Like many other campuses around the United States, mine is papered with despicable flyers espousing an ignorant perspective on the Israel-Hamas war. My Jewish students are understandably upset and infuriated, and so am I. Every day brings fresh, unbearable details about the massacre. The contrast between that and my outside surroundings is a dissonance that fractures me to the core. In the coming days, many campuses, including ours, will see abominable displays of hatred, antisemitism, and a breathtaking level of illiteracy regarding international affairs. We’ll see laughable, imaginary coalitions between, say, Hamas and the fight for trans rights. This will be ugly and it will be emotionally difficult to stomach. It already has been a difficult struggle to function at work and it’s likely to endure for some time.
At such times, supporting a legal regime that has absolute free speech is deeply distressing and challenging. I finally found out who first wrote, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write”–it was Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in 1906. For First Amendment enthusiasts, this era epitomizes that sentiment–the price of freedom is walking around with a broken heart, even if the open goal of the speakers is to break it.
The image above depicts the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, IL; in the 1970s, Skokie was the setting for a free speech debate culminating in a Supreme Court decision that in many ways reminds me of the situation on the ground today. David Goldberger, at the time the legal director of the ACLU of Illinois (and later an Ohio State law professor specializing in free speech) has written a fascinating account, complete with images, of his representation of the Nazis in this case–not only what it was like to have them for clients, but also the public response. I really recommend that you read it verbatim. Among many things I didn’t know was the fact that Meir Kahane, in many ways the ideological granddaddy of murderous Jewish nationalists like Ben Gvir et al., started his activity in the US with the Jewish Defense League, who appeared at the ACLU offices with baseball bats! Another thing I didn’t know was that the ACLU’s choice to represent the Nazis in the Skokie trial led to tens of thousands of resignations, but also to some support letters from holocaust survivors who said that “they wanted to be able to see their enemies in plain sight so they would know who they were.” The ACLU is taking the same approach regarding the protests we are experiencing now.
I really recommend reading Goldberger’s entire account, and it’s even more interesting to ponder it through a comparative lens. Not all countries have absolute free speech; many place limitations on hate speech and incitement to racism or violence. That approach ushers its own host of problems: what is and is not “hate speech” or “incitement” is a subjective determination, and judicially delving into these questions inevitably brings in ideological perspectives and heuristics. I’m already seeing some troubling incidents in Israel in which universities and schools waste precious time and energy on McCarthyist investigations of their students, faculty, and staff.
It’s important to distinguish the general question of what should and should not be legally allowed from the more particular question, what these opinions tell us about the quality of the education we provide and about the quality of the people who espouse them. For some idea on how these ideas fester and infect people to this degree, read Julia Steinberg’s account of her own education. It exposes many of the flaws of what passes nowadays for progressive education, and dovetails with my unwillingness to responsibly participate in similar indoctrination efforts at my workplace and elsewhere. Steinberg’s piece was an important reminder that hateful idiots don’t spring into being, fully formed, in college or law school; they are raised to be the way they are in their K-12 years. I, for one, plan to keep a very watchful eye on my child’s education, to ensure that essentialist, separatist identitarian rubbish isn’t inflicted on the kids in this mindless manner.
It is also important to distinguish the right to free speech from the consequences of putting oneself out in public espousing horrendous views. Several law students in fancy schools are finding out, to their shock and surprise, that law firms are not all that keen to hire people who publicly extol the virtues of slaughtering, raping, maiming, burning alive, beheading, and kidnapping people. That being an antisemitic idiot with repugnant views is not a professional asset and has consequences in the job market shouldn’t be particularly surprising, unless you spent your undergraduate years under the tutelage of morally bankrupt people for whom espousing these “edgy” and “interesting” views was a calculated career strategy that catapulted them to prominence in fields like ethnic studies (read here a courageous letter by a UC Regent calling out the Ethnic Studies faculty council letter for what it is.) No wonder these students think they can spew horrid opinions in public and face no consequences whatsoever. What I find most amazing about the whole thing is that some of my colleagues are surprised by what they see on the campus quad. How is any of this surprising? Academic institutions, including the ones I work for, have breathed life into this Golem for years, and the last thing they should find astonishing is when it comes for them. They taught these people, but they didn’t educate them, and the proof’s in the rancid pudding.