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The Progressive Case for Free Speech

If we believe in democracy, we must protect everyone’s right to say things we despise.
March 21, 2023
The Progressive Case for Free Speech
In this screenshot from the RNC’s livestream of the 2020 Republican National Convention, Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, addresses the virtual convention on August 24, 2020. (Photo Courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via Getty Images)

The protesting students did not want to hear it, not a word of it. “Shut it down!” they shouted, as others lined up to enter the event. The dozens of protesters who turned out on March 9 for a joint appearance of right-wing luminaries Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens at the University of Illinois Chicago not only did not come to hear the talk but didn’t want anyone else to hear it, either.

“I think it’s disgusting that the university has these people on campus,” student Jonathan May told the Chicago Sun Times. “Essentially these people are calling for the genocide of LGBTQ people, specifically trans people. Don’t have these kinds of people come here.”

The event, as it happens, was not sponsored by the university but by the campus chapter of Turning Point USA, a nationwide conservative student group of which Kirk is the founder and Owens the former communications director. (She stepped down in 2019, not long after making some widely reported comments about how Hitler was an “OK” leader until he took things a bit too far.)

It’s easy to see why students would find this pair objectionable; it’s because they are. As journalist Kyle Spencer documents in her engaging 2022 book, Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power, casual obnoxiousness is one of Turning Point USA’s main drivers. (Kirk and Owens, whose personalities are imprinted in the DNA of TPUSA, are main characters in Spencer’s book.) The group’s goal is not to persuade young people that the right has the best ideas, but that owning the libs is a fuckload of fun.

Among the stunts TPUSA has pulled is to set up on campus a table advertising an “Affirmative Action Bake Sale,” where the baked goods are priced based on the race of the buyer: $1.50 for Asians, $1 for whites, and 50 cents for African Americans and Hispanics. Although this particular style of attention-seeking long antedates TPUSA, in recent years the group contributed to its spread, starting in 2017 at Oregon State University and at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Moreover, the case can surely be made that the fear and division whooped up by culture warriors like Kirk and Owens contribute to a climate in which LGBTQ people are subjected to harassment and abuse. It’s an important argument to consider—but that is not the case that the protesters were trying to make. As they saw it, the stuff that Kirk and Owens had to say was itself actual harassment and abuse.

“I have trans friends, I have BIPOC friends that have been attacked by them, by their work, by their rhetoric,” a student who asked to be identified only as Nathan told the Sun-Times. “And as we have seen throughout the United States throughout the course of the last couple years, there’s been anti-trans bills, there’s been more discriminatory actions, so we don’t want that kind of hateful rhetoric on our campus.”

Meanwhile, on the very same day, students at Stanford University in California took what they thought was appropriate action against a speaker on their own campus, shouting down a Trump-appointed federal judge, Stuart Kyle Duncan, who had been invited by the Stanford chapter of the Federalist Society. As recounted by legal journalist David Lat, they heckled and hollered until Duncan asked administrators for help.

Whereupon things got even worse. Tirien Steinbach, an associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, stepped up to the mic to publicly chastise Duncan for his desire to speak. “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” she inquired—that is, was what Duncan had to say worth the “harm” it would cause to students to hear him say it? She added that, though it “pained” her to say so, the circuit judge was “welcome here in this school to speak.”

Duncan did try to talk again but, in response to further heckling, abandoned his prepared speech and offered to answer questions from the audience instead. His offer was met with such pearls of enlightened inquiry as “I fuck men, I can find the prostate. Why can’t you find the clit?” Duncan eventually gave up and left the stage.

To their credit, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Law School Dean Jenny Martinez sent Duncan a joint letter apologizing for the students’ boorish behavior and Steinbach’s deplorable remarks. Without mentioning the associate dean by name, they said “staff members who should have enforced university policies failed to do so, and instead intervened in inappropriate ways that are not aligned with the university’s commitment to free speech.”

What happened at the University of Illinois Chicago and Stanford University is troubling and, unfortunately, far from aberrant, as Charlie Sykes noted in his recent podcast with Mona Charen.

“This comes at a time when I’m sort of increasingly becoming concerned that the support for academic freedom is much thinner and smaller than we would have thought it was—that we have a two-front war of illiberalism,” Sykes said, then citing recent attempts by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and anti-CRT agitator Christopher Rufo to silence academic expression they don’t happen to like at Florida’s public schools and universities. Sykes continued: “But also, there is a reality that you have this progressive worldview that speech is harm and that it makes people feel uncomfortable and unsafe, therefore they are justified in shutting down, shouting down, heckling speakers.”

Sykes is exactly right—except for one word. And that word is “progressive.”

Intolerance of speech with which one disagrees is not a feature of progressivism, just as adherence to lunatic conspiracy theories is not an intrinsic part of conservatism. Yet people on both sides of the political spectrum are drawn like moths to these deadly flames. Supporters of shutting down speech they consider hateful (in many cases without having actually heard it) are as far from being true progressives as QAnon believers are from being sane conservatives.

Allow me to tell you about the tradition of progressivism exemplified by the late Erwin Knoll, my mentor and predecessor as editor of The Progressive, a Wisconsin-based national political magazine now in its 115th year of continuous publication.

Knoll was born in 1931 in Austria to Jewish parents and grew up just as Hitler was coming to power across the border in Germany. One of his earliest memories was watching the synagogue down the street from his home in Vienna be burned to the ground in November 1938, on what was known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, a two-day antisemitic rampage in Germany and Austria. Knoll watched as the fire department arrived and “sprayed water from their hoses on the adjacent buildings, so the adjacent buildings wouldn’t also catch fire.”

Joseph Knoll, Erwin’s uncle, was snatched up by the Nazis and beaten to death. Other members of his family were gassed or starved to death in the concentration camps, including his aunt Erna and 2-year-old cousin, Mischa. Erwin was smuggled out of Austria to safe harbor in Switzerland, and eventually reunited with his family. They then relocated to New York City.

Yet Knoll emerged from this maelstrom of brutality and intolerance with an absolute commitment to both nonviolence and free speech—up to and including the right of Nazis to say hateful things. In 1977, a few years after Knoll had moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to become editor of The Progressive, a local listener-sponsored community radio station announced plans for a live interview with a spokesperson for the American Nazi Party.

On the day of the broadcast, protesters attacked the station, shattering a window and breaking some equipment, which prevented the interview. Knoll then headed to the station to discuss the matter on the air. There, he would later recall, “I found myself facing a young man from one of the self-designated ‘revolutionary’ groups on the University of Wisconsin campus, who said, ‘The only answer to Nazi speech is a lead pipe to the skull.’”

Knoll’s response was to call this “Nazi talk if ever I heard any.”

The magazine’s founder, Wisconsin Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, a Republican who came to lead the progressive movement, was also an uncompromising champion of free speech. In 1917, he gave an impassioned address titled “Free Speech in Wartime” from the floor of the U.S. Senate, opposing the crackdown on dissent that accompanied the nation’s entry into World War I. As he put it:

“In time of war even more than in time of peace, whether citizens happen to agree with the ruling administration or not, these precious fundamental personal rights—free speech, free press, and right of assemblage so explicitly and emphatically guaranteed by the Constitution—should be maintained inviolable.”

So, too, do I and others who count themselves as progressives reject the logic that some speech is too dangerous to be permitted. That is especially true in the present political environment, in which the desire to present oneself as having been persecuted or oppressed is so prevalent, on both sides of the political aisle. Those who abide by the motto of “free speech for me and those with whom I agree, but not for thee” are people who “have no faith in the ability of our people to govern themselves,” as Knoll wrote in 1977. They are being set up for a fall.

The goal of provocateurs like Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens is to diminish and delegitimize the other side, to make their opponents come across as unsympathetic, unworthy of inclusion or accommodation in society. And they know that, in pursuit of this end, there is virtually nothing they can say that would be as effective as being met with efforts to prevent them from saying it.

And so, of course, following the March event, Kirk gleefully posted a video of the demonstrators chatting “Shut it down!” on Twitter, under the message, “My University of Illinois- Chicago welcoming committee. Should be a fun night!” And Judge Duncan, according to an anonymous source quoted in Lat’s account, immediately “started heckling back and attacking student protesters.”

Committed progressives understand that, just as a rigorous commitment to nonviolence can expose the perfidy of those who wield billy clubs against them, so, too, can the refusal to behave badly intercept and destroy the attention-seeking missiles launched by the likes of Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens.

And yes, I do think that speech can be and often is hurtful, hateful, and unfair, that it can foment violence against vulnerable groups, and that people of good will should stand in solidarity against the content of such remarks, even turning out to oppose speakers whose bigotry is evident.

But instead of implying that the message of bigots is so cogent, insightful, and persuasive—in a word, so compellingly dangerous—that it must be prevented from being heard, what if the audience let the speakers say all that they have to say, punctuating the speech with the occasional groan or hiss or, best of all, laugh? What if instead of shouting down unheard proclamations, the dissidents were to respond by asking actual questions and offering up forceful counterarguments to expose the weakness of the speaker’s position?

What if, instead of stupidly falling into the trap set for them, those in the audience who wish to convey disagreement with a speaker were to do so strategically and thoughtfully and in actual response to things that are said, as opposed to things only imagined?

That, truly, would be a response worthy of the term progressive.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.