Seeking consistency when it comes to free speech

Two items in the news today show the inconsistency we have toward the issue of free speech.

Last night, San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem. He did so on military appreciation night, which some say is particularly galling since they believe the National Anthem is about the military.

“Once again, I’m not anti-American,” Kaepernick said. “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better. I think having these conversations helps everybody have a better understanding of where everybody is coming from.

“Those conversations are important to have because the better we understand each other, the better we know each other, the better we can deal and communicate with each other which ultimately makes everyone, puts everybody in a better position.”

It’s only a matter of time before this dispute spreads to the stands.

In Chicago, meanwhile, the University of Chicago has its own free speech battle after the dean sent a letter to incoming students advising them the university will not require trigger warnings nor provide safe spaces to isolate them from speech they might find troubling.

’’Invited speakers are disinvited because a segment of a university community deems them offensive, while other orators are shouted down for similar reasons,’’ University president Dr. Robert J. Zimmer added.

That brings applause today in an editorial in the Boston Globe, which says the university is making clear “that the students at the University of Chicago will not be treated as fragile snowflakes, to be sheltered at all costs from disturbing, unfamiliar, or distressing points of view.”

In much of American academia lately, the notion that intellectual growth can involve — should involve — grappling with unpleasant or uncongenial ideas has become taboo. Professors have been silenced or disciplined for saying or publishing things some students resented. Students have been punished for speaking freely about hot-button issues. Universities have promulgated dangerously illiberal speech codes, commencement speakers have been denounced and disinvited, and the orthodoxies of political correctness have been enforced with Star Chamber severity.

At the University of Chicago, students should anticipate none of that.

“Our commitment to academic freedom,” wrote Dean Ellison, “means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

It is a troubling sign of the times that college freshmen should require such a message.

Perhaps it’s not just college freshmen.

  • Mike Worcester
    • No. It’s an homage to the flag.

      • rosswilliams

        Really? I doubt it. Its an homage to the country. But it is specifically an homage to the military success that kept the flag flying over a fort.

        • Fred Child

          It may be a sidebar to the larger discussion (about which: thanks for keeping it alive with both directness and civility, Bob), but I’m going to have to agree with Ross on this one. F.S. Key’s words are, yes, about the flag, but in the context of a military victory at the end of a fierce battle (“bombs bursting in air,” “the havoc of war,” and a line about blood spilled for a good cause), and pointing toward future use of force: “…then conquer we must, when our cause is just…”. Mr. Kaepernick has made it abundantly clear HE isn’t protesting our military. and I take him at his word. But the song was inspired by, and refers to, the bravery and actions of our national military.

          • I defer to those of you who can carry a tune.

          • JamieHX

            Oh! THAT Fred Child! Love PT.

          • BJ

            >context of a military victory at the end of a fierce battle

            What? The Fort wasn’t a ‘military’ fort is was a settlement / frontier fort.

            Wasn’t really a ‘battle’ as it was a ‘shelling’ from the British Navy.

          • rosswilliams

            From Wikipedia:

            “Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, Maryland, is a historical American coastal star-shaped fort best known for its role in the War of 1812, when it successfully defended Baltimore Harbor from an attack by the British navy from the Chesapeake Bay September 13–14, 1813. It was first built in 1798 and was used continuously by U.S. armed forces through World War I and by the Coast Guard in World War II. It was designated a national park in 1925, and in 1939 was redesignated a “National Monument and Historic Shrine,””

  • Mike

    The principle of free speech tends to make hypocrites of us all at some point. We tend to support it until someone actually starts exercising it, and saying things that we disagree with, or things that offend us. Then come the calls to shut that person down.

    I would point out that the First Amendment only guarantees protection from government censorship. It does not mean that individuals have some untrammeled right to express themselves wherever and whenever. Your employer has every right to restrict your speech when you’re at work. Similarly, a private university like the University of Chicago has a lot of discretion as to what kind of speech to allow on campus.

    That’s not to say that either of these types of censorship is wise, just that they are not prohibited by the First Amendment. That being said, I think the university is making the right choices here. College undergraduates are not special snowflakes, and they don’t have a right not to be offended. To the extent that they can’t handle opposing points of view, they have no business being in college.

  • Justin McKinney

    As a veteran, I respect Mr. Kaepernick’s right to sit during the anthem. I agree with Ralphy’s comment – sports should not be a stage for “blind nationalism and military idolatry” – especially given the corruption that has been proven relating to the money between the government and especially the NFL.

    I have been watching many of my fellow veterans on social media in recent days, and overwhelmingly, they seem to vilify his decision to sit, choosing to forget that part of the reason we wore the uniform was to defend that very right. We don’t have to agree with people’s use of free speech, but we definitely have to protect it.

  • Joe

    It’s great that in the U of Chicago’s letter about not having trigger warnings, they use a trigger warning!!!

    Right before saying “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings’ …” they say “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.” Which is exactly what trigger warnings say, that something will be shown or said that might cause discomfort.

    Another interesting thing to note is that the University is telling it’s professors that they are not allowed to say a particular thing in class, which seems like an odd move to make to support “free speech.”

    On another note, go Kaep, I hope the Vikings pick him up.

  • Gary F

    I’d just like to see what he does in his off time to try to make things better. Does he actually roll up his sleeves and work with organizations, or even donated some of his millions he makes each year to his causes?

    I’ve got no problem with him doing this, but making a stand is all that it is. Doing something about it is another thing.

  • Josh

    The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) conducted a survey to try to find out how prevalent trigger warnings actually were, and concluded they were primarily a facet of Internet culture and are not nearly as prevalent in classrooms as is widely assumed.

    • Here’s the link to the “survey” which wasn’t done scientifically.

      http://ncac.org/resource/ncac-report-whats-all-this-about-trigger-warnings

      The key finding was that while there aren’t many formal trigger warning policies, there is significant demand from students for them.

      Student demands are plainly having the desired result: “After teaching a course for the first time, a student complained in the anonymous evaluation. Ever since, I verbally include a trigger warning at the start of each semester.” The effects can be more pronounced in some places than others: one instructor who adopted warnings for “sexual/homosexual content … was [in] Tennessee, where I had newly arrived. I would not have done the same in California, but I knew that we have a lot of evangelical students here and wanted to avoid any complaints.

      It’s a confusing article that seems to alternately say it’s not a thing to saying it is a thing.

  • Sam M

    Why does it matter that we celebrate our country during sporting events? I don’t see how it’s such a bad thing.

    • There’s a bigger discussion here about freedom and country. The bottom line is that it’s — right now — good business to court the military. Football in particular has pretty much branded itself as the patriotic sport.

      I think where people have taken issue with this is the portrayal of our country’s freedom as only because of the military. As the Boston Globe pointed out, maybe a nurses night, a public defenders night, a lawyers night etc. might not be a bad idea.

      Recall, for example, that one of the reasons we got ourselves stuck in the quagmire of Iraq is all the “support our troops” signs that appeared on lawns around here. In the runup to the war, voices against it were muted by suggesting that it unpatriotic to do so.

      Also keep in mind there’s nothing in the National Anthem about soldiers or the military.

      Our country is made up of many things and the extent to which people believe that criticism of it is therefore criticism of members of the military is fraught with danger.

      Also, Lee Greenwood.

      • >>Recall, for example, that one of the reasons we got ourselves stuck in the quagmire of Iraq is all the “support our troops” signs that appeared on lawns around here. In the runup to the war, voices against it were muted by suggesting that it unpatriotic to do so.<<

        Don't even get me started about that. I was shouted down and called "traitor" when I spoke up about the folly of going to war with Iraq (again).

        /Infantry veteran (no combat as there was no war at the time)

      • Sam M

        We have been singing the national anthem at sporting events a lot longer than 9/11 and at events other thank football.

        I’m just frustrated that we have to take something fairly innocent and be so cynical about it.

        I guess I’m just a simpleton and blindly proud of my country and the people in it. We can always be better but we are still pretty great.

        I wish I could post a video of the national anthem being sung at a Blackhawks game.

        • You know the NFL charged the military for the “patriotic” tributes, right?

          The question is about the extent to which people love their country. The question is about what constitutes patriotism.

          That’s always been a question. It’s always been a definition that bends for a bigger purpose.

          • Sam M

            Yes. They don’t charge them to play the national anthem at least I hope they don’t.

            Those tributes are marketing and use marketing funds. It is deceitful and disingenuous to paint it as straight patriotism but most marketing leans on the side of deceitful and disingenuous anyways.

          • But they do. Many sports teams, including those locally, charge people to sing the National Anthem.

            But that’s different than the question of the sports world’s embrace of the military.

            It’s interesting now to see what happens when God Bless America is played at baseball. People stand up and take off their hats, and urge others to do the same. But God Bless America isn’t the National Anthem.

            [edit to add]Heres a story from WCCO on the $1,500 the Timberwolves charged

            http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2012/10/02/gospel-choir-shocked-by-cost-to-sing-national-anthem/

          • Sam M

            Well those people are paying for exposure. That transaction doesn’t change how I feel about it. Also they were doing it long before they were collecting money for it and I would suspect they would do it if they didn’t get paid for it. The fact that some sucker is willing to pay for it doesn’t really matter to me.

            I guess you have just reinforced my frustration with the cynicism around the issue. Who is being hurt in all this and what is in fact so wrong with it.

          • // I guess you have just reinforced my frustration with the cynicism around the issue. Who is being hurt in all this and what is in fact so wrong with it.

            You want me to answer that question after you note that the issue really doesn’t matter to you? Does it or doesn’t it?

            The question was also answered earlier, btw.

            [edit to add] As I said earlier, there are deeper issues surrounding the invocation of the military in matters such as this (recall that the original protest wasn’t about the military, the military was invoked, I would argue, to distract from having a discussion about the QB’s actual point).

            Here’s the way one U.S. Army Captain put it. Is he being cynical? Maybe. Maybe not. He thinks it’s about being manipulated and distracted from otherwise important public policy debates . I would suggest in the current climate, only his being a Captain in the Army affords him the opportunity for his point to be heard. Not believed, heard.

            https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/hero-worship-of-the-military-presents-an-obstacle-to-good-policy/2014/06/20/053d932a-f0ed-11e3-bf76-447a5df6411f_story.html?utm_term=.fa55118fb220

          • Sam M

            So who is being hurt by this? Who is the loser when we sing the national anthem before an event?

          • Who is hurt when we don’t? Kaepernick took a knee. Who got hurt by that?

          • Sam M

            No one. Never said anyone was.

            No one would be hurt if we didn’t sing the national anthem. I just enjoy that moment before an event to reflect on how fortunate I am to be able to attend an event like that.

            I just don’t understand the disdain some people have shown for that simple tradition. Seems to me to be another example of people just wanting to be angry or upset about something. Honestly this is probably the only space I have ever seen that particular position. I’m sure there are plenty so save me the link.

          • I’m not aware of any disdain for that tradition at all, actually. When I go to the game, everyone stands and everyone is respectful as defined by people who consider standing and being quiet respectful. So you’re characterizing this space incorrectly.

            The question that was being considered isn’t why people don’t care for the national anthem. That’s why I’ve pointed out numerous times when you’ve framed the discussion that the issues in the Kaepernick are far, far more involved than the national anthem.The question that was being considered was the expansion of the sporting event to include patriotism and military recognition as a marketing tool.

            And on that score, this is hardly the only space that’s ever pointed that out.

            [edit to add] All that said, I DO expect this form of protest to expand to the people in the stands quite soon and then, boy howdy, we’re going to be off and running.

            I’ve seen how that works before. During the Vietnam War.

          • Sam M

            I’ve seen comments that do question why we sing the national anthem. I didn’t mean to mis-represent the space or anything you have written before.

            People can do and say what they want. I don’t have an issue with Kap for the record.

            One last point (and thank you for taking the time to respond). I do find it interesting how the patriotism pendulum swings and how it fall in and out of favor.

      • Mike

        Agreed, but criticism of the military – at least the hierarchy that makes decisions – is also perfectly legitimate and certainly constitutional. Dwight Eisenhower pointed out the dangers of a bloated military-industrial complex as he was leaving office, and of course he was in a position to know. It’s unfortunate that this is taboo nowadays, but it’s testament to how powerful these interests have become. In a day and age where our military encircles the globe, criticism of imperial overreach is urgently needed.

        • I’m not sure Eisenhower could get away today with his treatise because those interests have — I suggest, intentionally — blurred the line between the soldier and the institution.

          “Love it or leave it” is a longstanding weapon.

          • Mike

            They certainly have, and we’re all the worse off for it.

            For anyone who’s interested, there was a great novel published several years ago called “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” about a young soldier home on leave from Iraq. His platoon is required to participate in a halftime show starring Beyonce at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. In an nod to James Joyce, the novel takes place all on game day, though with lots of flashbacks and interior musings. I found it a brilliant, hilarious, and disturbing look at how military action and entertainment have been merged in post-9/11 American culture.

          • PaulK

            And now coming soon to a theater near you. Just saw the trailer for it last week.

      • Rob

        Let us not forget the drumbeat of war led by the media, complete with martial-sounding music to start the newscasts, specially-designed patriotic sets and star-spangled graphics. Propaganda and patriotic porn bled from the nightly newscasts; any pretense of objectivity was totally abandoned.

  • rosswilliams

    “’’Invited speakers are disinvited because a segment of a university community deems them offensive, while other orators are shouted down for similar reasons,’’ University president Dr. Robert J. Zimmer added.”

    Lets be clear. This is a defense of the right of officially approved speakers to speak freely. Its a demand that people who disagree with that speech shut up so that those official speakers can be heard.

    • KTFoley

      With one additional clarification — those who disagree are being told that the method of disagreement will not include preventing others from speaking. They’re not being denied their own right to speech.

      University of Chicago is defending speech. Maybe I should care whether they’re doing it on principle or to appease donors, as has been suggested elsewhere, but right now I don’t.

      • rosswilliams

        “They’re not being denied their own right to speech.”

        Of course they are, at least in the context of the official speaker. They are expected to remain respectfully silent in order to give the official speaker unfettered speech. .

        “– those who disagree are being told that the method of disagreement will not include preventing others from speaking. ”

        Deciding what is allowable speech is precisely the issue here. The University quite rightly gets to decide what is allowable. They have decided that the Universities’ speaker will be allowed to speak and the Universities critics will not.

        The University of Chicago is hiding behind free speech. There is nothing inherently different in the demand that an official speaker be disinvited than in the University limiting speech by students who disagree in order to allow the speaker to be heard. It is an effort to avoid responsibility for their decision to give the speaker a microphone, an audience and the enforced respect of the students.

        • BJ

          >Of course they are, at least in the context of the official speaker. They are expected to remain respectfully silent in order to give the official speaker unfettered speech. .

          Your right to free speech ends when it stops me from my right to free speech.

          I don’t have the right to open the door of your house and start talking to you, my free speech is not infringed because I can’t do that.

          I can stand on a public place outside your home and try and yell so you can hear me in your house.

          I might NOT be able to use a megaphone on the same public place and try to make you hear me.

          Free speech has limits.

          • rosswilliams

            “Your right to free speech ends when it stops me from my right to free speech.”

            I think this is more a cliche than reality. Doesn’t demanding silence from an audience stop its members from exercising their freedom of speech? The decision to give a speaker the stage is an exercise of authority, not free speech. And criticizing that decision is not an attack on free speech.

        • It’s an interesting proposition. What if we weren’t talking about someone standing at a lecturn and instead someone demonstrating… say the Nazis in Skokie. Had they been denied the permit to demonstrate by marching down the street would that have infringed on their right? A counter demonstration, one intended to block the view of anyone wanting to see the Nazis, probably would not disturb their right. So it becomes less an issue of freedom to speak and more a question of freedom to be heard, is that correct?

          • rosswilliams

            Bob –

            Yes I think that is right. Obviously there is a relationship between freedom to be heard and freedom to speak, but they are not the same.

            Of course, the Skokie situation involved governmental interference. A more apt comparison would be two groups trying to shout one another down. That is more an exercise in political power than free speech. They both have a right to speak, but neither one necessarily has a right to be heard.

        • KTN

          I don’t think this is quite right. Critics can still speak, but too often those critics of unpopular speakers use the hecklers veto, and that’s not how it should work. They come to the talk, raise their voices to drown out the speaker, and voila, the hecklers veto has done it’s job, and now the delicate flowers are safe from having to think beyond their world view.
          When a University brings in a speaker, this is by definition a one way affair. The speaker talks, the audience listens. By allowing critics to then speak, and use their heckling to silence the speaker is not how these things work (or should work).

          • rosswilliams

            “When a University brings in a speaker, this is by definition a one way affair. The speaker talks, the audience listens. ”

            “They come to the talk, raise their voices to drown out the speaker, and voila, the hecklers veto has done it’s job”

            Both are exercises in free speech. Universities quite rightly give more weight to the first kind of exercise of speech than the latter. But the choice of speaker, the decision to give this speaker a “one way affair”, is not an exercise in free speech, it is a decision made by the university. And attacking that decision and demanding it be changed is not an assault on free speech.

          • KTN

            They are both exercises in free speech, but the heckler veto is not a legitimate exercise. It’s using the force of intolerance and loud voices to quell another from speaking. Not really a two way street at that point. I don’t see how by drowning out an opposing opinion is a legitimate use of speech – talking or asking questions of those on the other side, but shouting is just a bully tactic. It is however, free speech.

          • rosswilliams

            “I don’t see how by drowning out an opposing opinion is a legitimate use of speech”

            The speaker has been given, by the University, exclusive use of a platform, a mic and an audience. If opponents were to step up onto the stage and assert their “right to free speech” to that audience, I doubt they would be handed the mic. To the contrary, they would be physically removed. Who, then, is the bully if that is an appropriate term for what is essentially a power conflict?

          • KTN

            Now you’re confusing contract law with 1A law. If a speaker is brought in to a public University (private schools are under no obligation to follow the First A), that speaker would have a contract which would preclude anyone else from using the pulpit for opposing views. Not being a bully, just following a legal contract. If however, the school wants their to be a back and forth, well then this is a different scenario.

          • rosswilliams

            You are clearly confused. This isn’t a legal discussion or a first amendment discussion. Its a discussion of free speech at a private university. What is being challenged is the Universities decision to enter into a contract with a specific speaker. As far as I can tell, almost none of the controversies over speakers are about the “topic”, they are about whether the speaker is an appropriate person to be given a platform and exclusive venue to talk about the topic.

          • KTFoley

            “And attacking that decision and demanding it be changed is not an assault on free speech.”

            Bob linked to the article, and the article links to the letter itself. SPOILER ALERT: The University’s message regarding speakers is only this: “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial.”

            Everything else is about how students are, in fact, expected to engage in free speech for all. Nothing in the letter tells students what NOT to do. Nothing prohibits the students from criticizing the choice. Go for it.

            But if you mean that the right to demand is necessarily the same as having that demand met, then we need to go back to delicate snowflakes.

          • rosswilliams

            @ktfoley:disqus

            Lets be clear – what was questioned in the case of Condoleeza Rice was not the topic, it is was the choice of speaker.

            So we have now gone from a discussion of someone’s exercise of free speech by kneeling to a discussion of a University’s judgement in choice of speakers, which really has nothing to do with free speech.

            The “delicate snowflakes” here appear to be the University administration who are carefully avoiding any intellectual defense of their decision by portraying criticism as an assault on free speech.

          • KTFoley

            Scroll down to observe that Bob posted once on the U of M/Condoleeza Rice, and there is only one reply.

            The original topic, this thread of the discussion, and the article/link is all about the University of Chicago’s action.

        • KTFoley

          “They have decided that the Universities’ speaker will be allowed to speak and the Universities critics will not.”

          Nah, they have simply decided the that the University’s speaker will be allowed to speak. The notion that the students are expected to remain respectfully silent altogether misses the point that they are asked to do so only to the extent that the speech can be made. The University’s critics retain freedom of speech in methods, settings, times that do not merely silence the person with whom they disagree. Because censorship cuts both ways.

          The University doesn’t give the speaker anything more than a microphone. There’s nothing here to make the case that anyone is compelled to attend as part of audience or to respect the speaker. They are to respect the freedom of speech, independent of the speaker’s identify or the speech’s content.

        • rosswilliams

          Yes, case in point. The University of Minnesota is PAYING Condolozee Rice to speak and some people are objecting. Those people are being told that not paying her to speak would violate her freedom of speech.

          Moreover, the people making this argument aren’t listening at all to the actual criticism. The argument is about the University of Minnesota inviting and paying a “war criminal” to speak, not about what she has to say. It is the speaker that is the problem, not the content of her speech.

          And, yes, celebrities do demand fees for speaking. That doesn’t mean they have something worth paying to hear. In fact, if they tried to charge the audience, not many people would show up. It is only because of the subsidy from the University that Rice had an audience.

          This is not about free speech, it is about who will be heard. And rather than taking responsibility for the choice they made, they accuse their critics of attacking free speech.

  • Anna

    One of my alma maters, LSU has “The Free Speech Alley” which is located directly in front of the Student Union Building at the south end of the parade ground.

    It is a bench where anyone can stand and express an opinion on any subject they choose. It has been in existence ever since the LSU Student Union was built in 1964.

    I walked through the foundation of that building as a child when my father, an architect (now deceased) was working at Desmond and Miremont Architects who designed the building.

    It was the site of protests and debates on everything from the Vietnam War to the Iraq War and then some.

    The debates very often got heated and sometimes violent (campus police stepped in on those occasions). As far as I know, you can still speak your piece there and the Board of Regents of the university system like it that way. It was specifically set up to defend the 1st Amendment.

    As far as the national anthem goes, the tune is from an English drinking song (sigh) and it is very difficult to sing and sing it well. Frankly, I’d rather have “America the Beautiful” as our national anthem but that’s just my personal preference. Does that make me unpatriotic?

    I don’t think anyone has been tarred and feathered for not singing the National Anthem when it is played. I think putting your hand over your heart during the rendition is also optional but Gabby Douglas was called out online for not doing so during the medals ceremony.

    We’ve known for decades that there is one set of justice for minorities and one set of justice for whites. The only thing Colin Kaepernick did was shine a huge spotlight on it which obviously makes a lot of people very uncomfortable.

    • Which brings us back to the original post and, specifically, the assertion of the Globe editorial board that to provide safe spaces and trigger warnings in an effort to prevent hurt feelings treats students as delicate snowflakes.

      The only thing that got hurt by Kaepernick is feelings. If he is to adjust his behavior int hat recognition, is he treating fans as delicate snowflakes?

      • Anna

        Judging from the outrage and reaction to Kaepernick’s free speech display, we have an extremely large amount of “delicate snowflakes” in this country who can’t bear to watch a fellow American exercising free speech lest their delicate sensibilities be offended and an avalanche commence.

        And comments like “Let him find another country that suits him better,” doesn’t help matters any.

  • Rob

    I thought it was very interesting to note that Canada requires all of its university students to take indigenous studies courses. Sure would be nice to see a similar requirement at U.S. institutions of higher learning; our delicate snowflakes would certainly be exposed to some very harsh truths.

  • lindblomeagles

    If everybody actually looked at this picture, what would you see? A young man innocently, quietly, taking a knee. He’s not bothering anybody. He’s not on a cell phone. He’s not holding up a sign. He’s not talking to another person. He’s not playing music loud on a boom box. He’s not raising a ruckus. He’s respectfully respecting the moment. There’s nothing in this picture suggesting he’s really doing anything wrong. It’s like a standing ovation at a concert or play. Many people stand and clap uproariously, while a few sit in their chairs, unmoved by the others. I think the problem is what Kaepernick wants to talk about IS a big deal, but a lot of people don’t want to talk about that.