Free Speech vs. Discussing Free Speech

As free speech increasingly disappears from today’s campus, the seemingly good news is that groups defending the First Amendment are multiplying. The most recent are the Alumni Free Speech Alliance and the faculty-based Academic Freedom Alliance, whose members span the political spectrum. Also of recent vintage is Heterodoxy Academy, a group of 5000+ educators committed to “… promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.” These newcomers join other well-established free speech advocates, notably the Freedom Forum Institute, F.I.R.E,the ACLU, and the home team, the National Association of Scholars.

Unfortunately, this proliferation of organizations may not deliver as advertised. The real issue is free speech, not organizations dedicated to promoting free speech. Keep in mind that this counterattack has been ongoing for decades, and matters continue to deteriorate. Something is wrong.

To understand this pessimism, recall the old joke about the German professor who ascends to Heaven and sees two doors. One is marked “Entrance to Heaven,” and the other, “Entrance to Discussions About Heaven.” Being a German professor, he, naturally, entered the second door, where he can spend eternity just talking about Heaven.

To update this Witz, the choice is between creating an organization that discusses free speech on campus versus physically promoting free speech in the academy. The options are totally distinct, though easily conflated. So, for example, our “German professor” might conduct a study of how freedom evolved in the academy or of multiple legal issues surrounding academic freedom, all the while participating in academic conferences and regularly publishing his work. None of this, however, promotes actual freedom of discussion. Everything is directed at those who already believe.

But what about actually entering Heaven, that is, engaging in free speech? The good news is that the same organizational energy directed toward “discussions of” can be marshalled to promote the genuine article. The key element, at least in my estimation, is not waging war on campus totalitarians, though that remains a worthy task. Rather, the goal is talking and acting freely—a safe space for campus heretics.

The recipe is simple. Begin by avoiding anything that might provide campus officialdom an excuse to shut you down. Hold meetings off campus where entrance can be controlled, use personal email for communications, and sidestep anything that might alert campus administrators of your activities (e.g., posting flyers on campus). Certainly never, never request university funding. Use innocuous names such as “The Voltaire Society,” and if this requires legal paperwork, happily pay for it or seek pro bono help.  Then, hire private security rather than rely on the campus police beholden to the apparatchiki. A few tattooed bikers are more intimidating than citing some legal brief. Keep mailing lists secure and preference cash over traceable credit card or electronic payments.

Invite “toxic” speakers such as Charles Murray, or even the Proud Boys, to invitation-only events. Ban disruptions and forcefully evict hecklers. These talks can be Zoomed and recorded, and the recordings sold or given to ticketholders. Podcasts—“Notes from the Campus Underground”—are another alternative and might generate revenue. The samizdat in Soviet-dominated eastern Europe, not the civil marketplace of ideas, is the model.

Severely under-appreciated by today’s free-speech organizations is the importance of social solidarity as a bulwark against the imposed orthodoxy. Absent that cohesion, the campus censors will pick off victims one-by-one. Unfortunately, no existing free speech group recognizes this need for solidarity. It is no accident that the campus totalitarians attack fraternities, religious organizations, and other friendship groups that will collectively stand up for individual members under attack.

The awareness of this need was evident during the founding of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Undergirding the abstract ideology was a strength derived from social networks. The Communist Party knew this perfectly—party picnics, social gatherings, and sports clubs served to create an “us” to mobilize against the enemy.

On today’s campus, it’s better to attract supporters with a free-beer Halloween party rather than an erudite lecture on the medieval theological roots of modern capitalism. Intellectual respectability may entice those occupying endowed chairs, but it does little to mobilize the grunts compelled to take anti-racism training.

This last point raises the broader issue of channeling the energy of young students, disproportionately white males, who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. These youngsters hate being forced to regurgitate Marxism to get an “A.” They refuse to choose their pronouns or define their sexuality according to the trendy nomenclature. These are the barely paper-trained rebels who hold affirmative action bake sales and yell “F**k Joe Biden” at football games. Alas, organizing the youth is akin to herding cats, though they need not worry that benefactors will withdraw support if they wander into taboo territory.

So, what is to be done? Let me suggest creating a free speech in practice organization—the Voltaire Society—to help college students exercise their First Amendment rights. It will be simple and relatively cheap, to boot. Let students know about it and direct them to a website. These voiceless, oppressed people, usually of no particular color, will be given detailed instructions on how to set up a local Voltaire Club and escape Big Tech and school censors. Modest funding can jump-start it, but self-sufficiency is the goal. National headquarters will give some direction, pay fees, and fund all expenses to bring speakers to campus.

Most importantly, everything will be great fun without any boring lectures and expensive Ritz Carlton rubber chicken banquets. No need to worry about Stasi-like bias response teams. Instead, there’ll be music-filled social gatherings discussing taboo topics. And rest assured, once word gets out that Voltaire is the place for geeky males to meet hot right-wing babes, restoring campus sanity is just a matter of time (picking up chicks was one of the great secrets of the 1960s Left).

Humor and ridicule are great weapons to defeat the campus totalitarians. It was no accident, comrade, that humor thrived in the old evil Empire. How about fundraisers with politically incorrect comedians? What better way to parody the screwball gender identity craze than celebrating Bestiality Awareness Day? Just come as your favorite animal. Offensive tee-shirts and posters galore! Periodic “awards dinners” to give an “autographed” copy of the Communist Manifesto to the most lame-brained leftist professor you can find. An occasional national meeting will be more like Woodstock than an august Mont Pelerin Society conference.

This is not to say that defending the First Amendment should be transformed into Animal House writ large. I merely acknowledge the reality of what attracts college students, and the answer, to be frank, is not what free speech organizations currently offer. Youngsters subject to woke propaganda will not stand up to campus bullies “to save Western civilization.” The campus Left of half a century ago did not succeed by virtue of heeding well-documented lectures. That movement attracted followers by appealing to hedonism, not by deciphering Marcuse. Never under-estimate the power of the low brow. The mission to save academia is too important to be led by the smartest of the smart displaying their wisdom.

Unfortunately, “respectable” conservatives will likely have little sympathy for this raucous flowering of free speech. These students are likely to raise “awkward” issues, and so 501c (3) entities prefer dull conferences where Ivy League professors endlessly go to and from talking to each other. One can anticipate the reaction if a few boozy frat boys dress in blackface and mimic the intellectually challenged Director of Academic Outreach, Inclusion, Equity, and Excellence. Sadly, the recent proliferation of free speech organizations signifies fear, not a willingness of First Amendment champions to enter Heaven.


Image: Pavel Danilyuk, Public Domain

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

2 thoughts on “Free Speech vs. Discussing Free Speech

  1. This is a VERY BAD IDEA — it will go very badly, very quickly. I’m not even sure what would happen FIRST but all you will accomplish is getting students expelled if not killed.

    And I mean sent home to their parents in body bags….

    I led students into harm’s way more times than I want to think about and cringe — CRINGE — at the thought of doing anything like this.

    Even the free beer Halloween party would go bad, even if everyone was 21 and no one did something stupid afterwards — neither of which would happen….

    The admin would make an example out of the students who attended the party — and then quietly warn the rest not to let something like that happen to them.

    Reality is that there are three sets of rules — that Bull Connor is now Dean of Students.

    Reality is that the violent mob is licensed to do anything to silence unpopular viewpoints.

    Reality is that anything you do will be taken out of context and used to smear you — and everyone associated with you.

  2. Murray? Yes! Proud Boys? No! They are the ones who have participated in violent insurrectionary activity nearby (along with antifa — sometimes the two groups together, they love each other). NO! And drunken frat boys in blackface? No, no no! The Klan is still an issue on the campus where I sit. Reported hate crimes are a growing issue in the city. No way egging this on is going to help the cause of free speech. It is a loser. No, no, no, no, no!

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