At the same time that wannabe satrap Gerald Allen has been conspiring to kill free thought with his bill to ban all books and plays that mention homosexuality, the University of Alabama Faculty Senate has passed a resolution calling on restrictions on “hate speech” at that university. This is as good an opportunity as any to point out that threats to free speech do not come exclusively from the right; the left is equally zealous, in many cases, to punish those who speak ill of protected minorities. Nat Hentoff wrote of this phenomenon brilliantly in his book Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee. The actions of the faculty senate in Alabama were prompted by the performance of a comedian who apparently said some things that some on the campus found offensive. And rather than just dealing with the fact that some people have offensive ideas, or merely exercising their right to speak their mind in response to the offense, some on the campus decided that censorship was the proper response.
The faculty senate resolution calls on the university to “develop clear policies restricting any behavior which demeans or reduces an individual based on group affiliation or personal characteristics.” This vague demand for censorship did not receive a single no vote. Read that again. In a university, an institution specifically designed for the free exchange of ideas, not one member of the faculty senate thought it would be a bad idea to restrict any speech that they viewed as “demeaning” or “reducing” an individual based on “group affiliation of personal characteristics.” By this vague language, anything anyone finds insulting could be restricted. Telling someone that they have bad breath could be viewed as “demeaning” them based on “personal characteristics”. Do we really need this kind of nanny following us around telling us what is proper to say and what is not, especially on a college campus? Two members of the Alabama faculty, but not the faculty senate, writing at Liberty and Power, have pointed out the historical parallels with the senate’s resolution:
If the members of the Alabama Faculty Senate thought this attempt to restrict free speech was original, they were wrong. In making their vote, they had cast their lot with a long and unsavory tradition in the Deep South. In 1956, for example, a bill debated by the Mississippi state legislature had remarkably similar wording to that approved by the Faculty Senate. It proposed making it a criminal offense to use “oral or printed” words “which tend to expose a person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, to degrade or disgrace him in society.”
To be sure, the sponsors of the Mississippi and Alabama resolutions had different goals. Those in Mississippi were leading defenders of segregation including the governor and the Speaker of the House. Their resolution was part of a “package” of segregationist legislation intended to obstruct enforcement of the Brown decision and quash the civil rights movement. The sponsors of the Alabama resolution, by contrast, were primarily leftist faculty who pride themselves on their politically correct views.
Despite their differences, however, these two groups had more in common than each would probably like to admit. Both agreed that third parties should have the right to trump the free speech of individuals for a greater “public” purpose. Both proposed resolutions to create a vaguely defined category of prohibited speech that included the sweeping offense of “demeaning” or “degrading” others. Each of their proposals stipulated that the definition and enforcement of this restricted speech would be entrusted to third parties (university administrators, politicians or judges). The sponsors of the Alabama resolution, like their segregationist predecessors in Mississippi, showed a low regard for first amendment rights or appreciation for the free marketplace of ideas as a bulwark of American liberty.
Thankfully, the Alabama Student Senate have decided to give their professors a lesson in free speech. That group just passed a resolution, also unanimously, that strongly repudiates the faculty’s attempts to play Torquemada. In doing so, they appeal to the words of Thomas Jefferson: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Perhaps it’s time for the students and teachers to change positions. The students have learned the lessons of history that the teachers have failed at.