Hyper-Partisanship and the Failure to Uphold Free Speech Principles
In late 2019, the popular Joe Rogan podcast featured author and contributing editor to Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi. In addition to talking about Donald Trump, Russia, and the great gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thomson, they discussed their opposition to the anti-free speech culture of university liberals. Their analysis echoed, in part, many of the same concerns raised by commentators after the 2017 cancelations of right wing provocateurs Anne Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos at University of California, Berkeley. In fact, self-professed free speech advocates from President Trump supporters like Fox News’ Tomi Lahren to comedian-critics like Bill Maher and Adam Corolla have consistently blamed the erosion of the First Amendment on university liberals’ advocacy for safe spaces, social justice, trigger warnings, and helicopter parenting.
However, these selective narratives espoused around free speech issues actually work to prevent a much needed bi-partisan resistance to varied attacks on First Amendment protections. They have little to do with truly supporting free speech on campus and act to further politicize free expression rights themselves. In fact, this selective framing of freedom of speech distracts from the issue of damaging hate speech that is fairly widespread at American universities. A 2017 Federal Bureau of Investigation report, as well as a 2019 report from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Fund for Leadership, Equity, Access and Diversity, or LEAD Fund, part of the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity (AAAED), found that reports of hate speech and related crimes continue to rise annually on college campuses. These findings contradict many conservatives’ claims that universities are successfully implementing a liberal-inspired authoritarian regime of diversity and inclusion.
Secondly, conservative indignation for university liberalism is not rooted in their love for the Constitution. In fact, conservatives have a long history of ignoring First Amendment concerns, especially around social justice matters, such as their call for punishing NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for using his freedom of expression to raise awareness of racial inequities by kneeling during the national anthem; and Donald Trump’s full throttle attack on news media with pejorative labels – such as “enemy of the American people” and “fake news,” – as well as his musings about removing their FCC licenses.
This selective outrage over free speech is a hyper-partisan ruse. For example, many conservatives claimed victimhood when Alex Jones and other alt-right figures were de-platformed by social media companies. However, there was almost no discussion that this resulted from conservative adherents who supported a deregulated media and shrank the influence of government to the point that technology companies, not democratic institutions, mostly enforce and determine what constitutes acceptable speech (in the “marketplace of ideas”). Nonetheless, conservatives’ muted response to the blocking of independent press outlets such as Mint Press News on social media and detainment of journalists such as Max Blumenthal revealed their waning, if not outright partisan, commitment to free speech. Similarly, they claim to champion whistleblowers, such as Julian Assange, for exposing the nefarious behaviors of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee (yet they do little about his ongoing imprisonment), but want to chide and reveal the identity of the whistleblower who exposed Trump’s disreputable dealings with Ukraine. In effect, they are hyper-partisans, silent on crimes against democracy unless they threaten their own power structures and ideology.
But simply blaming conservatives for the attack on free speech is the type of deceptive analysis that abates the democratic process. As we argued in our recent book, United States of Distraction (2019), if Americans continue to cherry-pick their rage for the attacks on speech that fit their political proclivity, it is not the “other-side” that will suffer, but our entire democratic culture. That is why it is crucial to note that although not entirely comparable, liberals and even some on further on the left have supported censorship– celebrating the Twitter ban on Alex Jones, defending universities’ refusal to host some right wing speakers, and supporting the indictment of whistleblowers such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden for exposing human rights violations and state crimes against democracy respectively.
Ironically, America’s hyper-partisan approach to supporting free speech actually coalesces into bi-partisan support for censorship in certain spaces. For example, in nearly 30 states, legislatures have passed a series of laws to thwart the growing boycott-divestment-and sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to hold Israel accountable for the illegal settlements and ongoing occupation of Palestine and other human rights abuses there. In December 2019, Trump signed an executive order aimed at making anti-BDS laws federal policy. Anti-BDS laws prohibit public institutions, including universities, from funding any person, program, or event that involves any support for the BDS movement. By economically incentivizing the removal of voices that criticize Israeli policy, these laws actually promote rather than fight censorship.
Although they have different motives, many conservatives and liberals have shown bipartisan support for these policies. Case in point, a scheduled keynote speech for the upcoming annual International Critical Media Literacy Conference (ICMLC) by journalist and filmmaker Abby Martin of The Empire Files, was cancelled at Georgia Southern University, due to concerns over Martin’s support of the BDS movement manifest in her recent documentary, Gaza Fights for Freedom, would violate Georgia’s anti-BDS law. In fact, organizers of the conference called off the event entirely (and when asked for an explanation by the authors here, and others, there was no response). There is significant bipartisan silence on how BDS laws stifle free speech in general and Martin’s censorship specifically, arguably because she has a history of making bi-partisan critiques of American empire. Some liberals have even resurrected McCarthyite smears claiming that she was a foreign agent of Russia who helped tilt the 2016 election to Trump, a claim supported by no evidence what so ever.
Nonetheless, this case should send chills down the spine of those who rely on facts and convictions, rather than political affiliations, guide their work. As Martin’s case illustrates, constitutional rights are under threat because the hyper-partisans who pay lip service to similar notions of free speech refuse to protect truth-tellers like Martin because that would reveal the bipartisan corrosion of democratic principles, and thus is not politically advantageous. Rights are conceptualized, maintained, and protected by a concerted national and societal effort. Contemporary discourse around free speech issues illustrates how hyper-partisanship distracts the public from unifying to protect basic Constitutional rights. Whether we are critical scholars, educators, or political office holders, we lose credibility and perhaps our democracy when we cannot stand up for principles over party and facts over fiction.
Dr. Nolan Higdon is an author and lecturer of history and media studies at California State University, East Bay. Higdon sits on the boards of the Action Coalition for Media Education and Northwest Alliance For Alternative Media And Education. His most recent publication is United States of Distraction with Mickey Huff. He is co-host of the Along the Line podcast, and a longtime contributor to Project Censored’s annual book, Censored. In addition, he has been a guest commentator for The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous television news outlets.
Mickey Huff is director of Project Censored, president of the Media Freedom Foundation, coeditor of the annual Censored book series from Seven Stories Press (since 2009), co-author of United States of Distraction (City Lights, 2019), and professor of social science and history at Diablo Valley College where he co-chairs the history area, and lectures in communications at California State University, East Bay. He is also the executive producer and co-host of the weekly syndicated Pacifica Radio program, The Project Censored Show, founded in 2010.
Learn more at www.projectcensored.org