Predictably, the massacre at Virginia Tech has unleashed an enormous volume of pseudo-psychiatric babble about developing pre-emptive steps to avoid such tragedies in the future. The harsh truth is that the science of the human mind – to the extent it can be called a science at all – is insufficiently developed to have much predictive value.
I seem always to be at a disadvantage in arguing for toleration of ugly speech even if it creeps right up to the edge of being a direct threat, as some of the sexist rants noted by Wendy Kaminer and in Joan Walsh’s Salon post to which Wendy linked. My disadvantage comes from the fact that I do not appear to be a member of what today has come to be called a “historically disadvantaged group.
Having spent decades fighting in the trenches on the front lines of the battle over campus censorship, and having co-founded a nonprofit that seeks to remedy these widespread violations of academic freedom, I can vouch for the fact that the spirit of censorship is more alive in higher education, among administrators and faculty members, than anywhere else in our society.
What’s perhaps most striking about some campus censors today is the boldness with which they refuse to hear opposing views, much less provide forums for them. You don’t have to be an axe murderer or current or former dictator to be blackballed by some campus "progressives." You could simply be former Harvard president Larry Summers, whose March 14th talk at Tufts University about undergraduate education was boycotted by some Tufts professors.
Harvey chides me for “glossing over” the “rights” of parents who sued the Lexington school district for exposing their elementary kids to sympathetic books about gay families. They lost their case in federal court, when Judge Wolf dismissed their federal constitutional claims and their claims under state law. As Harvey notes, the parents are free nonetheless to press their state law claims in state courts: these claims were dismissed without prejudice –- not because this is a hard case, as Harvey suggests -- but because state courts are the appropriate arbiters of novel state statutory claims.
Wendy Kaminer too readily glosses over the rights of the parents who lost their case against the Lexington school authorities in early March when United States District Judge Mark L. Wolf dismissed their complaint seeking to exempt their elementary school children from a curriculum promoting tolerance of homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular.
Last month, the religious right lost a local skirmish in the culture war when federal district court Judge Mark Wolf ruled that Lexington school officials did not violate the Constitution by distributing two books about gay families in a Lexington elementary school. Wolf dismissed a case brought by 4 parents who regard homosexuality as sinful and argued that the effort to teach tolerance and respect for gay people and families interfered with their First Amendment rights to raise their children according to their own religious beliefs.
Given all the reasons to fear that the end might be near (global warming and the spectre of nuclear or biological terrorism to name just a few,) you might expect people to gain some sense of perspective about the “dangers” of free speech. You would be wrong.
Speech phobias are on the rise. They're partly related to sex phobias, and they partly reflect widespread liberal abandonment of civil liberty when it makes previously subordinated groups uncomfortable.