When ‘free speech’ is a cover for racism

Not surprisingly, last week’s multiple posts about the racists who attend games at Boston’s Fenway Park brought out the commenters who view these sorts of things as assaults on free speech.

They’re probably racist too, a study released last week from the University of Kansas says.

“When people make appeals to democratic principles — like ‘freedom of speech’ — they don’t always represent a genuine interest in that principle,” Mark H. White, a graduate student in psychology, and co-author of the study said in a news release. “We think of principles as ideas we use to guide behavior in our everyday lives. Our data show something different — that we tend to make up our mind on something based on our attitudes — in this case, racial attitudes — and then decide that the principle is relevant or irrelevant. People do whatever best fits their pre-existing attitudes.”

In other words, if you’re racist, you do what you can to justify your racism without acknowledging your racism.

We look at people who defend another’s racist speech — for example, defending someone who got fired for going into a racist rant at work — with a ‘free speech’ argument,” said co-author Christian Crandall, professor of psychology at KU. “What do we know about people making this argument? The correlation between using the free speech defense and people’s own racial prejudice is pretty high. It’s racists defending racists.”

“You might think that, ‘Maybe people who defend this racist speech are just big fans of free speech, that they’re principled supporters of freedom,’” Crandall said. “Well, no. We give them a ‘news’ article with the same speech aimed at police — and prejudice scores are completely uncorrelated with defending speech aimed at police — and also uncorrelated with snarky speech aimed at customers at a coffee shop, but with no racial content.”

In their experiments, the pair tested several scenarios with their subjects and found that how they felt about the principle of free speech depended less on an embrace of the Constitution, and more about how they felt about the subject of the speech.

“It isn’t so much that these controversies make prejudiced people feel bad about themselves; instead, it seems to be driven partially by prejudiced people feeling like they are not free to live how they want to live and say what they want to say — they feel as if their freedom is under attack,” he said.

The freedom to be a racist, for example.

  • Joe

    Not a shocking result, in my mind. But interesting nonetheless.

  • Will

    Well the first amendment includes many rights, in this case free speech goes up against freedom of association…if you’re on someone else’s property then freedom of association wins every time and you can be asked to leave due to unruly or racist behavior.

    • The study isn’t about what the rights are or are not.

    • RBHolb

      I hate to reply to a largely irrelevant comment (sorry, Bob), but the issue is not about freedom of speech going “up against freedom of association.” If you order a person off private property because you don’t care for what they say, it is not state action, so the First Amendment is irrelevant (ditto the implied freedom of association).

  • Mike

    This study only confirms what everyone knows: people are more likely to defend freedom of speech for views they either endorse or don’t find personally offensive. It’s true across the board, and for virtually any group of people.

    The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it could also condemn the ACLU for defending the right of neo-Nazis to have a march through Skokie, Illinois. That’s generally regarded as a landmark free speech case, but according to this study, it may instead just mean that the ACLU were racists.

    • //It’s true across the board, and for virtually any group of people.

      Nope. Not across the board. There are some of us, and I suspect the ACLU is among them. And Eric Kaler.

      http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2016/10/at-the-u-of-m-a-lesson-in-free-speech/
      http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2014/03/self-censorship-in-a-democratic-society-u-of-m-style/

      I’ll give you the hyperbole. Just pointing out that — if it’s not hyperbole — it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

      Keep in mind, however, this isn’t a study on what free speech is. It’s a study on what the REAL motives are of those who defend it.

      • Will

        Where would the Cato Institute rank up against the ACLU?

        • RBHolb

          The Cato Institute seems to be most riled about the free speech rights of campus conservatives, and of the rights of State Department employs to indulge in “microaggressions.” Sure, they say they are committed to free speech for all, but they seem to have decided whose speech is in the need of the most protection.

          • Will

            Keep an open mind, the Cato Institute is a big opponent of civil forfiture laws and a supporter drug law reform and prison reform.

          • RBHolb

            I’ve looked at their site. Their free speech issues seem to be anti-political correctness. talking points.

            The Cato Institute has veered away from strict libertarianism, and looks more doctrinaire conservative in its concerns these days,

          • Move along, fellas. Cato has nothing to do wth this post.

      • rosswilliams

        Do any of those groups defend yelling fire in a crowded theatre? I think the reality is that all of us have some limits on what speech is allowed. All absolute claims are “hyperbole”.

  • dave

    Burn the US flag…..sure it IS free speech, but a different group of folks will object. Many examples, many advocates of free speech. Not the same players every time.

    BUT OF COURSE folks will not be equal advocates of free speech in all cases.

    I don’t know of ANY principles I defend equally, no matter what the particular subject is today.

  • KTFoley

    Nat Hentoff’s book Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other was the first book our reading group tackled.

    The book and the group have both been in circulation for 25 years now, and I still find myself coming back to that volume. This article echos some of the assertions that provoked thought, reaction, controversy, discussion in 1992 — our willingness to uphold the right to speech, independent of content, still tends to hinge on whether we agree with the content.

    • Will

      It is quite sad what’s happening on college campuses today.

      • kennedy

        Yeah, it’s a shame when shouting replaces discourse.

        • Will

          Yep now it’s happening to Republicans at town halls…and conservatives can’t even speak on campuses without threats of violence and riots.

          • chris

            It’s actually not happening to republicans at town halls, but you can think that. Tom Emmer did just fine. Erik Paulsen hasn’t held any town halls in years, so how would we know if it’s happening to him.

          • Irrelevant to the post

          • kennedy

            Shouting at town halls? How disrespectful.

            When did this become acceptable?

            P.S. Did you click the link in my earlier post?

          • Joe

            Conservatives have actually blocked more liberal speakers than vice-versa. Though liberals try more, they aren’t as successful as often.

            Which means administrators are more likely to listen to conservatives complaining than liberals (as they have a higher success rate).

            http://dailycaller.com/2015/11/22/freedom-of-speech-more-unwelcome-among-liberal-students-faculty/

          • Michael

            This may be true in the past but right now on college/university campuses we seem to have more liberal clubs blocking conservative speakers than the other way around. It is something that I worry about, so does FIRE.

            For more on fire see http://thefire.org and their on going battle to keep the 1st amendment in force on public university campuses and trying to keep private universities who pledge freedom of speech living up to that promise.

          • I’m trying to stop a thread hijack here.

            The reason the college campus debate isn’t consistent with the point of this post, is that the people trying to prevent conservative speakers aren’t the ones claiming “free speech.”

            That’s the point of the research, not that people are or aren’t being silenced. But the reasons behind those claiming “free speech.”

            Carry on.

          • rosswilliams

            Not really irrelevant. The condemnation of students booing a speaker off the stage is essentially condemning the students free speech based on its content. i.e its not “thoughtful intellectual discussion.”

            If course the fundamental mistake is the belief that free speech includes the freedom to be heard. It clearly doesn’t. If it did, we would all be able to broadcast on the public airwaves.

          • Again : irrelevant . The research is about whether people who cite free speech as a PRINCIPLE actually embrace the principle. It has nothing to do with the limits of free speech. It’s about declaring a principle as a mask.

            People who boo someone off the stage aren’t declaring a free speech principle.

          • rosswilliams

            Exactly right, they aren’t. They are exercising it. You are claiming to defend free speech. Does that apply to those students’ booing, or not?

            What the research shows, if we needed research to show it, is that people often site general principals when defending their own interests and abandon them when it no longer suits them.

          • The question of whether students booing is free spech is irrelevant to the research. It’s only relevant if someone is saying it IS free speech and defends on *principle* both the speaker and the “boo-ers.”

            But that’s more of a theatrical than academic issue.

            The research isn’t about the direct participants. It’s about the defenders.

          • rosswilliams

            No it isn’t irrelevant. Denying that booing is free speech is no different than denying screaming racist taunts is free speech or denying a “polite” lecture while implying part of your audience is racially inferior should be protected free speech.

            In every case, some people abandon the principle of free speech based on their disapproval of it. And in all cases, people are more likely to defend the speech, on principle, when they agree with the speakers and the point they are making. Which makes perfect sense. Why would you bother to defend speech that is abhorrent to you?

          • // Why would you bother to defend speech that is abhorrent to you?

            If the Jay Near decision didn’t answer that question, you could probably get one first hand from Ramsey County Chief Judge Edward Cleary Jr.

          • People who prevent someone from speaking are not asserting — let alone protecting — a free speech principle. They’re asserting a right to prevent someone from exercising a right.

            Similarly, embracing a right only as a convenience ignores all power derived from the Constitution, which consists of the demand it be extended to the most despicable.

            Those people are poor examples of constitutional scholarship.

            That poor scholarship is what betrays the underlying racism, for example.

          • Rob

            You need to read a primer on free speech concepts. Someone shouting down a speaker is not exercising, and thus cannot claim, that they’re exercising free speech rights.

          • rosswilliams

            Of course they are exercising free speech. You think they aren’t expressing an opinion?

          • Again, Irrelevant to the post

          • Rob

            Yes. Alien and Sedition Act is but one example.

          • Irrelevant to the post

          • Will

            Wasn’t the post I responded to in the same category? Why did you single me out… because you disagree with my words more than a liberal poster…I guess that confirms the article above… people tend to only speak out against speech they disagree with rather than holding a consistent ideology. I may not agree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it… when did that stop being true for many on the left? When I was a Democrat I believed in that wholeheartedly…I still believe in it… something has else changed.

          • I’ve singled out several comments so you’re not really the victim of anything. If people want to have a discussion somewhere else about the number and identity and justification (or not) of people being denied the opportunity to speak, they (and you) are free to do it somewhere else, but it’s irrelvant to the research.

            The research isn’t about who is/isn’t being allowed to speak. The piece is about those who defend free speech as a principle but hold a more revealing view.

            glad we could clear that up.

          • kennedy

            I do find it ironic (and tenuously linked to the original post) that a form of speech (shouting at town hall meetings) once deemed acceptable ‘free speech’ by political allies is now decried when perpetrated by political foes.

            Another example of more strenuously defending ‘free speech’ that is agreeable to us.

    • Mike Worcester

      I still have my copy. Hentoff was a brilliant writer. The best description of him I saw after his recent passing described him as “maddeningly consistent” (or close to that).

  • Mike Worcester

    //In their experiments, the pair tested several scenarios with their subjects and found that how they felt about the principle of free speech depended less on an embrace of the Constitution, and more about how they felt about the subject of the speech.

    This does not at all surprise me. Humans can be funny that way and attempts to be consistent on this topic usually run head-on into the idea of ‘how can we defend the right to articulate that which we cannot stomach’.

    There is also the idea that while people have the right to express their opinions that does not mean they are free from potential consequences.

    And it’s never easy to have a discussion on a topic as complex as free speech via FB responses, tweets, texts, and even blog comments.

    In the meantime I’ll keep reminding myself what the great writer and first amendment guru Nat Henoff (mentioned in KTFoley’s comment), used to say — There is no good taste clause to the First Amendment.

    • // that does not mean they are free from potential consequences.

      I’ve always hated this assertion. Yes, it means they are shielded from potential consequences . All of them? No, as any employee of a private institution knows. But you are most definitely shielded from all consequences from the government if you are asserting your right, and that includes the right to protection from assault.

      • Mike Worcester

        //But you are most definitely shielded from all consequences from the government if you are asserting your right, and that includes the right to protection from assault.

        Agreed. I guess I was trying to point out that the incidents referenced last week (the baseball stadiums) were cases where a true free speech claim could not really hold up since it was a private venture enforcing rules of conduct. I myself sent out the door an individual who twice dropped the N-word while I was tending bar.

        I could have made my comment much longer to be more nuanced but I also figured that nobody would take the time to read it — a casualty of I suppose of the tweetification of our discourse 🙂

  • Al

    “If you’re racist, you do what you can to justify your racism without acknowledging your racism.”

    Nailed it.

    https://media4.giphy.com/media/4WHkXdDx8wjS0/giphy.gif

  • LifebloodMN

    First of all, the ‘free speech’ argument at work is silly and these people already misinterpret the law. This tells me we need kids to understand their rights more completely. It’s not about right or wrong, what side you’re on, but the things we traded. It’s not yet illegal to be racist, biased, prejudiced, or just stupid.

    • Michael

      Also isn’t Fenway park a private company and not government owned. At
      this point “Freedom of speech” — the 1st amendment — no longer
      applies. If the owners do not like what you are saying they can ask you
      to leave, and don’t come back.

      I find myself in the camp that
      says “I may not like what you are saying, but I will defend your right
      to say it in public spaces, but then I get to say my peace after you are
      done, and I may call you an idiot for your speech.”

      I guess that places me in the “maybe racist” camp.

      • Most of the folks citing free speech weren’t limiting it to Fenway but as part of a broad victimization of people’s right to spew racist speech.

  • Zachary Mott

    According to the press release, the correlation coefficent for this study is 0.43. Positive, yes, but not particularly close to the 0.80 that is often the threshold for significance in the social sciences.

    Given that fact, it seems that White and Crandall’s assertions about their research may be a little bit too strong. I’m curious to see the degree to which other researchers are able to replicate these results.

    • kevins

      o.o5 is the statistical threshold for agreed upon statistical reliability. A correlation of 0.80 rarely happens in the social and behavioral sciences. These two numbers mean different things.

      • Zachary Mott

        The exact quote from the press release is “the new study reveals a positive correlation (Pearson r = .43)”

        Both 0.43 and 0.80 refer to the Pearson correlation coefficient.

        • kevins

          Yep, but both, either or neither could be significant at the .05 level.

  • Tom Scharf

    A graduate student publishes an article that convinces the author that defending free speech rights makes one a racist, or more accurately allows him to label someone a racist without engaging in their actual argument. End of debate! The labeling of people as racist with a wide of net as possible as an ad hominem attack worked so well in the election, why stop now? This is a straw man for the free speech debate. Try justifying Berkeley’s decision or the students at Middlebury.

    Perhaps the author should also investigate confirmation bias. There are many people who take free speech rights seriously, although this event isn’t a very good case for this cause.

    • // A graduate student publishes an article

      Check the citation again.

  • LifebloodMN

    “people high in prejudice endorsed free speech more than people low in prejudice”. My anecdotal experiences validates this. More than one of my left leaning friends and family members say that some individuals should not be allowed to speak at all and it is justifiable to punch them in the face.

    • On the strength of what you’ve written, that, technically, doesn’t validate the research. It does show that you have family members prone to violence, however. :*)

  • Yusef House

    Conundrum. I happen to be a big fan of free speech which according to these students makes me a a big fat racist. Isuppose I’m willing to accept that label as the price of standing by my principles except liberals tell me that as a minority I’m not capable of racism. Its pretty tough navagating beteeen the lines drawn by social justice community when the virtue signaling gets drawn right down my forhead.

    • // Conundrum. I happen to be a big fan of free speech which according to these students makes me a a big fat racist.

      I would actually urge you to follow the link and so some reading becasue (a) only one was a student and (b) your conclusion of what they said isn’t what they said. In fact, it’s not really in the same galaxy as what they said.

      • Yusef House

        Oh I see. You said it.

        //They’re probably racist too, a study released last week from the University of Kansas says.

        • Nope. The study said people who defend a racists statements on the basis of a free speech claim are probably exhibiting a prejudice.

          It said nothing — to use your phrase — that “big fans of free speech” are racist.

        • Ben

          I think this is pretty important from the press release, “It would be irresponsible to say that everyone who makes this ‘free speech’ argument is prejudiced,” White said. “However, our data do show that racial prejudice is one of the many attitudes that go into people deciding to make this argument.”

  • rosswilliams

    “We think of principles as ideas we use to guide behavior in our everyday lives. Our data show something different — that we tend to make up our mind on something based on our attitudes — in this case, racial attitudes — and then decide that the principle is relevant or irrelevant. ”

    This entire post is a demonstration of that “principle” in action. The principle is relevant only to the extend it confirms the author’s bias. Here is a link to a very old paper “On the importance of being unprincipled”

    http://greaterclevelandcongregations.org/sites/default/files/On%20the%20Importance%20of%20Being%20Unprincipled.pdf

  • Ray

    “if” you’re racist? is it possible to not be racist?