About that ‘chilling’ poll of college students on free speech, plus other stuff…. (More)

“Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses”

The Brookings Institution’s John Villasenor is all a’tizzy because college students disagree with him:

The survey results establish with data what has been clear anecdotally to anyone who has been observing campus dynamics in recent years: Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses. In fact, despite protestations to the contrary (often with statements like “we fully support the First Amendment, but…”), freedom of expression is clearly not, in practice, available on many campuses, including many public campuses that have First Amendment obligations.

Poppycock. But first let’s look at his principal findings:

  • Does the First Amendment protect hate speech? Yes (39%), No (44%), Don’t Know (16%)
  • Is it acceptable to shout down a speaker so the audience cannot hear? Yes (51%), No (49%)
  • Is it acceptable to use violence to silence a speaker? Yes (19%), No (81%)

Villasenor and other commenters treat that first question as if the answer were beyond debate. Several fondly quote Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous phrase “freedom for the thought we hate.”

But here’s the thing: Holmes wrote that in his dissent in the case of United States v. Schwimmer. In that case, Rosika Schwimmer was a Hungarian immigrant applying for citizenship. She was also an avowed feminist and pacifist who said she would not take up arms to defend the U.S., or any other country, because she considered herself part of a “human family” that transcended national identity. An immigration court held that her support for pacifism disqualified her from U.S. citizenship, and she appealed. Writing for a 6-3 majority, Justice Pierce Butler held:

Whatever tends to lessen the willingness of citizens to discharge their duty to bear arms in the country’s defense detracts from the strength and safety of the government.

And their opinions and beliefs, as well as their behavior indicating a disposition to hinder in the performance of that duty, are subjects of inquiry under the statutory provisions governing naturalization, and are of vital importance, for if all or a large number of citizens oppose such defense, the “good order and happiness” of the United States cannot long endure.[…]

The fact that she is an uncompromising pacifist, with no sense of nationalism, but only a cosmic sense of belonging to the human family, justifies belief that she may be opposed to the use of military force as contemplated by our Constitution and laws. And her testimony clearly suggests that she is disposed to exert her power to influence others to such opposition.

In other words, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment did not protect Schwimmer’s antiwar speeches, holding that public pacifism “detracts from the strength and safety of the government.”

Today’s Court might reach a different conclusion. For example, in June of this year the Court decided the case of Matal v. Tam, brought by a band of Asian-American musicians who wanted to trademark the name “The Slants.” The band members said they wanted to “reclaim” that derogatory term, but Patent and Trademark Office rejected their application, saying the trademark would violate a federal statute that forbade trademarks that “disparage … or bring … into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.”

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Samuel Alito held that the disparagement clause “offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.” The Court overturned that clause and ordered the PTO to grant the trademark.

So Villasenor and other commenters chastise college students for an opinion that was consistent with federal trademark law until earlier this year. I’ll go out on a limb – squirrels do that – and suggest that Villasenor and most of those other commenters had never heard of Matal v. Tam and did not know that, until that case, federal law prohibited “hate speech” in trademarks. Indeed I suspect neither Villasenor nor most of the other commenters know that Holmes’ ringing “freedom for the thought we hate” was written in dissent.

“Any number significantly above zero is concerning”

Before debunking Villasenor’s second finding, let’s dispense with his third – that 19% of students support violence to suppress hateful speech. He writes:

These results are notable for several reasons. First, the fraction of students who view the use of violence as acceptable is extremely high. While percentages in the high teens and 20s are “low” relative to what they could be, it’s important to remember that this question is asking about the acceptability of committing violence in order to silence speech. Any number significantly above zero is concerning.

Oh really? Does he ever read poll results?

Let’s put that 19% number in context:

  • In a July Pew Research poll, 58% of Republicans said universities and colleges have a “negative effect” on the U.S., and 85% of Republicans said the national news media have a “negative effect.”
  • In a July Economist/YouGov poll, 34% of Americans including 55% of Republicans think federal courts should fine media outlets “for publishing or broadcasting stories that are biased or inaccurate,” and 28% of Americans including 45% of Republicans said federal courts should be able to shut down such outlets.
  • In a survey earlier this month, 52% of Republican voters said we should postpone the 2020 election if the God-King “were to say that the 2020 presidential election should be postponed until the country can make sure that only eligible American citizens can vote,” and 56% of Republican voters said we should postpone the 2020 election if both the God-King and congressional Republicans made that claim. Yes, really.

Does that 19% of college students seem so “concerning” … when it’s barely half the percentage of adults who think courts should be able to fine or shut down media outlets for “bias” … and about the same as the percentage who think the God-King and/or Congress should be able to shut down the 2020 election?

“It gets worse”

Now let’s turn to that middle finding – that 51% of college students think it’s acceptable to shout down a speaker. Villasenor writes:

The responses to the above question show a very distinct variation across political affiliation, with 62 percent of Democrats but “only” 39 percent of Republicans agreeing that it was acceptable to shout down the speaker. More generally, I find the numbers in the above table to be highly concerning, because they show that a very significant fraction of students, across all categories, believe it is acceptable to silence (by shouting) a speaker they find offensive. And, it gets worse.

I’ve written “and other commenters” throughout because this isn’t just Villasenor’s opinion. The Washington Post’s Eugene Scott and Catherine Rampell agree. Rampell actually parroted Villasenor’s language:

Astonishingly, half said that snuffing out upsetting speech – rather than, presumably, rebutting or even ignoring it – would be appropriate. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to find this response acceptable (62 percent to 39 percent), and men were more likely than women (57 percent to 47 percent). Even so, sizable shares of all groups agreed.

It gets even worse.

Well, guess what? In terms of the First Amendment, it is acceptable to shout down a speaker:

There’s another case that I think is easy one way, although I know lots of people who think it’s easy in just the opposite way: when a raucous crowd shouts down the speaker. A report from the Brookings Institution last week describes as troubling the fact that a narrow majority of students think that’s okay.

As far as I’m concerned – and, I think, as far as the First Amendment is concerned – it is okay. The jeerers are simply people attending the rally, no different from the supporters who cheer the speaker. It just so happens that the opponents vastly outnumber, or at least outshout, the supporters.

The opponents aren’t the government, so even if they prevent the speaker from getting his message across, that’s just too bad – or it’s speech countering speech.

That’s from Harvard Law School constitutional law professor Mark Tushnet. The First Amendment does guarantee freedom of speech … but it does not and never has guaranteed a quiet, respectful audience who only object in a time, place, and manner that the speaker deems appropriate.

“The President paused a few moments and then retired to the balcony”

Turns out the BPI Grafix Department didn’t fiddle with today’s image at all. That crowd drawing is from 1866, when President Andrew Johnson was shouted down by hecklers:

Johnson said, “FELLOW-CITIZENS [cries for Grant]: It is not my intention [cries of ‘Stop,’ ‘Go On!’] to make a long speech. If you give me your attention for a few minutes [cries of ‘Go on!’ ‘Stop!’ ‘No, no; we want nothing to do with traitors!’ ‘Grant!’ ‘Johnson!’ and groans], I would like to say to this crowd here to-night – [cries of ‘Shut up, we don’t want to hear from you!’ ‘Johnson!’ ‘Grant!’ ‘Johnson!’ ‘Grant!’]” The President paused a few moments and then retired to the balcony.

Heckling political leaders – or speakers with whom we disagree – is protected by the First Amendment …

“Thanks to the Assembly for their commitment to free speech on UW campuses”

as the Wisconsin legislature is about to discover:

The Wisconsin state Assembly passed a Republican-backed bill on Wednesday that would allow college administrators to expel students for “disrupting” campus speakers – a controversial piece of legislation that may be at odds with First Amendment rights, many lawmakers and legal experts argue.

The Campus Free Speech Act, which came out of the Assembly without a single Democratic vote, will clamp down on University of Wisconsin students who “materially and substantially disrupt the free expression of others” by imposing punitive measures on hecklers.

The bill still has the hurdles of getting past the state Senate as well as Governor Scott Walker, who has already signaled that he will sign it.

“Thanks to the Assembly for their commitment to free speech on UW campuses,” posted Walker on Twitter on Thursday morning.

Yes, free speech on college campuses is “imperiled” … by censorious conservatives who reject the notion that college students might disagree with them. Applaud Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter and you’re just fine. Boo them … and you’ll get expelled.

“Barbarously illiterate when it comes to understanding the freedoms given them by the Constitution”

The Chicago Tribune’s John Kass seethes with venomous rage:

[A] new survey of American college students by the Brookings Institution offers perhaps the most depressing forecast of the future of liberty that we’ve seen.

It tells us that many of the most privileged people on the planet, American college students, are barbarously illiterate when it comes to understanding the freedoms given them by the Constitution.

A barbarously illiterate people can easily be turned into an angry horde. It is dangerous work, yes, but it can be done. They can be herded, cynically, with prompts to emotion and calls to anger for short-term political gain.

But having thrown away their understanding of their freedoms, such people cannot remain free for long.

Let’s go through those findings again.

Until the Matal case, federal law forbade trademarks that “disparage … or bring … into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” But the minority (44%) of college students who agree with a position that was federal law until three months ago … are “barbarously illiterate.”

The so-called “heckler’s veto” is and always has been protected First Amendment speech … and the 51% of college students who know that are “barbarously illiterate.”

The tiny minority (19%) of college students who support violence to shut down offensive speech are “barbarously illiterate” …

… unlike the majority of Republican voters who would think the national news media are “hurting the country” and say the federal courts should fine or shut down “biased” media outlets … and unlike the majority of Republican voters who would let the God-King cancel the 2020 election. Nary a whisper from Kass about whether those authoritarian GOP voters. I guess if the censorship and shutting down elections happen by force of law, it’s just peachy. It’s those shouting college students who are the real threat to freedom….

“He has jolted much of the country to face problems that have been slowly eroding our democracy”

Attitudes like Villasenor’s and Kass’ – and the increased activism that is driving their outrage – are why the Washington Post E.J. Dionne, Thomas Mann, and Norman Ornstein make this jaw-dropping but well-reasoned prediction:

The election of Donald Trump could be one of the best things that ever happened to American democracy.

We say this even though we believe that Trump poses a genuine danger to our republican institutions and has done enormous damage to our country. He has violated political norms, weakened our standing in the world and deepened the divisions of an already sharply torn nation.

But precisely because the Trump threat is so profound, he has jolted much of the country to face problems that have been slowly eroding our democracy. And he has aroused a popular mobilization that may far outlast him.

I encourage you to read their entire essay.

They discuss how the God-King is not a singular phenomenon, but the logical and predictable consequence of ever-increasing radicalization in the Republican Party. They note how that radicalization is pushing away many long-standing conservatives, as well as business leaders who think government needs to actually function.

They think the media may have reached Peak False Equivalence in the 2016 campaign – equating Hillary Clinton’s not-really-scandals with the God-King’s manifest unfitness – and how their colleagues “have covered the Trump White House’s lying and evasions with straightforward vigor.”

They praise the “large-scale demonstrations” and “grassroots efforts” that have, so far, largely shut down the God-King’s and the GOP’s policy agenda. They note that “The need to contain Trump has given life to new forms of organization,” and that many of these new groups “are developing models of citizen activism designed to promote lasting engagement,” and emphasize:

Perhaps the clearest sign of long-term commitment has been the surge in the recruitment of candidates for public office, especially among younger activists who can speak effectively to peers turned off in the past by political action.

The most “chilling” thing about Villasenor’s poll is that he and so many conservatives find it “chilling.” Those college students understand what Villasenor, the Wisconsin legislature, and too many pundits don’t understand — free speech isn’t just for those who get paid to do it.


UPDATE: And it turns out that Villasenor did not even conduct his survey well:

The way the survey results have been presented are “malpractice” and “junk science” and “it should never have appeared in the press”, according to Cliff Zukin, a former president of the American Association of Public Opinion Polling, which sets ethical and transparency standards for polling.

John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California Los Angeles, defended his survey as an important window into what he had called a troubling atmosphere on American campuses in which “freedom of expression is deeply imperiled”. Villasenor, a cybersecurity expert, said this was the first public opinion survey he had conducted.

However, his survey was not administered to a randomly selected group of college students nationwide, what statisticians call a “probability sample”. Instead, it was given to an opt-in online panel of people who identified as current college students.

“If it’s not a probability sample, it’s not a sample of anyone, it’s just 1,500 college students who happen to respond,” Zukin said, calling it “junk science”.

Oh, and the Koch Foundation funded this horseshit. Other than that, though, let’s all get upset about college students….


Image Credit: New York Public Library Digital Collection


Good day and good nuts