Wellesley College editors try to clarify their support for “free speech”, but fail

Eleven days ago I wrote about an April 12 op-ed about free speech by the editors of the Wellesley College student newspaper, The Wellesley News. (Wellesley is a woman’s college in Massachusetts that, I think, accepts trans women but no men.) It was a poorly written piece but also deeply confused and confusing, for they not only stated that “hate speech” is not “free speech”, but simply made up the contention that the First Amendment was put in place “to protect the disenfranchised.” Here’s a bit of that editorial; the emphasis is mine.

Wellesley students are generally correct in their attempts to differentiate what is viable discourse from what is just hate speech. Wellesley is certainly not a place for racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia or any other type of discriminatory speech. Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech. [JAC: Note the erroneous structure of this sentence: they are saying “shutting down rhetoric” is “hate speech”. What they mean is that shutting down rhetoric is shutting down hate speech.] The founding fathers put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised and to protect individual citizens from the power of the government. The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.

Apparently the editors got a lot of backlash for writing that (and saying that “hate speech” will be met with “hostility”), for six days later they published a second editorial awkwardly called “In continuation of the previous editorial” that tried to clarify their position. A lot of the space is taken up with complaints about the sexist responses they got—stuff like this:

Comments and tweets responding to our article referred to us as having “our pantyhose in a twist over free speech…” and then sarcastically called us “tough broads.” Others told us to “listen to the man in the house” and “get back in the kitchen.”

Well, that’s reprehensible. One should engage with the argument (as I think I did) rather than denigrate the editors’ genders or make sexist remarks. Such is the sad and undeserved fate of women on the Internet who have strong opinions.

However, while trying to argue that what they meant in the first editorial was simply that speech should be met not with violence but with counterspeech—a view I approve—the editors leave the reader confused whether “hate speech” still counts as free speech. First they say this, which I don’t really understand.

Nevertheless, there is something threatening to modern society about women exercising independent thought. Those that are offended by the editorial and thus inclined to write and tweet about events at Wellesley are exercising their First Amendment rights. We are exercising ours by disagreeing. To refuse to continue to engage with our opinion is to be guilty of the same infringement of freedom with which we are charged. The world suppresses women’s voices even while demanding the recognition of uncensored expression.

How can refusal to deal with an argument constitute an “ingfringement of freedom”?

Further, I’m not sure what they mean by saying the “world suppresses women’s voices”, since this editorial is written by women, and women now have a huge voice in American media. One can of course make a case that there is still sexism in the public sphere, as evidenced by certain remarks by our “President,” by the abysmal predatory behavior of powerful men, and by Congress’s attempt to keep restricting abortion rights, but access to women’s voices—their opinions—is easy.

But I digress. Below is the final paragraph of the op-ed, and it’s deeply confusing. You tell me: if they maintain that all speech must be met not with violence or “shutting down” the speaker but with counterspeech, then why even say that there’s “a line between free speech and hate speech”? And how would counterspeech “protect members of the community from language that harms or threatens their well being”? Once that “hate speech” is uttered, the claimed psychological damage has already been done!

We respect free speech at Wellesley. We reiterate that there is a line between free speech and hate speech. We fight not against free speech, but to protect members of our community from language that harms or threatens their well-being. Thus, we respect the right to use speech to challenge other views. We will listen to and dismantle arguments and opinions that threaten a person’s ability to speak freely.

I’d add, as I did before, that the editors should learn to write simple readable language, avoiding words like “transpired” for “happened” and replacing “in order to” with the simple word “to.” These sentences are tortuous (and torturous):

These incidents transpired on multiple community platforms, including email and social media. Our editorial was meant to be a commentary on these specific events, but we refrained from including specifics in order to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.

h/t: BJ

24 Comments

  1. Paul S
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Though the example responses are indeed vile, I wonder if they also received responses directed specifically at their arguments and if they’ve addressed those concerns.

    • Posted October 24, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      Indeed: it would be so easy for someone to say “haters gonna hate” and just dismiss it all. (Confirmation bias.)

    • Simon
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      I think you’ll find that a lot of the “vile” responses are just taking the piss and are quite frankly, no worse than the usual stuff directed every day at people of any gender. But then the world will always rush to the aid of the distressed damsel, spurred on by orphan statistics and blindness to context. This is how Boko Haram can slit the throats of Nigerian schoolboys and burn them to death without a murmur, but raise the ire of the world and stir Hilary into action when some girls are kidnapped.

      • Paul S
        Posted October 24, 2017 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        Quire right. Calling the comments vile was an overreaction on my part. It’s possible that I’m being conditioned to self-censor when it’s not warranted.

  2. DrBrydon
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    “. . . to protect members of our community from language that harms or threatens their well-being.”[citation needed]

    Always the assertion that some tangible harm is being caused by speech. Whatever happened to sticks and stones? While any kindergartner knows that words hurt, this is not the same as a physical assault. Our rights are all part of a balance. Words can hurt, but the danger of giving government the power to censor speech would cause much greater harm. I continue to be amazed that minorities fail to see this, since the power to censor would like with the majority.

    • Paul S
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      If words = physical violence why aren’t words good enough for a response when they claim violence is warranted?
      Isn’t this how we get to duels, feuds and honor killings?

  3. jay
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Some comments may have been ‘sexist’ but these quoted are downright mild compared to the sexist comments regularly against men by prominent feminists.

    These people have rewritten the Constitution to their own ideology. It was never intended to protect people (some actually quite nuts) from hurt feelings. There is no constitutional right of feeling protection.

    But the world seems to be hell bent in that direction. (Just the other day UK objected to s UN statement concerning ‘pregnant women’ because that is offensive to women who claim to be men.)

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      It is not okay to make sexist comments towards women because some women make sexist comments towards men.

      • Rita
        Posted October 24, 2017 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        +1

  4. Posted October 24, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Although the editorial is confused, and oscillates from one view to another, it seems to end on the view that one should counter hate speech with counter-speech as a means to protect others. At least that is how I saw it.

    • Michiel
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      I guess that’s what it comes down to. From their tortuous way of saying it however, it seems to me they really wanted to say something else, but they know they would get absolutely demolished if they affirmed clearly that they actually really do approve of countering “hate speech” with de-platforming/”shutting down” those who engage in “hate speech”, with actual violence if neccesary.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted October 24, 2017 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        I think they want to say what most of us agree is the right thing, as Mark said. My opinion is they tied themselves up in knots trying to keep everyone happy. They knew that a pure free speech position would get comeback from some at the extremes regarding hate speech, so they tried to anticipate that.

        Imo they would have done better just to own their opinion and be prepared to defend it. I often wonder whether the failure of many to meet hate speech with counter speech leaves them unable to argue their point. It used to be that a Humanities degree taught you to argue a pov. There are now some fields within the Humanities where that’s no longer the case.

  5. nicky
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I have come to hate the term ‘hate speech’, although real hate speech does exist (e.g. Mr Göbbels or ‘Radio Mille Collines’), the epithet has been strewn around so indiscriminately as to have become virtually meaningless, just like ‘racist’ or ‘Nazi’. There are many other terms in that category (e.g. ‘White Supremacist’, Ayaan HA has been labelled that, really!), but for one reason or other the ‘hate speech’ label irks me disproportionally.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    And how would counterspeech ‘protect members of the community from language that harms or threatens their well being’? Once that ‘hate speech’ is uttered, the claimed psychological damage has already been done!

    They seem to be saying, as best I can figure, that with post facto restorative speech, they can put the Humpty-Dumpties of the community back together again.

    Which, maybe, is their way of saying that the antidote to bad speech is good speech, bless their hearts.

  7. Simon
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Protection of the disenfranchised is indeed a major benefit of free speech. What the self-appointed speech police do not seem to understand is that many of the “haters” are, in many respects, disenfranchised. These authoritarians take it upon themselves to decide who is worthy for others to hear, who is beyond the pale. Speaking for myself, I don’t trust anyone to tell me who is a bigot, a Nazi or an anything else. I’d rather listen to what they have to say, decide for myself and accord everyone else that same right.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted October 25, 2017 at 5:23 am | Permalink

      ‘Hate speech’ is often ‘Hearing Hate’ – a judgement made by other people who have a political axe to grind or driven by non-rational motivations.

      Why should I self-censor my speech because of the standards that other people think I should have? They may well have different priorities, different politics, and they will not hear my (obviously well thought out) views 🙂

  8. BJ
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see any question about what their writing here means. The position of their first editorial is clear: hate speech is not free speech, and therefore must not be allowed. This “continuation” of the editorial employs some tortuous language to obfuscate the initial position, but since they chose not to completely disavow the first editorial, I don’t think this one should be viewed as anything but an attempt to soften the backlash they’ve received.

  9. Posted October 24, 2017 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Robert Frost observed that “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” Perhaps the Wellesley professoriate should regard the antics of public provocateurs as an educational opportunity, requiring students to attend their presentations, to listen respectfully, and then to compose rationally written responses worthy of a student body learning to lead the world.

    I mean, if indeed that’s still Wellesley’s goal, as once surely it was.

  10. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    If anti-fa teaches us anything it is that the only thing stopping a bad idea is a good idea. Attempts to suppress the bad idea by violence or extra-legal sanctions, only gives it the caché of rebellion against illegitimate attempts at censorship.

  11. Posted October 24, 2017 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    “Comments and tweets responding to our article referred to us as having “our pantyhose in a twist over free speech…” and then sarcastically called us “tough broads.” Others told us to “listen to the man in the house” and “get back in the kitchen.””

    I am done with this emotional blackmail. This is nothing more than an attempt to deflect attention away from the mistakes of those saying it. This is widespread and used in all different contexts. I have seen this twice this week alone from football coaches trying to deflect from their underachievement’s.

    Its only used to either prevent criticism or waste a person’s time by saying yeah its bad these mean things people say. They won once you do this.

  12. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    The founding fathers put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised and to protect individual citizens from the power of the government.

    Did they actually say that? In the constitution, any preamble, postamble, or commentary written by several or more of the “founding fathers”? I could see the second phrase getting through the “committee”, but given the number of slave-holders in the “founding fathers”, the former would be just a touch contentious. Could have had the Civil War over and done with before the turn of the 17th century.

  13. Jon Gallant
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Any disapproved kind of speech is “hate speech”, according to the speech police. In our era of rapid change, it was predictable that whole subjects would also soon be disapproved. For example, mathematics is “whiteness” and constitutes a microaggression, according to a professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the Univ. of Ill. College of Education. See:

    http://dailycaller.com/2017/10/23/professor-claims-math-algebra-and-geometry-
    promote-white-privilege/

    • cmboyle99
      Posted October 24, 2017 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      When I think of mathematics, I think of the Arabic contributions such as Algebra, Algorithm and Arabic Numerals.

  14. jaxkayaker
    Posted October 25, 2017 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    If this is a representative example of the logic, grammar, rhetoric and knowledge that students at Wellesley learn, they are getting defrauded on their tuition. Failing marks for all.


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