Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Free Speech, the First Amendment, and the Rise of Conservative Libertines

Another day, another higher ed-related First Amendment issue:
University of Alabama may have violated First Amendment by kicking out racist student
This has become a popular battle in the Culture Wars of our day. Conservative student or speaker says something shocking and offensive, backlash ensues, defenders rush in crying "First Amendment!", and everybody ends up upset.

I don't envy the administration at Alabama in this case. There's no way to win in these situations - whatever you do, one tribe or another will be ticked off. If they expel the student, every culture-war conservative organization in the country will come down on them. If they don't punish the student, they'll catch fire from both their own African American student population as well as liberal groups from around the country. None of this is Alabama's fault, but they're stuck in the middle of it.

Side note to faculty: If you want good presidents and administrators at your institutions, you need to start helping your administration in these cases. Too often faculty take sides and take shots at their own administrations - and then wonder why more smart people don't want to be university presidents. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

I'm perfectly willing to accept the legal analysis in the article linked above. Courts have ruled that public institutions (though not private ones) are covered by the First Amendment's meaning of "government", and that speech by itself (though not speech that threatens violence or harm) is protected and cannot be proscribed or punished. This is probably why conservative agitators and firebrands tend to pick on public schools more than private ones.

I support the First Amendment and think it's in place for very good reasons. Likely the student should not, on legal grounds, have been expelled.

What's more interesting to me is the culture war behind this. In recent years it's mostly been conservatives taking up the Free Speech banner, part of their larger narrative that they are discriminated against on university campuses (a narrative debunked in research conducted by my friends Matt Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner; you can see an example here). This is really just a cover to "win" and to score points against their enemies, of course - tribal conservatives are just as likely as tribal liberals to object to speech they don't like.

This strikes me as just another way that the conservative movement has wandered so far from its roots as to be unrecognizable. When I was young, conservatives planted their flag on a series of propositions about values and ethics. One of these was the importance of personal responsibility, and the connection between rights (individual freedoms) and the responsibilities to use those rights appropriately and well to the betterment of society.

During the 1960s, conservatives decried the excesses of liberty which they saw in the liberal hippie/flower power/free love movements of the day. To conservatives, hippies weren't exercising liberty so much as engaging in libertine behavior - individual freedom with no thought to those around you, or for society as a whole. Conservatives saw the liberal cultural waves of feminism, free love, and revolutionary fervor as undermining important values that serve as underpinnings of social cohesion.

Now people who call themselves "conservatives" are busy defending people like this Alabama student who spits in the face of society, who uses her freedom in vile ways that undermine social cohesion. What is "conservative" about this student's language? Hatred and racism have no more place in conservative thought (at least, as it used to be expressed) than they do in liberal thought.

I am waiting - possibly in vain - for a genuine conservative resurgence, a return of traditional conservative values that actually care about the community. In the meantime, we're stuck with these hatred-fueled sideshows that are all about destruction and anger, and that offer no positive vision for society or the future.

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