Yesterday I gave a talk at Davidson College about the issue of free speech on college campuses. Turnout was good and the students were wonderful. Text of the speech is below. Thank you to Matthew LeBar and Olive Daniels of the Center for Political Engagement for setting it up, and to subscriber Madison Santos for making me feel very appreciated.

Nearly everyone believes in free speech and the First Amendment, and yet there still seems to be an incredibly contentious speech debate going on. Even among college students, who are supposedly the ones arguing about free speech, about 90 percent say free speech is “very or extremely important” to democracy. So it’s not very meaningful in these discussions for someone to say “Well, I believe in free speech, unlike everyone else.” There is not really a debate over whether free speech is valuable, there is a debate over what free speech actually means, what it should mean, and how it should be balanced against other important values that people also hold.

An important starting point here is for everyone to acknowledge that those questions are very difficult, and there is no place that they are more difficult than on a college campus. It might not seem this way at first. A belief in free speech means a belief that anybody should be able to say what they like and nobody should stop them. But when you actually try to apply that on college campuses, it becomes obvious that it’s more complicated than that. College campuses are forums for debate and discussion, but many people have a sense of what they believe the limits to debate ought to be. Holocaust denial, for instance, is not a debatable issue on a college campus. You don’t invite Holocaust deniers here to speak, and if someone did, there would be a lot of outrage, because people would recognize that speaking at Davidson College isn’t like speaking on a streetcorner soapbox. It’s an honor to speak here, speakers are granted a certain degree of credibility and legitimacy by virtue of their invitation to come here. I am not coming here as a random person, I am coming here because you’ve decided, correctly or not, that I have something to say that is worth hearing, and afterwards I will get to put on my CV that I spoke here, and people will respect me for it.

So it’s very difficult to avoid having some kind of discussion about the question of the “boundaries of legitimate debate.” Often, one of the criticisms that is made of progressive students, who have opposed the decision to bring this or that speaker, is that they are unwilling to listen to disagreement. But nearly everyone is unwilling to listen to some kinds of disagreement, we just have differing ideas of what constitutes the sort of disagreement that is worth having and the sort that isn’t. Conferences of astronomers do not invite members of the Flat Earth Society, historical associations don’t invite 9/11 conspiracy theorists.

With extreme cases like this, it can be easy. But then there are harder cases. We can consider some real-world examples here, in order to see why good-faith disagreements occur. Here are three speakers who have been involved in controversies on college campuses over whether they should be allowed to speak: Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Charles Murray. Now there are some differences between these people. Richard Spencer is a white nationalist who advocates ethnic cleansing; he is about as close to a Nazi as you can get without calling yourself a Nazi. Milo Yiannopoulos is a provocateur. He comes to campuses and he tries to be as offensive as possible. He’ll call women the c-word and he’ll tell people to report undocumented people to ICE, and he’ll tell gross jokes about how feminists are ugly. Charles Murray is somewhat different, though: he is a “respectable scholar,” he works for the American Enterprise Institute and he publishes with mainstream publishers and his books get reviewed in the New York Times. But he’s been strongly criticized, and I think correctly, for producing “pseudoscholarship,” works that look like serious academic thinking but actually contain elaborate justifications for racial prejudice.

It’s possible to draw distinctions between these men that may be relevant for the speech question. We might say that Spencer and Yiannopoulos are outside the boundaries of legitimate debate, but that Murray is within it. The progressive criticism here, though, is that this distinction isn’t meaningful, that the distinction between Murray and the others is one of style rather than substance, and that it may actually be worse to bring someone who offers a veneer of respectability to bigotry. Of course, if you’re a free speech absolutist, you may say: let’s not even try to make these distinctions, whoever a student group wants to invite, they should be able to invite. We shouldn’t be trying to figure out some fuzzy notion of legitimacy, we should just make our campus into a marketplace of ideas and let it figure itself out.

Here, though, it’s worth explaining what the common progressive argument in response to this is. It’s a very powerful argument and I think it’s worth listening to. It goes like this: there’s nothing free about a campus where white nationalists or bigots are being given platforms to speak. Free speech is important, but so is the students’ right not to be dehumanized and mistreated. Free speech shouldn’t extend to “hate speech,” because hate speech is not what we mean when we say that colleges should be open forums. A student who started using racial slurs in class would be asked to leave, bigotry is like belief in a Flat Earth; it’s just not up for discussion. The slogan you hear a lot on the left is that “free speech doesn’t mean you are entitled to a platform.” You are entitled not to have the government come into your home and punish you for your thoughts. But you aren’t entitled to a classroom at Davidson College and an audience. Free speech also doesn’t mean that there are no social consequences for your speech. It doesn’t mean that you’re free to speak without being protested, since protest is just its own kind of speech. The 90% of students who support free speech also support, by a very large majority, the value of “inclusion”: they don’t believe that women and people of color should be subjected to racist and sexist abusive language. And if they’re asked to choose between those two values, most of them put inclusion slightly higher, which makes sense: they place the value of being good above the value of being free, even though they care about both.

The complicated aspect of all of this concerns line-drawing. We’ve all agreed that every kind of speech except hate speech is allowed, but what constitutes hate speech, and just as importantly, who will be empowered to decide what hate speech is? Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. That’s true, but then which consequences are appropriate? If I am free to speak, but every time I speak I am shouted down, then my freedom doesn’t really exist in practice. Frederick Douglass gave a famous defense of free speech in 1860, after an anti-slavery meeting had been broken up by a mob, and he said that you can’t have free speech without the protection of the people’s ability to actually listen to and hear that speech. As he said:

There can be no right of speech where any man, however lifted up, or however humble, however young, or however old, is overawed by force, and compelled to suppress his honest sentiments. Equally clear is the right to hear. To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money.

Douglass didn’t draw a distinction between different kinds of speech, or examine the content of the speech. Speech was speech, and it was wrong to try to shut it down, and wrong to try to prevent people from hearing it. The principles he gives voice to are absolutist principles. I think one reason for that absolutism is the recognition that every kind of restriction on speech necessarily appoints some authority to determine which speech is permissible, but that authority will necessarily have the kind of flawed and fallible judgment that all human beings have. Douglass in particular was concerned about a mob veto. What did the First Amendment mean in practice if a mob could just break up your meeting and prevent it from proceeding? In colleges, one difficulty here is that restrictions on speech hand authority to college administrations, who are not democratic bodies, since you the students don’t get to vote for them or veto their decisions. If there are campus speech codes, as there are on many campuses, it’s the administration who will be in charge of enforcing them, and their decisions may be biased or arbitrary. The University of Michigan used to have a speech code prohibiting all racist speech, and it sounded very reasonable, but what happened was that several dozen black students were charged with racist speech by white students, but white students were never punished for racist speech against black students, even though that was the original purpose for the code. When you encode a prohibition against something like racist speech, someone has to decide what constitutes racism, and that person may believe that “reverse racism against white people” is the worst kind of racism there is, and a speech code that on its face looks unobjectionable (all speech is allowed except racist speech) will actually backfire and end up repressing the very students who advocated for it in the first place.

Those same issues arise around the question of “platforms.” Free speech doesn’t mean you’re entitled to a platform, but what does your right mean if you can’t actually find a platform in practice? Here’s a relevant example: last year there was a café in Brooklyn that allowed people to rent it as an event space. And there was a major controversy because a guy who was openly anti-Semitic and thought the Jews did 9/11 had booked the space and wanted to give a talk. People protested the café owner; they said that she was providing a platform to anti-Semitism and that free speech didn’t mean she had to rent her café to this man. But her response was that she didn’t draw distinctions about who could speak, because she didn’t want to be the authority over which kinds of speech were allowed. She wanted a community event space, and that meant allowing anyone in the community to rent the space, not just anyone except those she had deemed bigots. She believed that everyone should be entitled to a platform: that the moment we start drawing distinctions between who gets to rent spaces and who doesn’t, we are eroding the meaning of freedom, and the best way to combat anti-Semitic speech is to rent a space yourself and have your own event.

This is actually how the students at the University of Connecticut responded when Ben Shapiro spoke there recently. Ben Shapiro has a long history of saying highly objectionable things about Arabs and transgender people, and at other campuses there has been pressure to cancel his events. But at UConn they decided to try the “countering bad speech with more speech” approach, and they did a counter-event that I spoke at, and I explained why I thought he was cruel and bigoted and not worth listening to. I think that approach worked very well, actually. Everyone had a good time and we were able to avoid playing into his rhetoric about how leftists want to shut him down because they can’t respond to his arguments.

That brings me to one of the most important aspects of the whole speech debate, one I think is often neglected, which is the question of the consequences of adopting different approaches. Whatever view we take on abstract questions of principle, like “should hate speech be allowed” or “should people be given a platform,” there are real-world consequences to adopting one answer or the other. For example, if we believe that people like Ben Shapiro shouldn’t be allowed to come to campus, and we try to prevent them, a few things happen: first, usually he comes anyway, and the college just spends a fortune on security. But it also helps his publicity. Shapiro and Yiannopoulos have in part built their popularity by pointing to the response from the left. Yiannopoulos’s book was called Dangerous, and his entire pitch was that the left just finds his ideas scary because they know he’s right and they have no response, so they have to resort to trying to shut him down through violence. I’m very concerned by the way the right feeds on the left’s reactions, which is one reason I think it’s important to be very strategic in one’s decision about how to respond to speakers like this.

Anyone who is trying to accomplish political goals should think about these questions strategically. Are we advancing their goals or our own? It seems obviously a victory if you prevent a person from speaking who you believe is going to spread a poisonous doctrine. But often what happens is they simply go and speak elsewhere, and they make themselves out to be a martyr. Recently Richard Spencer declared that he was calling off his national college tour, because the presence of Antifa at every event, who disrupted and hassled the audience members, had made it so that speaking wasn’t fun for him anymore. And Antifa declared this a major victory: we stopped a white nationalist from speaking, that’s a victory against white nationalism. I am not so sure about that though. There are both long-term and short-term considerations. In the short term, preventing someone from speaking might inhibit their ability to persuade audiences. But in the long term, it might help them recruit. The thought experiment that’s often used is 1920s Germany: what do you do in the early phases of the Nazi party’s recruitment? Do you try to fight them in the streets? I am not sure you do, because Nazis love street fights. I think the best way to spend your time is through counter-organization, and we actually know that a major reason for the rise of the Nazi party was that the left couldn’t get its act together, that the communists were fighting with the socialists rather than pooling their collective resources to persuade people not to join with the Nazis.

I think one reason people become skeptical of free speech for those who espouse hate is that they believe granting such people the ability to speak will automatically contribute to the spread of hate. But frequently the opposite is true: for them, attention is oxygen, and ignoring them and focusing on advancing your own agenda is effective. Political success depends on persuading the most people to join your side, and one of the best ways to do that is through strategizing about our own brand of persuasive speech. I think on the left we often have this suspicion of “debating” with other people, because we think debating them confers legitimacy on them and therefore automatically cedes ground to them even if we debate them well. And I think that is true to a certain degree, since on campus at least, you do confer a kind of legitimacy on speakers. But as a pragmatic matter, I think it can often be worth debating people who have horrifying opinions, because exposing those opinions as horrifying is an effective way of showing people why they are wrong. There are certain issues we might like to think are “not up for debate,” but while we might wish they were not up for debate, or they might not be up for debate among any person with a moral compass, in practice we live in a society where those things are still debated, and progress depends on winning that debate rather than shunning it.

There is, furthermore, a kind of “slippery slope” problem to ignoring or refusing to engage with people on the far right. We might all agree that Richard Spencer doesn’t belong on our campus. But then there are harder cases. I happen to think the Iraq War was a horrendous and racist war. If I believed that people with horrendous and racist views should be categorically barred from campus, I would end up barring the architects of that war, or the Democrats and Republicans who voted for it. The moment we begin even trying to make distinctions, we are confronted with the fact that nearly everyone is problematic to some degree or another. Donald Trump is a horrible person whose immigration policies tear families apart. Half of 2016 voters voted for him, in the process endorsing his views. Should they be allowed to speak? If we do try to root out everything illegitimate or morally horrifying, we might steadily narrow the range of acceptable discussion to the point where most people in the country fall outside of it. And I think that is politically unwise, because it means cutting ourselves off the possibility of persuading most people to support our values.

I want to touch on a couple of other issues that surround free speech. One is the distinction between public and private. The First Amendment is talked about as if it’s synonymous with free speech, but it actually doesn’t resolve many of the most important questions here. The First Amendment protects us from the government, but as private corporations like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have gained so much de facto control over the channels of our speech, there’s a question of how free speech rights should apply with respect to them. The First Amendment isn’t violated if twitter takes down your account because they don’t like your political beliefs. But free speech as a social principle might be violated. Technically, of course, they can do whatever they want, and if they wanted to single out every Democrat or every Republican and terminate their usage, they could do that. But since they control access to platforms, I think we have to have some notion of our rights relative to private corporations if they are to have meaning.

The same is true about our rights at work. Employers don’t have to follow the First Amendment either. If an employer doesn’t like what you post on Facebook, they can fire you, and that’s perfectly legal. But we have to ask whether we think that ought to be the case. In California, there’s a prohibition on employers punishing you for your political speech. Not many places have that. And that gives rise to cases like the Google memo guy. He sent a memo to his coworkers explaining his views on biological gender differences. It offended them, and he was fired. Now he’s suing, saying that his employer violated his right to express himself politically. We might think that’s ridiculous. But then we have to ask what protections we ourselves would want at work.

I want to make clear where I stand personally on speech issues: I tend toward Douglass’s absolutist position. This is quite simple for me, because I believe that efforts to restrict speech do not actually further the causes they are done in the name of. But I also favor a very strong protest culture, and I believe limited disruptions to people’s speeches are not at all restrictions on their speech, and that it’s hypocritical to condemn protesters for exercising their own right to respond. I also think it’s important to understand why some people on the left are skeptical of the free speech concept itself these days, which is that in practice it often seems to be a demand for the freedom to say offensive things that target women and people of color. This is often framed dishonestly as mere “polite disagreement.” I sympathize with those who believe that the value of having an environment where people aren’t targeted for their race or sex outweighs the value of letting everyone say everything. The only reason I come down robustly on the side of free speech is that I believe nearly all speech restrictions soon spiral out of hand because they empower authorities, and because I have a sense that the best way to resolve issues in your favor is to win the debate rather than stifling it. But importantly, I think everyone should acknowledge that free speech issues aren’t easy, that we are always going to face difficult line-drawing questions and that reasonable people can differ on where those lines should be.