“I can’t vindicate constitutional rights on my own.” – Ann Coulter
In a moment of accidental honesty and insightfulness, Ann Coulter, the self-described advocate of individual freedom and responsibility, made this observation when she announced that she would be cancelling a scheduled speech at the University of California, Berkeley. The conservative commentator was referring to the fact that the two conservative groups who initially sponsored her appearance had pulled their support. From a different perspective, however, her comment evokes a too often obscured or ignored aspect of free speech: that it requires the active involvement of others. It requires an audience. It takes place within socially constructed contexts. And freedom of speech does not come packaged with freedom from accountability for what is said. Audiences also have the right to speak and act in response to speech acts.
This spring, UC Berkley played host to not one but two illustrative—and interconnected—episodes that has put battles over the boundaries of free speech back in national headlines. The fallout has also put bills aimed at regulating free speech on college campuses back on legislative agendas in state capitols throughout the country.
Cause and effect loom large in controversies involving free speech (Amsden 354). It is also true that outside observers and commentators can alter narratives and interpretations simply by their selection of when to start the clock on a particular series of events. This case will show that the story of what happened at the University of California, Berkeley this spring begins with what occurred at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee last December.
Over the last two or so years, Milo Yiannopoulos rode the so-called “alt-right movement’s” rising tide of bigotry, racism, and cruelty, making significant contributions to its brand of bratiness and self-aggrandizement. His obnoxiousness landed him an editor’s job at Brietbart News, and speaking engagements before adoring conservative and college Republican groups. During one of Yiannopoulos’ performances at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he aimed his gleeful hate at a transgender student in the audience. While ranting about criticisms of words and phrases like ‘man up’ for creating and sustaining patriarchy, Yiannopoulos said, “I’ll tell you one UW Milwaukee student that doesn’t need to man up…” And he proceeded to use the student’s former name, exposing her before the audience, displaying her photo on a large screen, and accusing her of forcing her way into the women’s locker room. At his next speaking gig at the University of Minnesota, Yiannopoulos continued to personally attack the UW Milwaukee student by using male pronouns and characterizing her use of changing facilities as being motivated by male heterosexual desire. Yiannopoulos’ next speech at North Dakota State University was cancelled when oil pipeline activists at the nearby Standing Rock encampment said they would confront Yiannopoulos.
At the end of January a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the iconic union credited with major contributions to free speech rights by practicing and defending soap box oration) was shot while protesting a Yiannopoulos speech at the University of Washington. The shooter was a fan and autograph-seeker of Milo’s. The event itself was permitted to go ahead unhindered.
This history of violence committed by Yiannopoulos supporters, Milo’s targeting of individual students with harassment and abuse from the stage, and what was considered credible evidence that Yiannopoulos was planning to out undocumented students and advocate that they be deported (Oppenheim), would have been justification enough for UC Berkeley officials to cancel the Yiannopoulos event. However, with three hours before the event was scheduled to begin, they had not. At that time, what had been a peaceful demonstration of over a thousand saw masked “anti-fascist” activists smash windows and throw smoke bombs at police barricades that had been erected around the venue. About twenty minutes later a police spokesperson announced that the event had been cancelled.
The bulk of the criticism surrounding the events at Berkeley has been directed at and shared by the university and the anti-fascist/racist protesters. At this point, analysis critical of the speakers and the agenda they carry out through this tried-and-true play from the playbook of rightwing martyrdom has not been given as much attention or volume. That is somewhat surprising because the predictability, one-sidedness, and effectiveness of the stratagem has been made obvious by the speed with which Republican state legislators have used it to introduce bills undermining the autonomy of universities and the rights of students (McMurtie). Indeed, thus far, there is no discernible downside to conservative or alt-right agendas in the whole ordeal. It would seem the narrative that higher education is some hypocritical leftwing indoctrination machine is confirmed. Those protesting to deny speakers venues for their campaigns of self-glorification by means of hating and harming “the other” are the ones portrayed as the enemies of freedom. Anne, Milo, and the first amendment are the victims.
It is important to note here that UC Berkeley did not cancel Coulter’s speech, scheduled to take place about one month after the Yiannopoulos incident. Coulter cancelled her engagement, albeit after some logistical back and forth with the university. Reports also indicate that it was the UC Police Department (UCPD), not university officials, who cancelled the Yiannopoulos event. That was due to safety concerns brought on by the actions of anti-fascist protesters, not by the actions of the accused fascists. This begs important questions: should university officials have made different decisions? Should they have taken different actions? What research, scholarship, and argument could justify pursuing a different route and serve as the foundation for the development of different policies and protocols?
In the attempt to construct such a framework, two concepts can be joined together at the cornerstone called academic freedom. One is standpoint methodology. The other is recognition of cognitive biases.
We can draw guidance and parallels between the public university’s role and that of journalism’s as “educator” of the public about reality. In her paper “On the Relevance of Standpoint Epistemology to the Practice of Journalism: The Case for “Strong Objectivity,” Meenakshi Gigi Durham argues for a praxis “that recognizes and grapples with issues of ideological bias and the problems of alienation of socially marginalized groups from mainstream news coverage” (118). An identical praxis, desired for identical reasons, could be argued for on behalf of academia. Describing what she sees as an improvement to traditional conceptions of journalistic objectivity, Durham calls for an approach rooted in a standpoint epistemology that “provides a theoretically strong framework to use in redressing some of the problems inherent in current approaches to news reporting” (118). Again, this logic can also be applied to educating college students.
Standpoint theory is a method for understanding reality. It operates on the idea that only by taking the experiences and perspectives of society’s most oppressed and marginalized populations into account can research and other attempts to describe reality be seen as valid (Harding 293). So in this case, if UC Berkeley employed a standpoint methodology to the development of campus speech processes and protocols, the perspectives of its most marginalized constituencies—including transgender and undocumented students—would be put front and center in their creation and execution. As Maksim Kokushkin has asserted, distinguishing between standpoint theory is and standpoint theory can “acknowledges the issues around essentialism and embraces strategic essentialism as one of many steps toward destabilizing dominant modes of knowledge production” (16). Likewise, it can stabilize new and more robust modes of knowledge production—which is at the core of every institution of higher learning’s mission.
In terms of how cognitive biases relate to this question, if we assume that standpoint methods do, in fact, produce and reconstruct the most robust results (Harding 293), the concept of false equivalence is worth examining. To continue our earlier analogy linking freedom of the press with academic freedom, consider the case of climate change. Journalism’s quest for balance has resulted in coverage portraying opinions and pseudoscience that deny climate change as being equally worthy of consideration as the evidence-based claims that make up the scientific consensus that climate change is real. If considering the perspective of transgender and undocumented populations produces a more accurate picture of reality, does higher education have any obligation to balance this fact with opposing opinions and unsubstantiated claims?
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the founding fathers of cognitive bias research, would argue that conflating proven fact with unfounded opinion does not belong in a conversation about balance, but of fallacies like judgment by representativeness and others (582). It is here where universities’ free speech policies become a matter of academic freedom. Geology professors are not required to include baseless assertions that the earth is flat into their instruction. Biology professors are not required to balance the theory of evolution with bible stories about creationism. Climatology departments don’t teach denial of climate change. Forcing them to do so would impede the autonomy, academic freedom, and the mission of every college and university.
Rather than unnecessary bills that would harm students’ and schools’ rights, state legislatures could consider legislation that strengthens the autonomy and academic freedom of higher education institutions. Likewise, freedom defenders who also fight for the advancement of knowledge, and thereby broader societal progress, may look to ally with universities in the development and defense of new campus speech policies rooted in standpoint epistemology and guided by the implications of cognitive bias. After all, conceptions of freedom that rely on defamation, displays of dominance, and the destruction of others is no path to or demonstration of freedom at all. In fact, history, logic, and many other disciplines have shown those tactics lead to and embody freedom’s opposite—and we depend on our academic institutions to apply and impart knowledge about such truths.
Amsden, Brian S. “Student Advocacy and the Limits of (Action-) Free Speech: Figurations of Materiality in Tinker, Bethel, and Hazelwood.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 8, no. 4, 2011, pp. 353-375.
Durham, Meenakshi G. “On the Relevance of Standpoint Epistemology to the Practice of Journalism: The Case for “Strong Objectivity”.” Communication Theory, vol. 8, no. 2, 1998, pp. 117-140.
Harding, Sandra. “How standpoint methodology informs philosophy of social science.” The Blackwell guide to the philosophy of the social sciences (2004): 291-310.
Kahneman, Daniel, and Amos Tversky. “On the Reality of Cognitive Illusions.” Psychological Review, vol. 103, no. 3, 1996, pp. 582-591.
Kokushkin, Maksim. “Standpoint Theory is Dead, Long Live Standpoint Theory! Why Standpoint Thinking should be Embraced by Scholars Who do Not Identify as Feminists?” Journal of Arts and Humanities, vol. 3, no. 7, 2014, pp. 8-20, Research Library, http://libproxy.umflint.edu:2048/ login?url=http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.umflint.edu/docview/1649096442?accountid=1458 4.
McMurtie, Beth. “Why Conservative Lawmakers Are Turning to Free-Speech Bills as a Fix for Higher Ed.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 June 2017. http://www.chronicle.com/article/Why- Conservative-Lawmakers-Are/240297. Accessed 8 June 2017.
Oppenheim, Maya. “UC Berkeley protests: Milo Yiannopoulos planned to ‘publicy name undocumented students’ in cancelled talk.” Independent, 3 Feb. 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/ world/americas/uc-berkely-protests-milo-yiannopoulos-publicly-name-undocumented-students- cancelled-talk-illegals-a7561321.html. Accessed 16 May 2017.