Some of You Are Getting Free Speech Very Wrong
Free speech doesn’t mean consequence-free speech.
Please write that down, will ya?
Like, maybe on your hand, on a Post-it-Note, on your Facebook wall, your Instagram bio, or perhaps a lovely forehead or neck tattoo? Just write it down somewhere.
Because it’s something about which a lot of y’all seem confused.
It’s sort of like the folks who saw a meme about HIPAA and decided a) memes are evidence, and b) HIPAA prohibits people from asking you about your vaccination status. Yeah, funny thing, it doesn’t.
But thanks for playing this round of “doing my own research.”
Better luck next time. You can pick up your parting gift at the FEMA camp after we microchip you with the mark of the beast.
When it comes to the First Amendment, many people seem to believe that it gives everyone the right to say whatever they want, whenever they want, without having to face pushback, scorn, or any form of sanction.
But such a reading of the Constitution suggests a Reddit-level understanding of the law and an almost stunning unwillingness to go more than one page deep on a Google search.
Not to mention, it defies common sense.
I mean, try telling your boss to fuck off or your 10th grade English teacher and then hiding behind the Constitution when you get fired or suspended.
And by all means, let us know how that goes for you.
There have always been limits on free speech, among these:
- harassment, and
- calls for imminent violence or breach of the peace.
Although the courts have tended to give a pretty wide berth when it comes to interpreting some of those, these limits exist and circumscribe the boundaries of free expression.
And no one advocates that such restrictions be eliminated.
Meaning, we all support some limits on free speech — we’re just quibbling about the details.
If you shit in the street, we get to point it out — and you, as you run away
When it comes to limits — or at least the line beyond which consequences for your speech can rightly attach — here are a few:
- If you tell the president to fuck off during a Livestream — even if you do it behind a juvenile buzz phrase thought up by NASCAR fans (naturally) — the world gets to call you an asshole and bash you on the internet all day. And when we do, it’s not a leftist mob or cancel culture. It’s us, using our free speech. The fact that our voices are louder than yours means there are more of us than you. That’s called democracy. Welcome to it, loser.
- If, after telling the president to fuck off, your employer were to fire you, or if others refused to hire you because you made an ass of yourself all to impress Steve Bannon — a guy who looks like the human scratch-n-sniff for cheap scotch and ball sweat — that’s on you. Cry more.
- If you break into the Capitol, assault officers, and try to intimidate lawmakers into overturning an election because your guy lost, that’s not free speech. That’s terrorism. You deserve to be incarcerated for twenty years. If this leaves your children without a parent because their mom or dad thought insurrectioning was a good idea, so be it. They’d be better off in literally any foster home on the planet, or in a shelter, or being raised by meerkats.
Likewise, if you engage in overt displays of racist fuckery, you should suffer the consequences.
No, those don’t involve criminal punishment unless those actions drift into the realm of violence, imminent threats of violence, property destruction, or legally defined harassment. But they sure as shit can (and should) involve loss of professional or educational opportunity.
So, for instance…
It’s always a good time to cancel racist frat bros…
Recently, students at the University of Richmond — members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity — made a video in which they sang “The South will rise again” and “I want to be a slave owner.” Once the video was made public, the fraternity’s national headquarters suspended the University’s chapter, and the college itself suspended the fraternity from its campus.
Neither of these actions restricts the free speech of the beer-guzzling shit-kickers who comprise the brotherhood of Kappa Sig at the U of R.
These actions are the least that should be done. Justice would require quite a bit more.
First, they should be named publicly, and if they suffer from the exposure, hmmm, pity. They decided to act like assholes. We should let the chips fall where they may when it comes to public humiliation and future employability.
If you put your shit in the street, we have a right to point you out as you run away from the steaming pile of colonic waste you left there.
You don’t get to claim free speech while subsequently hiding behind a veil of implied anonymity. Own your shit, bigots. Then we can talk about your rights.
Second, the University should expel them.
Colleges have honor codes, and this kind of behavior is dishonorable. What’s more, as a private college, Richmond can take out the trash however they damned well choose.
They should decide to dispose of it forthwith — not in the recycle bin, but in the academic equivalent of a solid waste incinerator.
And no, doing so would not be a violation of those students’ free speech rights.
They have a right to be racist asshats. They don’t have a right to attend the University of Richmond.
Even philosophically, their actions hardly fit the notion of protected speech that most of us think of when we think of that concept. What, after all, was the speech act in which they were participating?
Was it a monologue about some political or social issue whose conservative bent we leftist scolds just couldn’t tolerate?
It was the drunken tirade of intoxicated losers advocating the return of enslavement and their own desire to own Black people. It wasn’t speaking at all — at least, not in the sense that a University seeks to promote speech, and not in the sense that the Constitution envisions the concept.
Schools are places of intellectual development where we are meant to search for truth. But what academic or Constitutional purpose is served by singing about wanting to own slaves?
Speech is to be kept free because we believe that the give and take of ideas is essential to discern true wisdom.
But vile slurs and calls for the kidnapping and bondage of other people are not ideas that invite a debate. They are acts of hostility.
We’re not talking about microaggressions or even offensive arguments in a class setting or a dorm debate about affirmative action or immigration or whatever. We’re talking about performative bigotry, in which no actual position is being taken for which there is a cognizable rebuttal.
The only rebuttal to those frat boys would have been a fist to the teeth. And it’s a shame no one was around to provide such a closing statement because it would have been deserved.
It’s worth remembering that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act statutorily obligates schools to ensure the equitable enjoyment of their facilities and the opportunities provided therein. And this law applies to private colleges like Richmond, so long as those colleges accept any public funds, which all of them do.
By allowing the actions of these racist fraternity goons to go unpunished, the University of Richmond would violate its legal obligations vis-a-vis Black students, for whom the former’s actions created a blatantly hostile environment.
…and Nazi high schoolers
So too, the high school students in Wheatland, California, who recently covered their bodies in swastikas and SS symbols for photos and video, deserve to suffer meaningful consequences.
Although their age protects their identities from being officially leaked (unless some among them are 18), anyone who knows who they are should out them publicly now.
No, I am not calling for location, address, or phone number doxing. I oppose that on principle.
But by all means, expose their names and make sure every college admissions office in the country knows who they are.
What they did was not a simple speech act.
Emblazoning your bodies with Nazi symbols and showing them off is meant to intimidate others. For the school district to take no action is to say that they have no obligation to address the creation of a hostile environment for their students of color or Jewish students.
I can assure you, based on case law and a $7.5 million settlement I helped several Black families secure in a lawsuit twenty years ago, such an interpretation of their obligations would be a mistake.
I’d be glad to help make it a very costly one.
. . .
It is time to stop playing games with assholes in the name of free speech.
Free speech means the state cannot lock people away for the stupid and hateful things they say.
It doesn’t mean private colleges cannot kick them to the curb when they prove themselves to be bigots.
It doesn’t mean employers can’t end their source of income when they do the same.
It doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t shine a light on them and make an example of their shittiness for all the world to see.
That’s our free speech, and we intend to exercise it loudly until people like that are run from the public square not by the state but by their own humiliation and their desire to keep feeding their families and keep a roof over their heads.
So if folks want to know where the limits are, it’s like the Proud Boys say.
Fuck around and find out.
This post was previously published on Tim Wise’s blog.
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