The Cost of Free Speech

Jeff Ward may well have been right when he said, “I never bought into the idea that surrendering your voice was a way to commemorate an inauspicious anniversary. I think that’s a cop-out.” But if some conservatives have their way, we may all lose the voices of dissent.

Not surprisingly the recent debate over terrorism and America’s reaction to it has again stirred controversy on the rights of free speech. The Houston Chronicle ran two different articles, or at least linked to them, that offered opposing views on the right of free speech in academics.

Apparently this particular debate centers on Professor Robert Jensen who was critical of American anti-terrorist efforts after 9/11. In a recent article entitled “There’s still time for Americans to stop insanity” he argues that

… the so-called "war on terrorism" is primarily a war to project U.S power around the world. Its goal is to extend and deepen U.S. control, especially in the energy-rich Middle East and Central Asia. Ordinary people have not benefited, and will not benefit, from this war or the economics that drive it.

Although the piece lacks the kind of hard evidence to make a strong argument, his thought-provoking ideas raise questions that some politicians would prefer not to have to answer.

He also argues that oil is the primary motivation behind our anti-terrorist activities:

These failed attempts to build a case for war only highlight what has long been clear: The war in Afghanistan and a possible war in Iraq are about U.S. dominance, at two levels. The first involves the specific resources of those regions. In the case of Afghanistan, the concern is pipelines to carry the oil and natural gas of the Caspian region to deep-water ports. In Iraq, it's about controlling the country with the world's second-largest oil reserves.

This certainly doesn’t seem like a particularly new charge, though it was probably an unpopular opinion to express on September 8th. A more controversial charge, though, is that America is an “empire” like Rome or Britain trying to expand our empire through war:

Beyond those direct interests, the logic of empire requires violence on this scale; when challenged, imperial powers strike back to maintain credibility and extend control. U.S. control is through mechanisms different from Rome or Britain in their imperial phases, but there can be no doubt that we are an empire.

Earlier editorials by Professor Jenson apparently sparked controversy at his university when administrators objected to his writings, which led to charges by colleagues that the administration did not support free speech among its teachers.

The professors’ protests, in turn, inspired an editorial called “The college professors who are wailing about post–Sept. 11 threats to their First Amendment rights are actually ardent opponents of free speech.” by Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute that seems to me to threaten the very foundations of freedom of speech in our country. In essence, this editorial argued that the only way professors should be guaranteed freedom of speech is by being on the faculty of a privately-owned university, that any professor who worked for a public university had no right to say anything that may offend the taxpayers who are paying his salary.

While conceding that everyone has the right to freedom of speech, Ghate argues that “a professor has the freedom to teach any view he wishes but has no right to demand that Harvard employ him.” In other words, say what you want, but we have the right to fire you if you say it.

According to Ghate, denying universities the right to fire professors whose views they disagree with strips the owners of a university:

of their right to choose which ideas their wealth supports. Why? So that professors who consistently teach the evil of individualism, capitalism, the profit motive—and America—can espouse their views without the burden of having to seek the voluntary consent of those forced to sponsor them.

Ignoring for a moment the faulty generalization that professors generally oppose individualism, capitalism, and the profit motive, I wonder how much freedom of speech we would have in America if any employer, let alone universities, were allowed to fire a person simply because that person wrote a letter to the editor expressing an unpopular idea. Would that mean that only the self-employed would be allowed to have freedom of speech? What kind of guarantee of freedom of speech would that be?

But Ghate doesn’t stop here, he goes much further, arguing that:

public education as such is antithetical to free speech. Whether leftists are forced to pay taxes to fund universities from which their academic spokesmen are barred, or non-leftists are forced to pay taxes to fund professors who condemn America as a terrorist nation, someone loses the right to choose which ideas his money supports.

From here, Ghate leaps, miraculously, to the conclusion that:

To protect free speech, therefore, universities would have to be privatized. The owners of a university could then hire the faculty they endorsed, while others could refuse to fund the university if they disagreed with its teachings. But since privatization would threaten the left's grip on the universities, it vehemently opposes this solution. In the name of free speech, the left denounces as "tyranny of the almighty dollar" the sole means of actually preserving free speech.

Do we think Ghates is really stupid enough to believe that the American public will give up their universities and sell them to private companies? Or, is this merely a red-herring, allowing him to state the real point of his editorial?

Finally, he summarizes by arguing that:

So we must not be fooled by the professors' cries about threats to their freedom of speech. Freedom is precisely what they don't want. Their grumblings are simply smokescreens to prevent us from seeing that we are right in objecting to being forced to finance their loathsome ideas.

In other words, we need to shut these people up; they have no right to object because they aren’t rich enough to be heard. Save that right for the Bushes and Cheneys of the world who have gotten rich off oils and arms, correct?

The real issue that is never discussed here, apparently because Ghate doesn’t really believe in it, is the inherent value of freedom of speech. The Founding Fathers believed truth could be arrived at only by hearing all views and by then deciding what the truth was. Universities in the past have agreed with that view, thus providing special protection for the exchange of ideas in that environment. If opposing ideas are not allowed in schools, where will they be allowed? If truth is denied there, will it disappear under the rhetoric of majority rule?

What do you think?