That is hardly surprising.
Examine any cause taken up by 18-year-olds on a college campus and you’ll find ideologically diverse observers who think that they’re mistaken about various assumptions and tactics. I share the notion that young people with stories about racial injustice should be heard, and that their descriptions of their experiences are owed a degree of deference, especially by those of us who’ve never navigated college as the member of a minority group. But thoughtless or patronizing deference can be prejudicial, too; and when activist assumptions and tactics elicit intense disagreement even among members of groups victimized by the racism at issue, the notion that deference to “students of color” is even possible requires one to pretend that they constitute a monolithic group who uniformly agree. Little wonder that black, Hispanic, and Asian American collegians who depart from progressive orthodoxy often keep quiet, knowing that they’ll be called race-traitors (as one student at Yale was just called) if they are more vocal.
What should be done about racist acts at Yale and and the University of Missouri?
I’ll hazard some suggestions. A student who defaces a dorm with an excrement swastika should be expelled. Anonymous bigots who yell racial slurs from a pickup truck should be condemned. A frat that discriminates on the basis of race at its parties should have its charter revoked by whatever national organization conferred it. Anonymous threats should be reported to authorities; if possible, the perpetrators should be jailed; and the threatened students should be given protection by campus security.
I don’t think that Cobb and I disagree about any of that. (And I have no view of whether the president at Missouri was justly removed or not. He may well have been an abject failure.)
The thorniest question of all: What should be done about the fact that many black students at institutions as different as Yale and the University of Missouri feel that they inhabit campuses with racist climates where they are less welcome than others? Insofar as free speech is invoked during such controversies about racism on university campuses, it is because many leftist activists believe one necessary remedy for racism is for administrators to punish speech that they regard as problematic.
But the First Amendment flatly prohibits that remedy at the University of Missouri and at all public institutions. For observers like me, there is tremendous interest in zealously defending that civil right, not only because it protects the vocation that Cobb and I share, but for a reason articulated most powerfully by the ACLU:
Free speech rights are indivisible.
Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone's rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice. For example, in the 1949 case of Terminiello v. Chicago, the ACLU successfully defended an ex-Catholic priest who had delivered a racist and anti-semitic speech. The precedent set in that case became the basis for the ACLU's successful defense of civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s and '70s.
The indivisibility principle was also illustrated in the case of Neo-Nazis whose right to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1979 was successfully defended by the ACLU. At the time, then ACLU Executive Director Aryeh Neier, whose relatives died in Hitler's concentration camps during World War II, commented: "Keeping a few Nazis off the streets of Skokie will serve Jews poorly if it means that the freedoms to speak, publish or assemble any place in the United States are thereby weakened."
Cobb would do better to engage that argument, if he finds it wrongheaded, than to charge that free speech is being raised disingenuously to divert attention from racism or to absurdly compare defenses of free speech to defenses of George Zimmerman. The closest he comes to constructively engaging on the subject is here:
Last year, at the University of Connecticut, where I teach, white fraternity members harassed and purportedly shouted epithets at members of a black sorority; the incident generated an afterlife of hostility on Internet forums, where black female students were derided and ridiculed. Eight months ago, fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma were filmed singing an ode to lynching.
These are not abstractions. And this is where the arguments about the freedom of speech become most tone deaf. The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.
All these incidents should be roundly condemned; harassment should be punished; hostility on Internet forums will exist regardless of what anyone does, as most working journalists can attest; and yes, the limits of liberty do lie at the point where one begins to impose on another. But excepting instances in which protected speech is not at play, blithely declaring a free-speech defense to be “tone deaf” is an evasion, not a position. And it is lamentably familiar to civil libertarians, who often take positions that most of their countrymen regard as tone-deaf.