Monday, June 25, 2018

Right to Free Speech, not to an Audience

In Brian W. Van Norten's article in today's New York Times, "The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience" he carefully argues the stance that I've attempted to argue over the years: We can offer people free speech, but that's different than offering them a venue and audience. He starts with some questionable arguments from a few famous names, and closely examines the argument that society benefits from hearing all sides:
"Even if Coulter and Peterson are wrong, won’t we have a deeper understanding of why racism and sexism are mistaken if we have to think for ourselves about their claims? And “who’s to say” that there isn’t some small fragment of truth in what they say? If this specious line of thought seems at all plausible to you, it is because of the influence of “On Liberty,” published in 1859 by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. . . . The problem, though, is that humans are not rational in the way Mill assumes. I wish it were self-evident to everyone that we should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, but the current vice president of the United States does not agree. I wish everyone knew that it is irrational to deny the evidence that there was a mass shooting in Sandy Hook, but a syndicated radio talk show host can make a career out of arguing for the contrary. . . . 
I suggest that we could take a big step forward by distinguishing free speech from just access. Access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole. There is clear line between censoring someone and refusing to provide them with institutional resources for disseminating their ideas. . . . For these prestigious institutions to deny Murray an audience would be for them to exercise their fiduciary responsibility as the gatekeepers of rational discourse. We have actually seen a good illustration of what I mean by “just access” in ABC’s courageous decision to cancel “Roseanne,” its highest-rated show. Starring on a television show is a privilege, not a right. . . . 
What just access means in terms of positive policy is that institutions that are the gatekeepers to the public have a fiduciary responsibility to award access based on the merit of ideas and thinkers. To award space in a campus lecture hall to someone like Peterson who says that feminists “have an unconscious wish for brutal male domination,” or to give time on a television news show to someone like Coulter who asserts that in an ideal world all Americans would convert to Christianity, or to interview a D-list actor like Jenny McCarthy about her view that actual scientists are wrong about the public health benefits of vaccines is not to display admirable intellectual open-mindedness. It is to take a positive stand that these views are within the realm of defensible rational discourse, and that these people are worth taking seriously as thinkers. Neither is true: These views are specious, and those who espouse them are, at best, ignorant, at worst, sophists. The invincibly ignorant and the intellectual huckster have every right to express their opinions, but their right to free speech is not the right to an audience."

Many of the commenters on the article have a unifying concern: "Who will be the judge of what's right?" And they then conclude, like Mill, that we simply have to have a forum for everyone or else the government will get its hand in the mix, and it'll be hell for everyone. But that's not the only option. Van Norten makes it clear that TV producers are able to fire overt racists from their shows, and, similarly, universities have a right to refuse a venue to guest speakers who promote bigoted views. It's a matter of 'my house, my rules.' If you don't want to go to a university that refuses to give space for 'white nationalists' like Faith Goldy, then you're free to choose to go elsewhere. I'm hoping enough universities take that position that it becomes difficult for racists and homophobes and flat-earthers and climate deniers to find an institute that shares their views so openly.

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