DEBATE: Should We Limit Free Speech for Nazis?

Laura Kipnis, Sp!ked Magazine,

Release Date
November 30, 2017


Ethics Free Speech Philosophy

Professors Laura Kipnis, Angus Johnston, and author Brendan O’Neill debate: Should We Limit Free Speech for Nazis? Excerpted from the Spiked Magazine Unsafe Space Tour panel discussion at New York Law School. Moderated by Tom Slater (of Spiked Magazine).

    1. Right to Offend – Laura Kipnis on Free Speech (video): Professor Laura Kipnis talks about what it was like to write about Hustler magazine even though it offended her own values. This experience taught her about the right to offend and how she has learned a lot from it. 
    2. Free Speech, Even for Richard Spencer (video): Should alt-right leader Richard Spencer have the right to speak without getting punched?  Danish journalist Flemming Rose says toleration demands it. 
    3. Shaming Someone Doesn’t Change Their Mind (video): Learn Liberty breaks down the science of persuasion, citing the work of Alana Conner, cultural scientist as Stanford University.

[Brendan O’Neill] – Yeah, I want to defend free speech for Nazis because the idea that you can have free speech, but not for Nazis is such a profound contradiction in terms, that’s not free speech, that’s licensed speech, that’s speech that you are licensed, that is speech you are licensed to enjoy so long as you are not a Nazi, that’s not freedom of speech, that is the end of freedom of speech. The second you push someone outside of freedom of speech, that’s the end of freedom of speech. I have to be really really honest here. I’m disappointed to hear someone, even someone who has been sucked into the Kafkaesque censorship of modern day campus make the case for silencing certain voices, and there are two basic reasons why you have to have free speech for Nazis. The first is: if you argue for any kind of speech control, the idea that it will just be limited to people you don’t like is crazy. History tells you that’s wrong. It’s never happened. In Britain in the 1930s, there were lots of very positive, inspiring working-class uprisings against fascists and some on the left, some ill-informed people on the left asked the government to pass public order legislation to prevent fascists from gathering in public and the government said, “Yes, okay, we’ll do that.” Guess who it was used against, time and again, this public order legislation. It was used against the left. It was used against communists. It was used against socialists whose marches were banned, whose gatherings were banned, you are signing your own death warrant when you support censorship of anybody and that’s such a grave folly. The second reason you should support free speech for Nazis is because the only way and this is a cliche, but is a cliche because it’s true. The only way to challenge prejudice is to confront it head-on in the public realm and destroy it with argument and reason. There was an era in which Nazis were arrested under a kind of hate speech legislation. They were punished, they were fined, that was in Weimar Germany in the 1920s and the early 1930s. Nazis were arrested for what they published, they were punished, they were fined for what they published. Do you know what they did as a consequence of that? They milked it, they presented themselves as victims, they won more support among the public and among the racist sections of the public by presenting themselves as the victims of authority. If you censor Nazis, you help Nazis, that’s what history tells us.
[Tom Slater] – Thank you, Brendan. Laura?
[Laura Kipnis] – Well I’ll just respond briefly to that. I mean, I understand all the points that you’re making because I could make them myself, but you’re speaking of a very abstract level about ideas and theories and I guess I’m talking about from the point of view of somebody on campus who works on campus and teaches and has classrooms of students who are not snowflakes, but oftentimes have personal circumstances that lead them to feel endangered by political circumstances or by threatening language the first generation to go to school, people of color. In the classes I teach, you have like one or two students of color facing like a roomful of white kids, and I mean, those are real circumstances faced by real people, so I guess that’s partly the experience that I’m speaking from, but at the idea level, I applaud what you’re saying. At the reality level which is where I live, I think it’s more complicated than that. It’s easy to come up with the pronouncements, I guess is what I would say to that.
[Angus Johnston] – Just want to say two things about freedom of speech. One is that I think this question of does free speech and free debate work to defeat fascists and that kind of thing, I think that’s an empirical question, and I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that in the Weimar Republic they persecuted Nazis, and then there were Nazis, and so therefore you have to have free speech for Nazis, I think we need to do look at it in a little bit more complexity. I think one of the things that I would look at is the question of whether the tactics of antifa are working right now and I think there is a case to be made that they are successfully disrupting the organizing of a lot of these white supremacist groups, that the white supremacists are having a hard time getting together and one of the things that they need is they need to be gathering in public spaces, so that they, the Nazi-curious among us, can connect up with them in real space in face-to-face and if we make it harder for them to do that, then it is harder for them to recruit. Now, is that worth it? Does that mean that we shouldn’t do it? Well, that comes back to the second thing that I wanted to say, is that when we’re talking about free speech and protecting free speech, we need to be very, very clear on what we mean because Milo Yiannopoulos does not have a right to speak at the UC Berkeley campus and I say that as a 1st Amendment absolutist. Richard Spencer does not have a 1st Amendment right to speak on any campus and again I say that as a 1st Amendment absolutist. The American campus is a place where, it’s a community and it’s an institution. It is not a place where anybody has an equal right to speak. Fascists are like vampires, they can’t come through the door unless you invite them in. They don’t have a right to come onto your campus. This is what Richard Spencer has done in the recent past, is he has scoured the nation for campuses, public campuses that have a policy that say that anybody may speak, that’s not a 1st Amendment thing, that’s a policy thing. They have decided to open their doors to anybody who wants to spend the money to rent a room. It’s basically like renting a room at a Holiday Inn and they do this to raise funds. I’ll be done in a second, but they do this to raise funds. They do it to be nice to people in the community who might not have a place for the knitting club to meet and so what Richard Spencer does is he engages with this policy in a parasitical way and what campuses are doing in many cases is they are changing that policy. Texas A&M did it. Richard Spencer wanted to come and they said, “Okay, well, we’re going to close our open door policy.” Nothing to do with the 1st Amendment. His 1st Amendment rights weren’t violated there, but if you look at the media coverage and the public debate around all these fascists on campus, you will see it framed in a very unsophisticated way as if what were in play was the 1st Amendment and that is very frequently not the case.
[Tom Slater] – Thank you, Angus.
[Brendan O’Neill] – I don’t understand what’s wrong with having principles especially on freedom of speech. You should have principles on freedom of speech and also there isn’t this neat divide between principles and practical everyday life, they inform each other and that’s the example I gave, of in Britain, where we have public order legislation that can ban a march and that came in as a consequence of the refusal of the left to defend free speech and freedom of association for Nazis. These have consequences. If you give up your principles, it has devastating consequences in everyday life. I think I disagree, but I think this is entirely about freedom of speech. I think that is the issue in relation to all of this stuff. I think freedom of speech is the foundational freedom, it’s the freedom that makes everything else possible, it’s the freedom, the right to vote, the right to association, the right to political organization, none of those make any sense or are even workable without freedom of speech, without the right to say what you want to publish, what you want to distribute, so the fact that there is a new left or students or society in general that is increasingly uncomfortable with freedom of speech should concern us enormously and you know in relation to antifa, antifa poses as this kind of radical lefty, kind of you know like the International Brigades that went off to fight the fascists in Spain, do me a favor, the antifa is a bourgeois, censorious, shrill anti-democratic, anti-working class. For George Orwell, anti-fascism meant going to Spain and risking your life to kill actual fascist. For antifa, it means getting a bus into town and punching a working class Trump supporter in the face, that’s not the same thing. Just the final point I would make is that if you want to see the danger of censorship, just look at people like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, their fame, their power, to the extent that they have it, their influence, the fact that you all know who they are, even though they don’t have any good ideas is entirely down to censorship. The more you censor them, the more you chase them, the more you create this culture of fear around them as if these two people could destroy America, the more you empower them. Censorship empowers the people it censors, it disempowers the audience, ordinary people who are deprived of the opportunity to challenge backward ideas. Censorship benefits the censored in many instances. Censorship is a real blow to ordinary people who don’t share these views and would quite like to hear and confront them. Censorship is a disaster in every single instance, whether it’s been enforced by the government or bureaucrats at a university, whether it’s formal or informal, whether it’s state-led or in the words of John Stuart Mill, the tyranny of wisdom, whichever area it’s coming from, it is a disaster and it will make life and politics worse.