Banning hate speech ultimately hurts progressive cause

Oct. 30 author’s addendum: Since this column was published, it has come to my attention that several of the claims I made in it were unverified. I would like to retract those remarks and apologize to those who were hurt by them.

In politics, always respect the rule of unintended consequences. That is to say, politics is chess, and you must anticipate the consequences of every action, the consequences of those consequences and so on. If you don’t, your actions could very well backfire. In this column, I will discuss the actions of Healing to Action (H2A) and the larger progressive community, and I will explain why I believe their current trajectory may backfire. The two actions I will consider in particular are the intentional or unintentional misrepresentation of facts and support for a ban on hate speech.

On Wednesday, the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union (VCLU) hosted a lecture by a conservative Cornell law professor, William A. Jacobson, entitled “An Examination of Hate Speech And Free Speech on College Campuses.” This was the original title for the event before it was changed to “‘Hate Speech’ is Still Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville,” and then back to the original. This title, and the subject of the event itself, instigated serious concerns within the Vassar community and prompted H2A, a progressive activism group at Vassar, to hold a meeting attended by hundreds of students. The focus of this meeting was to ensure the safety of the student body during the event, and attendees shared their thoughts on how best to do that. They also workshopped ideas about how to effectively boycott or protest the event.

I want to make absolutely clear that I in no way condone hate speech on or off campus. My intention in writing this is ultimately to support the progressive causes of racial equality, intersectional feminism and the creation of a more tolerant and peaceful society by presenting what I believe is the best course of action.

The first action that I would like to address is the misrepresentation of facts. For this, I would like to clarify the truth of a few claims H2A made about the event for the sake of upholding truth. Firstly, while Professor Jacobson is a conservative and runs a conservative publication called “Legal Insurrection,” it was alleged by some that he is actually a white supremacist. There is no evidence to support this fact, and while some may argue that conservative and white supremacist are one and the same, Jacobson, to my knowledge, has not been accused by anybody besides H2A of harboring racist or white supremacist opinions.

Furthermore, some people alleged that news of the event was shared on white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites and publications. My research found that the news was shared on four sites: Legal Insurrection, VidolAmerica.org, LongRoom. com and VCLU’s own newspaper, Tertium Quids. While some of these sites lean right, none could reasonably be considered white nationalist in the way that the Daily Stormer or the KKK’s website can. The statement that the event has been shared on white nationalist websites is misleading.

Lastly, there is no evidence that I could find to support H2A’s claim that members of national hate groups are likely to come to this event as they did in Charlottesville. The president of VCLU told me that they know of “five people” who are attending and who shall remain confidential.. Besides that, there is no evidence of attendees from the outside community, and claims of any are little more than speculation branching off of the earlier claim that news of the event was shared on white nationalist websites.

I bring up these points for a simple reason: the pursuit of honesty. I don’t believe H2A was malicious or even intentionally dishonest in these statements. Furthermore, I am just referring to what I heard from H2A leaders at their Monday meeting. It is possible that this information came from the VSA or some other source. I am, admittedly, without knowledge of where this information originated. That said, it is up to each group to screen the facts that they present.

Also, it must be noted that the VCLU has acted dishonestly as well. Originally, the VCLU president misrepresented the event on his VSA funding application by attaching a title he did not intend to use. If we wish to have truly equitable and constructive discourse, the first thing we must do is hold ourselves to a high standard of honesty. For both groups, I believe the rule of unintended consequences will ultimately prevail if they continue to misrepresent the truth. It will backfire, likely through the public sentiment.

Now I would like to address the topic of the lecture: how to address hate speech in relation to free speech. I think it is a reasonable assumption, drawn from both firsthand testimony from the H2A meeting as well as a proven correlation between left-wing beliefs and support for a ban on hate speech, that most H2A members and much of the Vassar community would support, or at least consider, a ban.

Americans, however, are more split on exactly what to do about this: A YouGov poll shows that “59 percent of Americans say people should be able to express even deeply offensive views, while 40 percent said government should prevent people from engaging in hate speech” (The Atlantic “America’s Many Divides Over Free Speech,” 10.09.2017). Much of that 40 percent consists of Democrats, minorities and young people. However, banning hate speech would not help the left, and it might even hurt us.

First, we must consider how anti-hate speech laws would be enforced and how hate speech would be interpreted by the government. There actually are useful case studies for this, since several European countries, including France, the UK and Germany, have laws banning certain forms of hate speech. Unfortunately, hate speech, whether we like it or not, is in the eye of the beholder, and it ultimately falls on the government to enforce how hate speech laws are interpreted. As I stated earlier, it is fair to say that progressives “long for Europe’s hate speech restrictions,” based on the notion “that those laws are used to outlaw and punish expression of the bigoted ideas they most hate: racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny,” (“In Europe, Hate Speech Laws are Often Used to Suppress and Punish Left-Wing Viewpoints,” The Intercept, 09.29.2017). However, this notion might be somewhat misguided.

While hate speech laws have been used effectively to combat racism and anti-Semitism, there have also been many questionable interpretations of them, particularly against left-wing speech. Take France for example: “In 2015,” writes the Intercept, “France’s highest court upheld the criminal conviction of 12 pro-Palestinian activists for…wearing T-shirts that advocated a boycott of Israel.” In the UK, meanwhile, “‘hate speech’ has come to include anyone expressing virulent criticism of UK soldiers fighting in war,” (The Intercept).

Now, I would like readers to imagine a country in which, unlike most of these European countries, the political system is completely broken, and a far-right lunatic with a loose understanding of truth is the chief executive. It’s a stretch, I know. Now imagine what would happen if those aforemen- tioned hate speech laws were in place in this totally hypothetical country. The executive branch, run by a man who often takes the terms of the left—like “fake news” and “racist”—and turns them against the left, and courts filled with justices appointed by that man would be in charge of enforcing those laws. I would go to jail if this were the case. So would many Vassar students. All of this assumes, by the way, a serious alteration or deletion of the First Amendment, which courts have consistently said prevents this sort of legislation.

Finally, we must ask ourselves if banning hate speech is truly the solution to the overlying problem of institutional racism. I would argue no. Making hateful speech illegal does not simply stamp out the sentiment that caused it in the first place. A ban on hate speech in France certainly didn’t stop over a third of the country from voting for far-right and islamophobic presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Nor did similar bans prevent the rise and prominence of other far-right parties all across Europe. People will still vote, act and commit violence in the name of racism regardless of the law because they are still, in fact, racist.

There are better ways to combat racism. Christian Picciolini, the founder of Life After Hate, a group that tries to integrate KKK members, neo-Nazis and white supremacists back into society argues that these hateful groups are filled with people who feel powerless to control their lives and that punishing their actions is unnecessary when there are other effective ways of changing these people. He uses a method of education and exposure to multiculturalism to reintegrate white supremacists, and it has been proven to work.

I would like to close by emphasizing the importance of this issue. As H2A frequently reminds people, racism has always been here, it is ingrained in societies all over the world and it isn’t going away soon. That is why it cannot be fought sloppily. Efforts to combat racism must be deliberate. Progressive groups cannot simply misrepresent the facts, try to physically fight white supremacists or pass dangerous legislation to silence them. If we truly want to combat racism, we must make a choice to be smart about it.

The Miscellany News is not responsible for the views presented within the Opinions section. The weekly staff editorial is the only article which reflects the opinions of the Editorial Board.

11 Comments

  1. What is your source for claiming that Prof. Jacobson is a white supremacist? I seriously doubt this. Conservative may not be my cup of tea, but it’s unacceptable to throw defamatory accusations like this around; you simply must back them up or drop them. Partisan websites of any ilk are not a reliable source. Having your event publicized by an alt-right website is also not a proof of anything. Far-right groups love to smear people, as you are probably aware.

  2. You had it right the first time, Drew. Prof. Jacobson is about the farthest thing from a white supremacist imaginable. It’s your addendum that’s unverified and unverifiable. And defamatory, to boot. Whatever led you to publish it, you might want to go to the source. I know that the VSA has been circulating a smear piece on Prof. Jacobson with links to his website and commentary that either misrepresents or misunderstands the content of those links, in many cases grotesquely. Students are certainly free to disagree with and challenge Prof. Jacobson’s views but accusations of this sort are beyond the pale. I highly recommend this op-ed to you and your readers.
    https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-10-24/be-careful-who-you-call-a-white-supremacist

  3. It is so disappointing to see the author of this piece join the smear campaign against Professor Jacobson with this baseless and defamatory addendum. Professor Jacobson is a highly respected Cornell law professor who came to Vassar to explain free speech protection under the First Amendment. Some students may be upset to learn that the First Amendment protects even vile and hateful speech, but as responsible citizens it is essential that they understand the history and ramifications of a civil liberty that has been essential to our democracy since its founding. Those persons involved in fomenting the hysteria that preceded Prof. Jacobson’s talk, with false accusations that he is a white supremacist and wild claims that Nazis and white nationalists would invade the campus, were reckless and irresponsible, and they owe Prof Jacobson and the peers whom they needlessly terrified, an apology. And the entire Vassar community should be grateful to Prof. Jacobson for proceeding with his talk despite the manufactured hysteria that preceded it. By the accounts I have heard, it was — amazingly — an educational event in which students got to seriously engage on a complex and timely subject. They had the opportunity to have their views challenged, and to challenge the views of the speaker in return. This — and not mob rule as to what are appropriate thoughts and beliefs — is what a liberal arts education is supposed to provide.

  4. “William A. Jacobson is, in fact, a white supremacist”

    This is an utterly absurd and inane claim. What, exactly, is your evidence for it?

  5. “William A. Jacobson is, in fact, a white supremacist.” – Huh ? Based on what fact is this conclusion ? I think the guys’ an obnoxious idiot, but this ?

  6. This is shameful. Andrew Solendar has made a reckless and completely unsupported slur against William Jacobson. He needs to either provide support for his claim or retract it and apologize.

    If Mr. Solendar does not respond, then the editors are obligated to take the appropriate action. Does the Miscellany News have even the most basic standards for editorial writing?

  7. I am dumbfounded to read Mr. Solender’s statement that “William A. Jacobson is, in fact, a white supremicist…”. I wonder if Mr. Solender is seeking protection under the First Amendment as he makes such an unsupported defamatory accusation.

    Professor Jacobson delivered a defense of the American right to free speech, even if that speech offends. The desire to chip away at freedom of speech and thought on so many campuses today is in full display as the communitities often overreact to the potential of being offended by a presentation that might not jibe with their opinions.

    Campuses today are certainly not encouraging the next Copernicus or Galileo.

  8. I join with the other commentators on the questionable statement that Mr. Jacobson is a white supremacist. This is a serious charge and you offer no proof of your “fact”. The notification of the event on a white supremacist website in no way correlates to Mr. Jacobson and white supremacy.
    It is time to move away from “alternative facts” and stick to facts that can be proven. I would strongly suggest that you provide verifiable sources (more than one) to back up your claim or you must retract your addendum

  9. Jacobson lecture revisited

    Given the far-left leaning political bias on the Vassar campus, I was not surprised by the “sturm und drang” expressed by the VSA Executive Committee and the Healing to Action group in anticipation of Cornell University Law Professor William Jacobson’s lecture on the relationship between “hate speech” and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The VSA leaders, claiming that Jacobson promoted “sanctioned violence” and would speak from a “platform for hate,” penned a letter to President Bradley “strongly urging” her to “prevent him from coming to campus,” “so that the safety and well-being of students” would not be endangered. H2A warned of violence and putting “”Black, brown, Jewish, queer and trans bodies at risk,” established a “safety” space in the Library together with coloring books and art supplies during the presentation and asked those with “white privilege” to “look out for and support” marginalized groups. Other voices on campus called Jacobson a racist and a white supremacist.

    __________
    I was also not surprised, given my familiarity with Professor Jacobson’s reputation and work, that his presentation was well-measured, reasonable and devoid of any hint of racism. His answers in the Q and A, likewise, demonstrated sensibility and a vast understanding of the subject. There was absolutely no justification in the attempt to muzzle Jacobson prior to his arrival at Vassar. It was another example of the widespread intolerance for conservative speakers on college campuses today.

    _________________
    If Vassar is indeed interested in providing a balanced liberal art education, fundamental changes must occur. Even more than attempting to admit and support students from underrepresented minorities, Vassar should promulgate underrepresented points of view. Vassar must select a more diverse faculty and student body based on how they think, not on how they look. The rationale of encouraging diversity of skin color in college students and college faculty was to bring in a wide range of experiences and thought that would broaden the learning of all. Yet the diversity of experience has not led to a diversity of thinking. There is virtually a 100% left political voice on a majority of college campuses today. Vassar takes pride in stating that it has attained a true mosaic of students and faculty. Yet, teaching is monolithic and both students and faculty, regrettably, have a single point of view.
    _____________________
    It is unfortunate that Vassar needs to bring in people from the outside to allow conservative freedom of speech.

    __________________

    The key to change, if indeed it is desired, involves the hiring of more conservative academicians in all disciplines, people who the current faculty would consider out of the mainstream. If a college faculty does not value contrary points of view, their classroom attitude infects both admissions departments and student bodies. Intellectual intolerance and silencing of speech has no place in a liberal arts institution.

    ________________________
    Instead of teaching the ubiquity and evils of “white privilege,” Vassar and similar institutions should reduce the overwhelming burden of “political correctness.” If there are requirements for entering students to attend lectures and do reading on “man-made global warming” and “institutional racism,” diverse study of readings such as Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” or Thomas Sowell’s “Basic Economics” should also be compulsory. The idea of a major in “social justice” should be abandoned.
    _____________________________________
    In addition to knowledge of the nuances of the First Amendment, the lessons learned from Professor Jacobson’s visit should encourage Vassar to embrace intellectual diversity rather than continue to support a one-sided ideology.

    ___________________________

  10. Andrew Solander, your accusations against Professor Jacobsen are completely baseless. I have known for years tgat the admissions criteria at Vassar have been lowered, and you clearly prove that point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *