clearly label them to readers as untrue. But that would require strenuous fact checking on the part of editors. And it is much easier for editors to not fact check quotes and columns and then print these racist quotes and columns laced with falsehoods or unsubstantiated claims and then use “free speech” to defend themselves from outraged and offended.

We should have the freedom to offer in the press varying controversial and provocative racial thoughts from the ground of evidentiary truth. That’s free speech. At the same time, we must recognize and take seriously the difference between unfree speech based on falsehoods, and free speech based on facts, while never conflating the two. Free speech—in its open-minded search for truth—produces lively debates, growing intelligence, and mutual love. Unfree speech—in its close-minded defense of falsehoods—produces arguments, ignorance, and hate.

We should applaud the students at Wesleyan and Brown who are trying to silence unfree speech in their student newspapers. If anywhere in America should be the unpolluted haven of free speech, where circulating racist falsehoods are barred from public mediums, where thinkers are speaking and debating all sorts of social issues from the platforms of evidence, then it should be our colleges and universities. After all, if academia is not our society’s cradle of debates from truth, then what is it?

Ibram X. Kendi is an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Florida. His upcoming book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, will be published by Nation Books in April. Follow him on Twitter.

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