The doublethink of the campus free speech debate

Rick Esenberg & Luke Berg:


Rick Esenberg and Luke Berg: The doublethink of the campus free speech debate
By Rick Esenberg and Luke Berg | president and deputy counsel, Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty Aug 30, 2019
3 min to read
ben shapiro speech (copy)
UW-Madison student Cody Fearing, center, leads a protest of the appearance of conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro (at right in blue shirt) on campus in November 2017.
In the book “1984,” George Orwell coined the term “doublethink” to refer to “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

The evil genius of doublethink is that it does not require its practitioners to navigate any sense of cognitive dissonance or explain away hypocrisy. Rather, it allows them to deny that there’s a problem. As Orwell put it, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

And free speech is the suppression of speech.

A recent hearing on a proposed rule by the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents regarding campus free speech was rife with doublethink. A group of students and faculty argued the new rule would serve to stifle free speech, not protect it. A left-wing group claimed the policy would provide “protection to provocateurs and their hateful speech” and somehow empower “white nationalism.” Student speakers said that the proposed rule would stifle dissent and protest. The problem, apparently, is with the Regents’ prohibition of activity that would “materially and substantially disrupt the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity.”

There is ample reason for the Regents’ concern. When conservative pundit Ben Shapiro came to UW-Madison in 2016, a group of about 20 students shouted, heckled and stood up to disrupt the speech. At Middlebury College in Vermont, a progressive faculty member was sent to the hospital when students and others protested an appearance by social scientist Charles Murray. At William & Mary, a speech by the executive director of the Virginia ACLU was shut down by protesters from the campus chapter of Black Lives Matter. At campuses from CUNY Law School in Queens to Claremont McKenna in Orange County, California, university students have interpreted their right of free speech to include the physical disruption of the speech of others.

For many of those commenting at the hearing, this is as it should be. Free speech, in the view of the Regents’ critics, requires the ability to physically disrupt the speech of others. Public discourse, in their view, operates at the level of roller derby and pro wrestling. No holds are barred and let the devil take the hindmost.