A misguided Decider tells us why campuses shouldn’t have free speech

Inside Higher Ed has a new interview with P. E. Moscowitz, who used to be a staff writer for Al Jazeera America and has now produced a new book: The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent. That’s a provocative title, for what case could one make against the First Amendment? I haven’t read the book, though I will (it’s not doing very well on Amazon), but it looks as if Moscowitz is not really against the First Amendment per se. Rather, Moscowitz is against the promulgation of “hate speech” by invited speakers at colleges. (It may not be irrelevant that, on Moscowitz’s personal web page is the statement “I use they/them/theirs pronouns.)” In some cases, though, what he calls for will violate the Constitution. Click the screenshot to read their interview:

Now any private college can ban or deplatform whatever speakers it likes, though it would be foolish to do so as it abrogates the very mission of a college (religious schools, however, are known for their suppression of speech). In contrast, public colleges, considered arms of the government, cannot ban speech, though they don’t have to invite speakers whose views they don’t like. That would be even more foolish, for if they reject an invitation by a student group on the grounds of a speaker’s content, they leave themselves open for a First Amendment lawsuit. (Moscowitz seems to think that colleges invite speakers themselves, while in reality speakers are invited by department, student groups, and other sub-units of the institution.)

It turns out that Moscowitz is saying, as have so many others, that “colleges don’t have to invite people who promulgate hate speech”; they (I’m using the preferred pronoun) aren’t necessarily calling for colleges to violate the First Amendment. In that case what he’s saying is trivial—except in one respect. And it’s an important respect: Who is to determine what constitutes undesirable “hate speech”? Here’s an example of the problem:

Q: What do you anticipate the biggest battles related to free speech will be on college campuses?

A: . . . But what I do [think] is mostly over is the era of conservative provocateurs claiming that their free speech has been violated because students simply don’t want to hear them speak. Colleges, after all, are some of the most highly curated environments out there, and faculty, administrators and many others are realizing there’s nothing wrong with limiting some speech. After all, that’s their literal jobs — to create syllabi, classroom discussions, etc. that teach students some things, but not everything. Is not including a book on a syllabus a violation of free speech? Of course not. Why is the logic of not inviting racist speakers to campus different?

Again, who decides which speakers are racist? After all, people like Heather Mac Donald, who have a take on the police that differs from that of many Leftists, are considered racists, even though there’s no evidence that they are. “Racist” has become a blanket word for many on the Left, meaning “Anyone whose views I don’t like.”

Mac Donald’s views do deserve airing. Likewise, students should hear speakers who are against reparations for African-Americans, or against affirmative action, for how can you form your own views without hearing the best case of your opponents? And it’s not necessarily racist to argue against reparations or affirmative action.

Further, class syllabi, which are part of academic freedom, are not at all the same as invited speakers. Even in a public university, a professor doesn’t have the right to say anything they want in class; there’s an issue of relevance and responsibility. But they can limit the discussion in their classes far more than a university itself can limit the range of speakers its members are allowed to invite. Remember, in most cases it is not the university itself that invites speakers, but a department or a group within the university.

Moscowitz continues his problematic assertions with his answer to the next question:

Q: When it comes to incidents related to free speech, i.e. controversial speakers, shout-downs, protests and more, what do you think administrators get wrong in their response?

A: I think administrators have kind of had the wool pulled over their eyes when it comes to free speech and inviting controversial speakers. They think they have some duty to present conflictual viewpoints even if those viewpoints are racist, anti-intellectual and simply not factual. As one Middlebury student pointed out to me, the administrators don’t invite people who [don’t] want to present evolution or global warming as a truth, because that would conflict with the college’s academic values. Why is inviting someone who believes in an outdated concept such as race science, like Charles Murray, held to a less stringent standard?

The job of colleges and universities has always been to limit some forms of information while promoting others. A conservative Christian university would likely not invite someone to talk about the benefits of communism and atheism, and we do not expect them to. You don’t go to history class to learn to bake a cake. [JAC: is this limiting information about how to bake a cake?] Classrooms are generally led by professors, and students are not allowed to speak out of turn. In other words, colleges have always been some of the most limited speaking environments in the world, so why is inviting or not inviting a conservative provocateur different? I think administrators are simply scared of angering some very powerful forces. That’s especially true of public universities, where their budgets might be cut if they piss off the wrong legislators.

Well, actually, my university invited a creationist speaker about two years ago, and I had no objection to that. I wouldn’t invite a creationist, but I’m not opposed to others doing so. And yes, maybe students should hear climate-change denialists, for how else can they argue for anthropogenic global warming unless they know what their opponents are saying?

As for Charles Murray’s outdated “race science”, is Moscowitz really the judge of whether that constitutes speech that shouldn’t be heard? Apparently! As always, those who want to limit speech invariably are the ones who decide what kinds of speech shouldn’t be heard. How incredibly patronizing!

At my school, pro-Israeli speakers, and members of the IDF, have also been opposed to the point where their speeches have had to be canceled because of disruption. (I doubt that will happen again here.) For support of Israel, too, is considered an “outdated concept” and a form of hate speech. After all, the mere existence of Israel is considered hatred and oppression of Palestinians.

You can read Moscowitz’s arguments for yourself. I’ll put up just two more excerpts from the interview (my emphasis in the first excerpt):

Q: White nationalist speakers such as Richard Spencer and others have largely ceased college tours. Do you anticipate a time where they, or others like them, will resume this speaking circuit?

A: Not really. Maybe in 10 or 20 years, once we’ve all forgotten how much of a failure these conservative speakers were. They essentially got laughed out of public discourse. College students and other activists have been remarkably successful at getting their point across and de-emphasizing the importance of these provocateurs. Evergreen College, for example, is seen as a controversial example of protest, and in many cases even a failure, because of the protests there in recent years over an overly white faculty and curriculum that didn’t center anyone but white people. But in my mind, it’s actually a success story: students got much of what they wanted, and the school is now more committed to diversity in hiring and teaching. Because of those successes, right-wingers have had to take a step back and restrategize. That doesn’t mean they’re not still active on college campuses. But I suspect they’ll develop a different tactic soon, since the provocateur model has kind of failed.

This makes little sense to me. Evergreen College certainly did not “center anyone but white people.” It was a diverse college with diverse students, a diverse curriculum, and a diverse faculty. What they did is hound out two professors who didn’t want to leave campus on “all white people have to go” day.

And why is it a success if students get what they want? Ceiling Cat help us if this is the criterion for a successful college! In fact, Evergreen has gone down the tubes since the protests, bleeding money to the extent that they have to cut down on student admissions and let go some of their employees. The protests were a total failure, and eroded the reputation of Evergreen State.

What Moscowitz really objects to, as you see, are “right wingers getting their way”, in other words, right-wing speech. Now Moscowitz (it’s hard to use “they” as a pronoun, as that sometimes makes the referent unclear) may be correct that some conservatives use a “free speech” mantra to be able to get their speakers invited, and don’t really want free speech in the same way I do, but I don’t care. Speech should be free on campus—according to the Chicago Principles—and however it’s made free, whether by the Right or the Left or centrists, doesn’t matter.

One more example:

Q: Some students want “hate speech” to be punishable on public college campuses. Do you believe there is the will among administrators to do this, or to change over all what is acceptable at these institutions, despite First Amendment concerns?

A: Again, this goes back to colleges being some of the most highly curated environments out there. Is denying someone admission to a college a threat to that person’s free speech? Is failing someone in a class a threat to their free speech? Is a student not being able to disrupt a class whenever they want a threat to free speech? We take these limits as a given, and even a positive in colleges, yet when it comes to students requesting or demanding that colleges not allow professors or students to say racist, transphobic and other offensive language without punishment, that becomes a step too far for administrators. So I would question whether they’re really afraid of limiting speech (which, as I said, they do all the time), or whether they’re afraid of confronting just how common and ingrained transphobia, racism and other forms of oppression are on their campuses.

Here Moscowitz again equates reasonable limits on behavior (e.g., you can’t shout somebody down) with his desired limits on speech. And he clearly wants no “transphobic, racist, or offensive language” coming from invited speakers. The last sentence makes two things clear: Moscowitz has an ideological agenda, and he is the Decider who will lay out what speech should not be heard. (Is limiting transgender women’s participation in women’s sports a “transphobic” claim?).

In the end, Moscowitz, at least in this interview, proves to be one of those people who wants his own agenda promoted in colleges by deeming those who oppose it as promulgating “hate speech” that should not be heard. This, in a college, is a recipe for ideological uniformity, for bullying and suppression, and for disaster.

Moscowitz is not only prone to muddled thinking, conflating very different issues to push his agenda, but he’s also dangerous to intellectual discourse. I’m glad they don’t run a college!



  1. pablo
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Off topic but somewhat related question:
    what is your opinion of proposals by conservatives to do away with tenure?

  2. Carl
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Moscowitz completely tips his cards by calling what Charles Murray does “race science.”

    • Posted August 25, 2019 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      I guarantee it didn’t read the book.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted August 25, 2019 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

        I bet it didn’t.

    • Deodand
      Posted August 25, 2019 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      The irony of course is that the entire modern ‘Social Justice’ movement is predicated on “Race Science”, specifically the idea that traits like racism & mysoginy are ‘inherent’ in certain racial and sexual groups.

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    (It may not be irrelevant that, on Moscowitz’s personal web page is the statement “I use they/them/theirs pronouns.)” [sic]

    If Moscowitz’s is referring to doing so to avoid linguistic sexism, that practice has a noble tradition dating back at least to Jane Austen. I avoided using “their” with singular antecedents for a long time, but got so tired of writing “him or her,” that I tossed in the towel and do it now myself.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted August 25, 2019 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      I, too, threw in the towel and began using their as a singular pronoun instead of “him or “her” but Shakespeare used it, so it has a long history

      I’d have a hard time writing “them” or “they” and so forth with someone who identifies as “non-binary” when it comes to gender (though they’d probably call it sex and gender.) In that parenthetical statement my use of “they” covers both usages.

      Those who use the “royal we” but they don’t use the royal “they,” only “we.”

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted August 25, 2019 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        I do hope that you won’t throw in the towel and start using ‘words’ such as cisheteropatriarchy, which I think was a term used in the proposed California ethnic studies curriculum.

        I know you won’t but this new wave of linguistic tyranny is burgeoning and though I have no truck with Jordan Peterson, the impulse to enforce these speech rules on everyone is scary. My glottis constricts at the very thought.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 25, 2019 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

          I’d as lief give up a limb, Jenny. 🙂

          • Jim Swetnam
            Posted August 25, 2019 at 9:36 pm | Permalink


  4. Charles Sawicki
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    The interview for Inside Higher Ed could have asked Moscowitz much tougher and interesting questions. What a weak performance! Questions often seemed to imply agreement with his positions.

  5. Jenny Haniver
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Moskowitz was interviewed on KPFA this past Sunday. For those interested, here’s a link to the audio https://kpfa.org/episode/sunday-show-august-18-2019/.

    He’s giving a KPFA sponsored talk in Berkeley on the 28th.

  6. Posted August 25, 2019 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    “… on Moscowitz’s personal web page is the statement “I use they/them/theirs pronouns”.”

    That’s not actually true, in the sense that he doesn’t use those pronouns to refer to himself (that’s not what pronouns are for). Nor does he want people to use them when talking to him (ditto). What he means is that he wants other people to use those pronouns when talking about him to others.

    • BJ
      Posted August 25, 2019 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      Well, that’s a new one. I’ve never heard of someone who wants one set of pronouns when someone is talking to them, but another set when someone is talking about them.

      Have we gone too far with this? Did I just ask a transphobic question? In the eyes of Moscowitz, the answer to the second question is likely “yes.”

      • Filippo
        Posted August 25, 2019 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

        I skimmed over a long-ish article about this pronoun business a month or two ago. IIRC, there also exists the phenomenon of “rolling” pronouns. I.e., what pronoun one uses depends on what day of the week it is, or how one perceives oneself on a given day.

        • Filippo
          Posted August 25, 2019 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

          I.e., skimmed a NY Times article.

      • Posted August 26, 2019 at 2:22 am | Permalink

        “I’ve never heard of someone who wants one set of pronouns when someone is talking to them, but another set when someone is talking about them.”

        But that’s actually the norm! We’d use “you/yours” when talking directly to a person, but “him/her” etc when talking about them.

    • davelenny
      Posted August 25, 2019 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      What happens to third-person, present tense subject-verb agreements in that case, eg, they is/they are? Look at the very last sentence in JAC’s post for an example of potential ambiguity. Is this a reference to Moscowitz alone, or all those who think like him?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 25, 2019 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

        Don’t be a Lepidus.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Moscowitz appears to be ignorant of the First Amendment “Public Forum” doctrine. Where a taxpayer-funded university permits student groups or other campus organizations to invite speakers of their choosing, the university creates a “limited public forum” which must remain viewpoint-neutral under the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment.

    Classrooms, on the other hand, have never been deemed public fora of any type, and simply could not function as such.

  8. Posted August 25, 2019 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Moscowitz: “But what I do [think] is mostly over is the era of conservative provocateurs claiming that their free speech has been violated because students simply don’t want to hear them speak.”

    This is not an honest way of presenting the issue. Most of the time some students *want* to hear the speaker, but *other* students don’t want those students to be able to hear that speaker.

    If 70% of students abhor a speaker, yet 30% would want to listen and evaluate that speaker, then the 30% should be allowed to arrange an event; the 70% should not be allowed to censor it.

  9. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    No one can properly decide who is a racist speaker, not because overly complicated thinking is required to arrive at such a decision, but because the cancel culture and speech silencers prevent the essential robust discussion inherent to complicated thinking. We have to discuss this stuff out loud so we can hear our thoughts and figure it out that’s what universities do (or did before they were seen as career factories). It is so disheartening when the one place we could always count on to counter sloppy thinking not only engages in sloppy thinking but encourages it and formalizes it in its policies, leaving the disinvited to roam the larger world with bad ideas that could have been shut down.

  10. Osmo
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Who defines what is hate speech? If someone really advocated killing people based on race, slavery,etc. he should have no business in colleges but when the issue is political and scientific views I see no reason to ban someone just because his views are controversial. Going to listen the speeches is voluntary so there is even less reason to ban them. People like Ben Shapiro or Charles Murray are not some hate speakers.

    I could go as far as the college could ban the speaker but the fact that some violent group of thugs prevent the speech and the college silently approves it is unacceptable- That allows the college to ban something and washing their hands.

  11. Posted August 25, 2019 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Moscowitz’s twitter account has been suspended, but apparently the profile included “Antifa Supersoldier, Six Flags Great Adventure Chapter.”

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted August 25, 2019 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

      They? has two or more Twitter accounts
      @ptrmsk is indeed suspended for violating Twitter rules, but he is still spewing on @_pem_pem

      According to KNOW YOUR MEME “Antifa Supersoldier” originated with an pro or anti antifa Twitterer back in 2017. As you can see from the link the Twitterer claimed “…millions of antifa Supersoldiers will behead all white parents & small business owners in the town square.” This was picked up by FoxNews & the like as a real call for action & it then spread as a mockery meme.

      It is difficult to decode “pem” because he majors in irony & sarcasm [which is useful for deniability later of course], he is mainly pro self publicity, but he is clearly also pro direct action when it’s his ‘team’ [or selective censorship depending on your horse] – especially where it is uncontroversial in the West [horse thing again] as per the Hong Kong resistance Tweets & other retweets of his.

      I have a very strong feeling he would clap the beating of a right winger, but he is too smart to fly all his colours while there’s books to push. Read this entire Tweet thread of his, below if it embeds, from nine months ago where he says it makes more sense to radicalize kids via flyers at Six Flags rather than at expensive universities – the antifa is clearly a wet dream for pem: “Stop flyering for DSA at UPenn, start flyering for antifa at Six Flags”

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted August 25, 2019 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      The embed doesn’t show the whole thread, so here’s a shot that does:


  12. BJ
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    “But what I do [think] is mostly over is the era of conservative provocateurs claiming that their free speech has been violated because students simply don’t want to hear them speak.”

    Oh, so that’s why those auditoriums were full, despite, in some cases, students being pushed, spit on, and having their pictures taken as they went in! It’s because nobody wanted to hear what Moscowitz’s perceived enemies might have to say.

    “Colleges, after all, are some of the most highly curated environments out there…”

    Aaaand there it is. People like the author want to “curate” (i.e. restrict) information so students come out with the “correct” (i.e. brainwashed) viewpoints.

    His next line is utter BS as well: ” After all, that’s their literal jobs — to create syllabi, classroom discussions, etc.” Well, yes, in their classrooms. What they don’t get to do is curate who students can listen to and invite outside the classrooms (or they often do, but shouldn’t).

    ” Likewise, students should hear speakers who are against reparations for African-Americans, or against affirmative action, for how can you form your own views without hearing the best case of your opponents? And it’s not necessarily racist to argue against reparations or affirmative action.”

    This is what scares me most: The Left’s continued insistence that arguing for legitimate policy positions — policy positions held by many who even vote for Democrats — is racist hate speech that must be stopped. It seems there are two ultimate goals: (1) brainwash people by not allowing them to be exposed to any speech or ideas unapproved by the deciders, and (2) convince people that merely supporting policies that don’t line up with Woke thought is, in itself, racist/sexist/whatever-ist or -phobic.

    • Posted August 26, 2019 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      The Regressive Left isn’t interested in participating in a debate on policy positions — it only wants to enforce adherence to its quasi-religious dogma.

  13. Filippo
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    “I use they/them/theirs pronouns.”

    Good for you, Mr. (?) Moskowitz. (What [plural?] salutation do a they/them employ? Has anyone every addressed that?)

    Does Moskovitz forevermore require me to remember what pronouns they use?

    Should we ever meet, I’m no less entitled to require them to wear a name tag to refresh my (first person impersonal reflexive pronoun) memory.

  14. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Who gets to choose?

    Charles Murray.
    Warren Farrell.
    Christina Hoff Sommers.
    Camille Paglia.
    Lindsay Sheperd.
    Janice Fiamengo.

    Coleman Hughes.
    Sam Harris.
    James Damore.

    Milo Yiannopoulis.
    Ann Coulter.

    That’s five minutes off the top o my head and I’ve excluded many current popular social media voices who are called right wing but are not at all right wing.

    I think quite a few different things about articles like these, but pathetic will do it for the moment.

    Thanks to Professor Coyne for keeping an eye out such opinions for and raising them for discussion and lending his high profile to help temper the worst of these attacks on free speech.

  15. Adam M.
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    … administrators don’t invite people who [don’t] want to present evolution or global warming as a truth… Why is inviting someone who believes in an outdated concept such as race science, like Charles Murray, held to a less stringent standard?

    Interesting switcheroo, there. He uses an example of somebody presenting falsehoods as an argument against inviting who merely believes something he doesn’t like. Charles Murray, remember, was not even at the school to talk about race science or The Bell Curve, but an entirely different subject, when he was attacked. So apparently if you’ve committed wrong-think in the past then you shouldn’t be allowed to talk about anything.

  16. Posted August 26, 2019 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    It’s hard to take someone seriously that equates limiting speech on campus to a professor having to choose what to teach. I see the analogy but it is a false one. Based on that alone, I won’t waste my time and money on his book. Moscowitz can consider himself (what’s the right pronoun?) deplatformed in my mind.

  17. openidname
    Posted August 27, 2019 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    “but he’s also dangerous to intellectual discourse.”

    Wrong pronoun, Professor! You just outed yourself as heteropatriarchal and transphobic. The Diversity Committee will be knocking on your door any minute now.

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