Kansas Progress Institute

Ad Astra Per Aspera ~ To the Stars Through Difficulties

The Limits of Free Speech

Posted on April 8, 2016

By David Burress

Minority students asked the University to Kansas to censor sidewalk chalk messages supporting Trump on the grounds that he is a scary racist (which is true). KU refused, which was the right call. Nevertheless the students’ concern should not be dismissed. They are not asking for censorship of speech that causes them discomfort. They are asking for censorship of speech that causes them well-founded fear.

American tradition (as generally supported by the ACLU) calls for the broadest possible freedom from government regulation of speech content. That usually means that speech that stops short of fairly direct incitement to violence or lawbreaking or destructive action would pass muster. But that way of drawing the line is problematical. It would allow, for example, a constant atmosphere of low-level threats against minorities, supported by innuendo. Thus “Kikes off campus” could be censored because it calls for illegal action; but “Jews killed Christ” could not. Yet no Jew should have to go to school in the midst of constant reminders that some people wish them harm.

A possible but undesirable answer is to absolutely forbid some kinds of public messages. I’m glad that KU (after a battle) does allow sidewalk chalking.

I really do not have a good answer on precisely how to draw lines on public speech on a campus. However the strength of the connection between the feared action and the action actually urged by the speech is always relevant.

In the case of Trump, there are no examples of organized violence against minorities by Trump supporters other than at Trump rallies. Trump has not directly incited violence against minorities, and his pronouncements always have plausible deniability as to racism. Also there are many reasons other than racism to support Trump (some of which I agree with).

More generally, there is something wrong with censoring speech that supports a viable Presidential candidate, not because candidates are above the law, but rather because their campaigns represent a complex and entangled and socially significant web of issues that can’t be eliminated from public discussion.

In this particular case the decision not to censor Trump supporters is an easy call. The issues it raises are not easy at all.

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