Recently, Smith College held an alumnae forum on free speech. Defending the now-quaint notion was former ACLU board member, Wendy Kaminer.
Kaminer argued in favor of the proposition, which is inscribed in American jurisprudence that hateful, offensive speech must be allowed in the public square.
For her efforts she was denounced as a racist.
A Harvey Silverglate explains, Kaminer’s vigorous defense of free speech quickly ran afoul of the modern tendency to protect the delicate sensibilities of students from any potential traumatizing words.
Thus, the advent of what are called trigger warnings:
Trigger/Content Warnings: Racism/racial slurs, abelist slurs, anti-Semitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexist/misogynistic slurs, references to race-based violence.
Smith is not the epicenter of hostility to free speech. On university campuses nationwide we are witnessing an increasing tide of trigger warnings. They are popping up on syllabi, in discussions of public art, and even finding their way into official school policies.
On Oct. 27, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology circulated a survey questionnaire to its entire student body on the issue of sexual assault—a so-called “climate survey” to try to determine and expose the extent of the problem at the school. Remarkably enough, the survey itself came accompanied by, guess what:
“TRIGGER WARNING: Some of the questions in this survey use explicit language, including anatomical names of body parts and specific behaviors to ask about sexual situations. This survey also asks about sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence which may be upsetting. Resources for support will be available on every page of the survey, should you need them.”
None of this is really news.
But now, we see a far more chilling assault on freedom of expression coming from Great Britain by way of Theresa May, home secretary in David Cameron’s conservative government.
Underscore the fact that May’s efforts to censor speech are coming from the British right, not the left.
Brendan O’Neill outlines the nightmare proposal:
In Britain, if you have extreme views on anything from Western democracy to women's role in public life, you might soon require a licence from the government before you can speak in public. Seriously.
Nearly 350 years after us Brits abolished the licensing of the press, whereby every publisher had to get the blessing of the government before he could press and promote his ideas, a new system of licensing is being proposed. And it's one which, incredibly, is even more tyrannical than yesteryear's press licensing since it would extend to individuals, too, potentially forbidding ordinary citizens from opening their gobs in public without officialdom's say-so.
It's the brainchild of Theresa May, the Home Secretary in David Cameron's government. May wants to introduce"extremism disruption orders", which, yes, are as terrifyingly authoritarian as they sound.
Last month, May unveiled her ambition to "eliminate extremism in all its forms." Whether you're a neo-Nazi or an Islamist, or just someone who says things which betray, in May's words, a lack of "respect for the rule of law" and "respect for minorities", then you could be served with an extremism disruption order (EDO).
If, perchance you are branded an extremist by the government, you will need police permission before expressing an opinion in public:
Once served with an EDO, you will be banned from publishing on the Internet, speaking in a public forum, or appearing on TV. To say something online, including just tweeting or posting on Facebook, you will need the permission of the police. There will bea "requirement to submit to the police in advance any proposed publication on the web, social media or print." That is, you will effectively need a licence from the state to speak, to publish, even to tweet, just as writers and poets did in the 1600s before the licensing of the press was swept away and modern, enlightened Britain was born (or so we thought).
Obviously, this does not merely aim at speech that incites violence or terrorism. It can easily be extended to any and all politically incorrect thinking. And it will apply to any speech that would, in some American universities elicit a trigger warning:
As one newspaper report sums it up, the aim is "to catch not just those who spread or incite hatred," but anyone who indulges in "harmful activities" that could cause "public disorder" or "alarm or distress" or a "threat to the functioning of democracy." (By "harmful activities", the government really means "harmful words"—there's that Orwellian slip again.) This is such a cynically flabby definition of extremism that it could cover any form of impassioned, angry political or moral speech, much of which regularly causes "alarm or distress" to some of the people who hear it.
But, wouldn’t this policy apply to all those who evince Islamophobia by speaking ill of Islam and to those who do not accept gay marriage?
What the government is proposing is the punishment of thought crimes, plain and simple. Its insistence that officialdom must now move beyond policing violence and incitements to violence and start clamping down on hotheaded, "harmful" speech that simply distresses people is about colonising the world of thought, of speech, of mere intellectual interaction between individuals—spheres officialdom has no business in policing….
May's proposal to set up a system of licensing for speech, essentially to provide a license to those who respect British values and deny it to those who don't, is the ugly, authoritarian endpoint to the mad obsession with hate speech that has enveloped much of the Western world in recent years.