Free speech… how do some people STILL not get it?

Having lacked the time in recent months to do any blogging, I’ve been looking forward to the summer break so that I could get back to the practice. Fortuitously – though somewhat unfortunately, given this post – a recent incident provided a timely impetus to start typing.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter (@MikeBreslin815) or reads my blog knows, two things that I am passionate about are free speech and media studies. As a career communicator who spent much of his career before academics dealing with the news media, I’ve always had a fascination with the industry. My interest in free speech should be somewhat self-evident given my profession, though I would hope that everyone cares about free speech, regardless of their vocation. Given all that, an online encounter I had with the editor of a leading educational news website gave me pause.

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of coverage, both in academic and mainstream media, about an article written by Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Tennessee. In it, she compared and contrasted the cases of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, posing some thought-provoking questions on issues of transgenderism and transracialism. In sadly predictable fashion, many in academe reacted furiously, claiming that Dr. Tuvel and the editors of Hypatia, the journal where it appeared, were products of “white and cisgender privilege” for daring to write/print the article. Hundreds of academics signed a petition calling for the article to be retracted, forcing the journal to offer a groveling apology.   So much for the spirit of open and free inquiry in academics. But I digress…

While perusing my weekly news email from Inside Higher Ed earlier today, I came across an article that I mistakenly thought was about the Tuvel situation. Upon opening it, I discovered it was about a different person, a professor at Texas A&M, who had raised the ire of some because of comments he made on racial issues several years ago. What struck me as interesting about the article was the fact that the editors of IHE had closed off the comments section that went with it, despite the fact that the article had only been posted two days earlier. Out of curiosity, I looked up the most recent IHE articles on Tuvel situation, only to discover that those comment sections were still open despite the fact that they had been online for more than a week. Upon seeing that, I posted a question for the editors (see graphic) in the comments for one of the Tuvel articles. Within minutes, I received the reply noted in the graphic.


I replied to the editor as follows:

“Appreciate your quick response. However, the latter half of your point is troublesome, to put it mildly. “Usefulness” in whose opinion? Considering the highly sensitive topics at play here (and in many other cases), it seems antithetical to the ideas of free expression, free speech, etc. to engage in such a practice, especially when inconsistencies are so easily identifiable. In an era where the media are under more fire than ever, I would hope that journalists (i.e., practitioners whose very profession relies on related freedoms, vis a vis freedom of the press) would be more disinclined than ever to do anything that could be construed as contrary to the principles expressed in the First Amendment. My two cents.”

I realized rather quickly that my hopes about journalists and their attitudes towards free speech were misplaced, at least in this case. My pending comment was deleted and not posted. Two subsequent comments that I made on this matter, pointing out the problematic nature of such censorship, were also deleted without posting. (Perhaps my comment  about the linkage between free speech and free press hit a little too close to a sensitive area.) It was only later, after I complained further through the publication’s Twitter feed, that my post finally went live.

Now, let me be clear about a few things before I go further. First, I fully recognize the right of any website owner to monitor/censor/edit anything on that site, including user comments. I, like anyone else who spent more than 10 minutes online in the last 10 years, realize how toxic the environment can become on comments pages, social media and the like. However, as a matter of journalistic principle, I would hope that all news media outlets and editors would be reluctant in the extreme to engage in anything that could even seem like censorship, particularly given the times we live in. Public confidence is already badly shaken in the media, via “fake news”, bias, sensationalism, infotainment (or pornewsgraphy®, as I termed it in a previous blog). As such, it seems counterintuitive that anyone in a profession that depends on the protections of the First Amendment, and which is under more negative scrutiny than ever, would be anything but supportive of those same rights for others.

Further, I am not suggesting that this incident or the actions of this editor are indicative of every journalist out there. I would like to think the truth is far from that. But this is certainly not the only time that I’ve seen instances of people engaging in behavior that is contrary to the ideas of free speech and open dialogue – many of whom should know better. I increasingly see it in news reports about higher education, where some professors and students posit that the answer to objectionable speech is not more speech, but censorship, disruption and/or (in extreme cases) violence.  Sadly, the people engaging in such behavior don’t realize that the solution to “bad speech” is not censorship or less speech; it is more speech.  Please note, I said more “speech”, as in words – not violence, childish behavior and the like, which some people mistakenly think constitutes acceptable expression. Sorry, but if you can’t make your point effectively without shouting people down or limiting their ability to be heard, there’s an excellent chance your  position is flawed to begin with. And, on the off chance it’s not, you’re simply defeating your own cause in the long term by making it anathema to reasonable people. That’s the sad part about such efforts – they are ultimately self-defeating, but the people behind them seem oblivious to that fact.

In the current environment, where so many people are speaking out about perceived losses of freedom, it seems ironic that so many of those same people are trying to erode the very rights that allow them to speak. In such cases, it seems apropos to note the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for – you might get it.”