Why we have free speech on university campuses, and why I will never take a call from the Stanford Review again

Jan. 18, 2018, 3:00 a.m.

As anyone who has carefully read the U.S. Constitution knows, the right to free speech is a negative freedom — it protects us from any attempt by our government to stifle the expression of our ideas. The underlying belief is that the free flow and debate of ideas are essential to a democracy. If we cannot help actively shape our government, but rather let it shape us, we no longer live in a democracy. Outside of that, communities, organizations and associations of any sort are free to determine their own version of free speech (if they decide to do so at all) and ask their members to abide by it.

At a private university such as Stanford, we are thus able to form our rules regarding free speech according to what we determine to be the values of our community. Students and faculty, as well as administrators, should take an active role in doing so. The Fundamental Standard contains elements that are relevant to that discussion. But whether private or public, universities, like democratic states, are premised on an underlying belief.

Universities believe that the free flow and debate of ideas are both essential to their goals of education, teaching and research. We cannot grow intellectually if we resign ourselves to simply rehearsing over and over again things we believe to be true. Our ideas need to be vigorously tested — only in that way can they be rejected because we realize they are faulty, or improved because we see their weaknesses, or be even more ardently professed because we are assured of their truth.

But what about the relationship between the values and assumptions of democratic states and those of institutions of liberal education? Are free speech and academic freedom in sync or entirely separate? The answer is — a little of both.

Freedom of speech vs. academic freedom?

As Professor Joan Scott has argued, there is a distinction to be made between free speech and academic freedom in this regard: “Free speech makes no distinction about quality; academic freedom does.”

I am one of the organizers of the Campus Antifascist Network. One of our basic premises is that many, if not all, of the speakers whose ideologies are aligned with the alt-right — including the ideologies of white supremacy, hetero-normalcy, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry — are using campus groups to invite them to speak at their universities not to debate, test, advance knowledge, which is the purpose of education, but to have the legitimacy — and in the case of institutions such as Stanford, Berkeley, Middlebury and others, the luster of these institutions — rub off on them. They want to be taken seriously, as having some knowledge that is important to know. But their fundamental desire is for attention. The debate over free speech for them is merely a pretext to gain publicity for themselves. They care little or nothing about free speech — hence their campaigns to dox, stalk, harass and silence critics, affixing misleading and mendacious labels to them. You will see some examples of that in the second half of this essay.

The bottom line is, whether they are allowed to speak or not, they make headlines and sell books. Those on the alt-right have absolutely no interest in debating the quality and substance of their ideas — they wish a showcase for their bigotry on university campuses simply to appropriate intellectual repute. They abuse free speech precisely in pretending to be entering into a contest of ideas, when their real intent is simply academic theater. Unfortunately, campus administrators fall into this trap over and over again.

The speech of the alt-right is peppered with devious concessions (“not all Mexicans are criminals, some may be very good people”), but their message of bigotry, which, after all, is founded on speaking of people as objects and within set categories that render them inhuman and perpetually less worthy, is crystal clear. And because they reject the basic values upon which academic freedom is founded, they have no business speaking here. They are purposefully divisive and demeaning, and endanger our community members both physically and on the internet.

One litmus test of the shallowness and pretense of pseudo-intellectuals (and here I include both the right and the left) is the extremism of their rhetoric. It is not subtle, nuanced, open to adjustment, correction, engagement — it is brittle, bombastic, demagogic. It speaks in absolutes and tricks one into thinking that the only way to win the argument is to be equally crude, simplistic and dogmatic. This is a pernicious cycle that is costly to universities in material and spiritual ways. It is a travesty, and it is a tragedy that we as an institution have fallen to the low level that our nation has in terms of polarization and sheer meanness.

Stanford needs to seriously reassess the historical context in which we live rather than cling to the belief that we are just going through a rough spot. Nothing could be more urgent.

We have a president who has called other countries “shithole” countries; called those nonviolently exercising their free speech rights “sons of bitches”; claimed that neo-Nazis are “good people”; attacked sitting jurists as “fake judges”; fired the director of the FBI and pardoned a sheriff convicted of criminal contempt; swept aside and evacuated decades of science; destroyed individuals and families through inhumane immigration policies; and so deregulated the financial world in a mad and terrifyingly effective transference of public resources into private wealth that the next crash will be 10 times worse than that of 2008.

It is in this context that I now turn to a recent article the Stanford Review ran on the subject of anti-fascism. I do so because it exhibits precisely how the alt-right works, and why these tactics have no place at Stanford, or at any other university.

The losers are the facts

In journalism, there is a bright line between opinion pieces and journalistic reporting. These days, that line has been blurred, and opinions have come to us packaged as facts. This is why I am always very careful about the words I use when I speak to journalists and check the reputation of their organizations for fairness.

I was recently approached by the Stanford Review to comment on the Campus Antifascist Network. Initially, I was hesitant. Their last piece that mentioned me was memorably entitled “Stanford’s Most Radical Professor Strikes Again.” Despite knowing full well that the Review sees me as “Stanford’s Most Radical Professor” (a label that I firmly believe demeans Stanford’s reputation much more than it does mine), I engaged with the reporter and answered her questions. I even commended her on her astuteness with regard to one question. We were polite, professional.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I clicked on the link she sent me and found yet another sensationalistic headline, worthy of any cheap tabloid one might find at the bottom of a shopping cart: “Antifa Thugs Find a Champion and Leader in Stanford Professor.”  Like any good piece of right-wing propaganda, that piece is now on Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch, bracketed by a few sentences by Spencer himself so he gets the byline. But for the Review reporters, this is a win-win situation — they get a story all their own for local consumption, and they get reprinted in a national venue.

The piece is classic yellow journalism, defined by our State Department as “a style of newspaper reporting that emphasized sensationalism over facts.” Let me give one example that illustrates how the Review produced what it felt to be a “sensational,” clickbait-y article by purposefully ignoring the facts — “antifa” is a term that now refers most commonly to agitators who actively perpetrate acts of physical disruption against fascists. But to think there is an organized “antifa” movement is ridiculous, as it is mostly comprised of anarchists. “Antifa” agitators advertise this fact broadly and are proud of it. Thus the idea that “antifa thugs” could appoint a leader, much less a professor, much less a Stanford professor their leader is risible — antifa is avowedly anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical.

This elementary, self-imposed error is repeated:

When we asked Palumbo-Liu whether he endorsed violence in the name of anti-fascism, he said, “damaging buildings and attacking people physically … is not what we advocate.” However, violence has always been a crucial tactic of the antifa movement: the American public commonly associates the anti-fascist movement with club-wielding attackers dressed in black. While the tactics of the “Campus Antifa Network” may not be violent, why would it claim the name of a known violent organization? It is a stain on the reputation of Stanford University that a professor like Palumbo-Liu is a leader in a movement whose spirit and tactics usually represent the opposite of what universities should exemplify: the civil exchange of ideas.

The Review asks: If I disavow violence, then why name my organization after the antifa movement? Well, the simple fact, as indeed even attested by the Review in that very same article, is that we purposefully did not name ourselves the “Campus Antifa Network” because we understand the distinction between those two words, that “Antifa” is not the same as “Antifascist.”

We named ourselves the “Campus Antifascist Network” to claim an alliance with the anti-fascists who fought Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and other fascist leaders. But that did not suit the Review’s purposes, so what to do? Alter the facts — when it’s convenient to say we are the Campus Antifascist Network, they use that term; when it’s convenient to say we are the Campus Antifa Network, they will say that is our name. In journalism, one sticks to the facts, yet the Review seems reluctant to provide them when most needed.

Yet another example: “Palumbo-Liu and Mullen can mince words all they want: their organization is undeniably a chapter of a terrorist group, championing the same kinds of violent resistance that have muzzled free speech across the country. [Campus Antifascist Network] aims ‘to build large, unified demonstrations against fascists on campuses when they come.’”

Here’s the problem — just saying it’s “undeniable” does not make it true. A responsible journalist would cite a source that validates that assertion.

But here is the larger point: The fact they had the nerve to float this unsubstantiated and dangerous claim shows that the Review is actually not at all interested in convincing anyone. This is not a “debatable” idea — it is “undeniable,” and it won’t be tested seriously by the facts. And this is exactly how those on the alt-right work when they come to campus — they make ridiculous, shabbily substantiated (if at all) claims, pitching them to their already-convinced base. These events on campus are decidedly not there to open minds and test knowledge — they are to recruit already-formed minds to join the campaign and to validate hatred and bigotry.

Where the real danger lies

Two final points that need to be made.

When the Review writes: “Do we really want to bring this type of vigilante thuggery to Stanford by enabling a professor who promotes it?”, it puts words I did not speak into my mouth, arrogantly ignores the facts, engages in McCarthyist guilt by association and attributes motives and behaviors without any proof whatsoever, and then its lies and distortions appear on Jihad Watch, they open the door to the hate mail, phone calls, threats and harassment that not only I, but also my family, am now subjected to. I am sure the Review simply thinks this is because of what I have done in speaking against fascism. But it’s not — it’s because of people on the internet now reacting to the misleading, and misleadingly dangerous, portrait they have fabricated of me. And that is precisely the M.O. of the alt-right. And it is intended precisely to make us think twice about speaking. In that way they show their utter contempt for real free speech.

Finally, they say we cannot really attack fascism because we don’t define it with sufficient clarity: “Palumbo-Liu’s definition of ‘fascist’ is remarkably broad,” declares the Review.

I will let one of the most legendary anti-fascists answer this one — someone who nearly died from a fascist bullet to the neck: George Orwell. These words of his seem especially useful here:

Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language.

If we as a campus community are to reach a better understanding of this complex and urgent matter, we cannot let ourselves be complacent when language is used as sloppily and deviously as in the Review. It is a true shame, returning to the start of the process: The Review and I could have had a real dialogue, we could have advanced our learning by hearing each other out and engaging others as well. That is what I thought the Review and I had started. That the Review only saw in it an opportunity to run this hit piece again is a good predictor of what will happen if we let the alt-right on campus to “teach” us something and “engage” in dialogue. So, ironically, I thank the Review for giving us all a view of your best selves. Just don’t call me again.


David Palumbo-Liu
Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor
Professor of Comparative Literature and, by courtesy, of English
Vice President, American Comparative Literature Association


Contact David Palumbo-Liu at palboliu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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