Has Free Speech Fallen to Partisan Cherry-Picking?

Consider for a moment a story:

A state university professor angrily demands that police forcibly remove a student journalist at a protest, and then assaults the journalist when the police don't act.

State lawmakers from one party rush in to demand that the professor be fired for their conduct. The other party is politely quiet on the matter.

Which party is rushing in, and which is standing aside?

In this case, it's the University of Missouri, the professor is Melissa Click, and the intervening lawmakers are Republicans. The student journalist was documenting a protest. When I tell you that the protesters being documented were predominantly black, perhaps your brain paints a story that's very clear about the likely political leanings of each party involved.

Another state legislature wants to use the law to limit what materials schools, particularly universities, can show to students, because the material could be "offensive" or "harmful." Professors or other officials would become legally liable for bringing such harmful materials into the school and exposing students to them. 

The bill is designed to protect students and create a safe space. The legislators? Also Republicans. The material being banned in this case? Anything particularly sexual, if minors are being exposed to it. 

In both cases, you may not be surprised that the typical left- and right-wing news outlets tout the value of free speech in one case, and not the other. 

Free speech is a value that Americans hold dearly, allowing Westboro Baptist Church and KKK rallies, or even extremist political parties. This is something that's not true in many other countries, and Americans are twice as likely as those in other OECD countries to support the legal protection of "offensive" speech about minorities (though Millennials far less so than other generations). But Americans are also feeling a bit conflicted on speech when it comes to hate and harm, seeming to hold simultaneously both that those who engage in hate speech are more dangerous than those who silence it, and also that campuses need to focus on fostering diverse points of view. Most Americans believe there are places where the government should step in, like banning the sale of recordings that favor drug use or broadcasting of sexually explicit lyrics. 

Something to consider: while each party will take the opportunity to support free speech on some pet issues and oppose it on others: do Americans as a whole have philosophically inconsistent or contradictory points of view on free speech, or is there a way so synthesize these perspectives into an internally consistent model?

Let us know your thoughts in comments!

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.