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March 29th, 2017

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The right's turn to censor?

Glenn Reynolds

By Glenn Reynolds

Published Dec. 5, 2016

The right's turn to censor?

One of the hallmarks of the Trump era has been the adoption of traditionally leftist protest tactics by people who aren't leftists. This can be fun - as with "The Chalkening," the chalking of Trump slogans on college campuses that left many campus leftist feeling triggered - but two recent episodes illustrate that there are good and bad ways of expressing disagreement.

On the good side, we have a protest by veterans at Hampshire College, a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts that responded to the burning of an American flag by taking down flags all over campus.

Veterans were unhappy, and over a thousand people marched to protest the decision. As one veteran interviewed by WWLP TV said, "They took down my flag, they have a right to that, I'm here to defend their right to do that but I want them to understand how bad that hurts me."

The protesters were peaceful and well-mannered - though one counterprotester, who may or may not have been a student, sat down in the middle of a group of pro-flag protesters who were having their picture taken and made an obscene gesture.

Although Hampshire College's president skipped the event, the point was made. Hampshire made a decision the veterans disagreed with, the veterans made their disagreement known, and everyone parted amicably. And, unlike President-elect Trump, they weren't calling for anyone to be jailed.

On the not-so-good side, we have a list of "anti-American" college professors on a site called "Professor Watchlist." The making of lists is itself an exercise of free speech, of course, but unlike the veterans' protest above, this seems punitive. As an editorial at The American Interest notes, "If Orwellian left-wing speech codes are wrong, then McCarthyist speech codes are wrong as well.

If the principle of academic freedom requires the protection of conservative scholarship, it requires the protection of liberal scholarship, too. The aim of genuine defenders of the liberal tradition must be to promote tolerance and open-mindedness, not to replace left-wing academic hegemony with a right-wing version."

Defenders of the watchlist might respond that their list, unlike campus speech codes, isn't punishing anybody. (And hey, The Washington Post itself just published a list of "fake news" sites - including things like the Drudge Report - that some have called "McCarthyite.") But it still seems pretty punitive to me.

Some folks on the right may feel that turnabout is fair play. The left, lately, has gotten into the habit of treating words it disagrees with as if they're somehow wrongful acts to be punished. The meaningless term "hate speech" - which just means speech that lefties don't like - has been used to attack the free speech of, well, people that lefties don't like.

But as satisfying as some might find it to turn those tactics around, the truth is that we all benefit from people's ability to speak freely. One reason why the Democrats were blindsided by Trump's victory - and why the British establishment was gobsmacked by the Brexit vote - is that people didn't feel they could speak freely on those subjects. A society in which people are forced to hide their views is a society in which a lot of things remain hidden.

And the very notion of having to watch what you say lest you lose your job, get expelled from school, or face social ostracism is offensive, more evocative of communist hellholes like North Korea or Cuba than of a free society. It's time to stop treating speech we disagree with as some sort of crime and start treating it as speech we disagree with, to be met by more speech, not punishment.

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Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, is the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself and is a columnist at USA TODAY.

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