“Free speech . . . but” is not free speech

Here’s an example of two academic officials saying that they’re in favor of free speech while doing everything they can to oppose free speech.

It’s my view, and that of the University of Chicago, that when a speaker is invited to campus, no matter how unpopular their views, the University should shut up about those views, neither endorsing nor denigrating them. For if there’s word from on high about what speech is officially approved and what speech is officially offensive, that can’t help but color academic discourse and chill invitations of speakers with unpopular views. And indeed, that’s what my university does. If students demand criticism of such speech, the administration just affirms its policy of free speech and says nothing else.

Things are different at Stanford, though. As the Stanford Daily reports, the Stanford College Republicans are putting on an event called “Yes, America is a Judeo-Christian Nation,” featuring the conservative speaker Andrew Klavan, a writer of crime and suspense novels who has criticized Islam. I don’t know much about the man, but a brief investigation shows that he criticizes the tenets of Islam (and other faiths), and doesn’t criticize Muslims as people. In other words, though this sounds like an odious Religious Nationalism Event, it’s not “hate speech”, nor does Klavan appear to be a bigot. (Even if it were “hate speech”, I’d defend Klavan’s right to speak.)  My own opinion of our “Judeo-Christian Nation” is the one expressed by Andrew Seidel in his new book that we’re going to discuss on June 11: the U.S. was neither Judeo-Christian in the beliefs of its founders nor in the content of its principles. The supposed religious grounding of our nation is just a way for faith-heads to control national policy and discourse.

So if people don’t like Klavan’s views, they don’t have to listen to him. Were I at Stanford, I might be tempted to drop into his talk just to see what he’s on about. But two administrators at Stanford, writing on the Stanford “Notes from the Quad” website, had to weigh in, giving lip service to free speech while spending most of their piece criticizing Klavan’s supposedly hateful and Islamophobic speech. In other words, they wrote something that will deter other groups from inviting similar speakers.

A few excerpts:

While our university welcomes discussion of all aspects of America’s religious diversity, we are deeply troubled by views Klavan has expressed in the past in relation to Islam. Klavan has sought to promote Judeo-Christian values in part by fostering anti-Muslim sentiment. In an online video, Klavan distorts the tenets of the Muslim faith, equating Islam with violence and barbarism. We stand firmly against vilification of Islam. We are particularly dismayed that an event of this type is planned for the holy month of Ramadan when the Stanford Muslim community joins Muslims around the world in observing a month of fasting, prayer, and spiritual growth.

. . .We believe it is possible to affirm one’s own faith traditions without denigrating or distorting those of others. Indeed, this fundamental commitment guides all religious life at Stanford University. The Office for Religious Life’s ethical framework calls on our entire campus community to treat with respect the religious traditions and activities of others; and to safeguard the religious freedom, human dignity, conscience, and personal spiritual welfare of all members of the university. We believe Klavan’s articulated views on Islam violate these commitments and values.

I watched the video, as you should, as it’s only two minutes long. It’s strong stuff, but it’s criticizing not Muslims but the concept of “jihad” as used in the Qur’an. It’s certainly not a gross distortion of what many Muslims believe, and, after all, it is a Qur’anic principle.  Jihad in the sense of physical warfare against unbelievers certainly should be vilified.

And here’s Brubaker-Cole and Steinwert’s money quote, which I’ve put in bold:

As a campus and nation, we are committed to free expression of diverse opinions. At the same time, as a campus we aim to model responsible use of free speech. As several community members have recently voiced, just because speech is protected does not mean that it is ethical, moral, and/or responsible. While we cannot legislate it, we hope the members of our community will aspire to a higher set of standards than the bare minimum letter of the law, promoting speech that edifies and uplifts our diverse community.

We understand it can be deeply frustrating and painful to see speakers invited to campus whose ideologies disparage members of our community. Acknowledging this pain, we nonetheless encourage you to look beyond the sensationalism of speakers whose currency is controversy to the examples of people joining together across difference and standing in solidarity even in the face of hatred and slander.

Clearly, they think that Klavan is using “free speech” in an irresponsible way. But on what grounds is the criticism of the tenets of any faith, or the notion of jihad as conquest of nonbelievers, “irresponsible”? (It is, of course, considered “Islamophobia” when the target is Islam.) And mark the note of regret when they say “while we cannot legislate it”, with “it” being “responsible speech”. They’d like nothing more to be the Speech Police, but Stanford policy doesn’t allow it.

Vice Provost Brubaker-Cole and Dean Steinwert should have just kept quiet about their reactions to this event, for their disapprobation will condition students to distinguish Klavan’s speech from “responsible speech.” Of course Stanford is free to put policies of inclusion and religious freedom in their handbook, just as they should emphasize policies about free speech, but to react in such a way to a specific speaker is not affirming free speech.

Any endorsement of free speech followed by a qualifier like “at the same time” or “but” is not an endorsement of free speech. It is an implicit call for censorship.


  1. DrBrydon
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    We understand it can be deeply frustrating and painful to see speakers invited to campus whose ideologies disparage members of our community.

    I am quite certain that there are plenty of faculty whose ideologies disparate members of the university community. But some animals are more equal the others.

    • Carey Haug
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Orwell said it best.

  2. Carey Haug
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I agree 100%. The only speakers who should be disallowed are those who incite violent acts in the original,physical sense of violent. I personally think hate speech laws, although well intended, violate the the First Amendment.

    • A C Harper
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      I agree. There is no need for ‘hate speech’ laws when existing laws can deal with incitement or violence.

      Plus if you allow ‘Islamophobia’ then equally you should acknowledge ‘Christiphobia’, ‘Buddhaphobia’, and even ‘Atheistophobia’. Not quite such a persuasive argument when you open it up to all ‘victims’ is it?

  3. Ray Little
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Susie and Tiffany, the Smiling Censors.

  4. CJColucci
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    When I was a student — back when Latin was the language of instruction and they didn’t teach history because there hadn’t been enough yet — we didn’t care what administrators said. We cared what they did. We didn’t take them seriously enough to treat anything they said as “an implicit call to censorship.” If we bothered about what they said at all, it was only to point and laugh.
    Have students changed that much?

    • Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Unfortunately, some students are far more advanced in the quest for censorship than administrators.

      • Deodand
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, the students @maymarkov is referring to are the ones who believe that the ‘purpose’ of free speech is to promote ‘equality’. If the speech does not promote equality then the person making the speech is a ‘Facist’ and has no rights at all.

        And of course the other thing they believe is that any censor will be either themselves, or someone who thinks as they do.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      When I was a student — back when Latin was the language of instruction and they didn’t teach history because there hadn’t been enough yet …

      I musta been a class or two ahead of you in school, back when they were still teaching in Proto-Indo-European.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Such a lovely use of words to shut down free speech and censor the university bubble. “We aim to model the responsible use of free speech.”

  6. eric
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I have no problem with campus administrators or professors voicing their opinion about a speaker in (for example) and op-ed. But I do agree that the combination of official authority + messages that imply “don’t invite people like this” is bad for free speech and can stifle student speech.

    IMO a far better and more appropriate way for administrators to opine on an offensive speaker is to start with the old standard (“I disagree with what you say but will defend your right to say it”), and then possibly add in something like “Please, good students, do not disrupt the presentation. Instead, I very much look forward to seeing you eviscerate him/her during the Q&A”

  7. Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    First, can anyone be so kind to explain in simple English why a university needs a “Dean for Religious Life”?

    Second, this made me speechless:

    “We are particularly dismayed that an event of this type is planned for the holy month of Ramadan when the Stanford Muslim community joins Muslims around the world in observing a month of fasting, prayer, and spiritual growth.”

    In other words, these administrators express approval of Muslim fasting and prayer, actiities that not only poison the mind but also harm the body.

    • Rand Bessinger
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      Jerry may not agree with you on the fasting part.

      • Posted May 16, 2019 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        He at least drinks water and does not mess with his circadian rhythm unless he wants to. I have seen first-hand how Muslim students observing the Ramadan are in poor physical condition, look exhausted and cannot do a thing. Or at least fail an exam that, according to my observations, they would likely have passed otherwise.

        Here is an article that has somehow sneaked into the Guardian:
        “The costs of Ramadan need to be counted”

        • Randy Bessinger
          Posted May 16, 2019 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

          I admit complete ignorance on the subject of “Ramadan fasting”. I do know that short fasts seem to be the next “big thing” in dieting and health articles. I usually make it to lunch. It is why I don’t believe in free will.😀

          • merilee
            Posted May 16, 2019 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

            I’m with you, Randy😂

  8. ed hessler
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad you post items like this. I wouldn’t see many of them otherwise. Many of them are staggering. So thanks.

    You are either for free speech or not (as embodied in the Chicago principles). Two troublesome and revealing words were”we” and “model,” the words of censors everywhere.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    “Judeo-Christian Nation” is a canard of the religious right. What they mean is “Christian Nation,” but they toss in the “Judeo” prefix because they’re afraid to rile Jews, who are well represented in the US legal profession and the political donor class.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Yes. If one sits down and thinks about it, the characteristics of JHWH are almost entirely at odds with those believed by Christians to fit their conception of the Almighty. One v. three; the serial interferer with the world v. the withdrawn judge of mankind; the vengeful supporter of the chosen people v. the vengeful dispatcher of ‘sinners’ to eternal torment.

      We can well do without either of them. 53% of us in the UK already do. Good luck!

  10. phoffman56
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Any Dean or Vice Provost at a half decent university should have at least enough intellectual subtlety not to use the word anti-Muslim for what might be anti-Islam.

  11. K McMartin
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Permalink


  12. Mark Clements
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Andrew Klavan is primarily a novelist, probably best known for two of his thrillers, “True Crime” and “Don’t Say a Word,” which were made into films. In my opinion he’s a terrific writer, and although his novels are generally classified as “thrillers,” they aren’t “just thirllers”; they invariably dig deep into culture (especially regarding sterotypes), relationships and, yes, politics.

    The most pertinent of his books to this event is probably “Empire of Lies,” in which a man (a born-again Christian with a sordid past) gets caught up in a moral dilemma concerning a group of Muslims who might–or might not–be planning a terrorist attack. How to be sure? In the end, the book turns out to really be about individual responsibility and morality and the effects of religious and political stereotypes on us all.

    I’ve heard Klavan speak as a writer, and he was eloquent, intelligent and very amusing (just like his books). Although it would take considerable work to convince me that America is truly a Christian nation, I’d certainly be interested in what he has to say on the topic.

    • rustybrown
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      I listen to Klavan’s podcast often and share basically the same opinion of him as you do. He’s intelligent, insightful and funny. A decent, tolerant man and certainly no bigot. I think modern liberals would benefit from hearing his point of view.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I could understand protesting were any student being compelled to attend Klavan’s talk at this little Young Republican soirée. But as long as attendance is strictly voluntary, what the hell business is it of anybody what speaker anyone else wants to listen to?

    It neither picks their pocket nor breaks their leg.

    • Filippo
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      I wonder if just across the street on non-Stanford property would be far enough away for these grievance-mongers for this event to occur. I’d like to see them on record about the penalty for apostasy in Islam and if it’s OK for a Muslim (especially a woman) to decline to submit to sharia, and, on record about the hair-pulling neck injury of Charles Murray’s professor escort (Middlebury?) and the baseball bat-toting harpies/viragos/shrews/harridans threatening physical violence to others at Evergreen State.

  14. merilee
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Disappointed in my alma mater😖

  15. aljones909
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    So, officially approved free speech is fine.
    “Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.”

  16. JB
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Who decides what speech is “responsible” enough to be spoken? Isn’t that the cardinal elephant?

  17. Posted May 16, 2019 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    We believe it is possible to affirm one’s own faith traditions without denigrating or distorting those of others.

    If you limit the discourse to slapping a “Coexist” bumper sticker on your Prius, it is.

  18. Dave137
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Can’t go wrong with a classic:

    • merilee
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

      + mucho. How I miss Hitch! How great he would be skewering both Trump and the SJWs.

      • merilee
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

        Also not sure how I missed Hitch at Hart House in 2006?

  19. Dave137
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    Also, and many may have seen this before as well, here’s a story told by Susan Blackmore in 2015 (starts ~6:30) and she really nails the exact problems with “offense” and the restrictions of free speech:

    • merilee
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:54 pm | Permalink


  20. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 17, 2019 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    Poster #12 reveals precisely what the Vice-Provost and the Dean found so disturbing about Andrew Klavan: he is not only intelligent, but also, worse yet, very amusing. A speaker like Hitchens would probably give them the syndrome which used to be termed a shit conniption. Alas, the Vice and the Dean are perfectly typical modern administrators. We ought to learn more about the education, training, and social-psychology of the administrariat.

  21. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted May 17, 2019 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    “We understand it can be deeply frustrating and painful to see speakers invited to campus whose ideologies disparage members of our community.”

    As alluded to in other comments there seems to be a bit of hypocrisy at play here.

    As an ex middle age middle class white hetero male in a western culture I have noticed for some time now quite a bit of disparagement.
    Others, in perhaps the Southern States of America may have noticed a bit too.
    There has even been a push for historical revisionism and ‘corrections’for culturally significant figures who now don’t measure up.

    All this disparagement seems permissible.

    Perhaps there is good reason for such disparagement, perhaps not, let’s talk.

    Perhaps there is reason to disparage other ideas too.
    Oh no, you racist sexist islamophobic xenophobe.

  22. Roo
    Posted May 17, 2019 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I am generally on the fence about whether cases like these are issues of free speech or issues of the Overton window narrowing substantially in these more sectarian times. Neither is good, but they are subtly different issues.

    I think, for example, that you could push the bounds of free speech out so far that you could take the same comments above, and they would suddenly seem appropriate, if not overly mild. The KKK, neo-Nazis, child predators, a pro-rape group, etc. I don’t think anyone has an entirely ‘anything goes’ attitude when it comes to free speech. Eventually I suspect everyone would say “What the *#& are people like this doing on a college campus?!”.

    Framing it in terms of the Overton window – I have no idea who Klavan is, but in many cases, the general trend has been that speakers are censored simply for being right wing or conservative. Anecdotally, I have noticed this trend myself, as I was recently accused in a comments section of being a “hardcore rightwing ideologue”, when I am in fact a wishy-washy moderate liberal (The issue at hand was whether or not women who hypothetically might leave the GOP after these recent anti-abortion laws are narcissistic, selfish racists since they weren’t moved to leave after family border separations. I said that was ridiculous (I don’t recall liberals abandoning Obama in droves after the drone program after all) and was told I must be a far Right ideologue, because that is how cultish even the mid-far-Left has become these days, apparently.)

    So, I am not sure if it’s free speech that is changing – there have always been exceptions to free speech, after all, and decades ago there were probably many more surrounding sexuality and violence – or the bounds of acceptable discourse in our society.

    • rustybrown
      Posted May 17, 2019 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      What we’re seeing is an increasing censoriousness on the left. It’s been going on for some time, resulting in me and other moderates leaving the party, and has only picked up steam in the Trump era.

      • Roo
        Posted May 17, 2019 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        It’s a sad trend to observe. And I understand it doesn’t happen in a vacuum – I think sectarianism tends to have an inevitable reverberating effect, in much the same way I assume gangs do. Once they get started, it’s a lot harder not to be in one, and once they exist all around, you don’t want yours to be known as the weakest, and on and on – it strikes me as an all around downward spiral that self perpetuates. That said, I hope the idea of appealing to people’s better angels prevails. Leading by being the most inspiring example vs. having the scariest mob justice consequences.

        • rustybrown
          Posted May 17, 2019 at 11:43 am | Permalink

          The better angels are going to have a hard time prevailing against the liberal corporate monoculture of practically the entire establishment media. Whole lot a propaganda goin’ on. That’s why a good chunk of the population is hallucinating we’re in a “Constitutional crisis” while the country is doing exceedingly well.

          Thankfully alternative media exists, yet big tech is working overtime to censor those voices as well.

  23. Name redacted. An anonymous blogger.
    Posted June 13, 2019 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    This is a great post. I wrote on the same subject.

    LINK REDACTED: We do not link to posts on websites where the author is anonymous. If you want to promote yourself, you at least have to identify yourself.

    This is in the Roolz on the sidebar.

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