Washington, D.C. - Several law enforcement officers were on hand at the Alliance Defending Freedom's free speech event Friday at George Washington University. I, like many attendees, was surprised by the heavy police presence for what was by any means a harmless discussion. On Monday, the school told ADF they would need to pay for 21 police officers to guard the event since it was such a "sensitive topic.” The two parties worked with one to half the amount of required officers. (Eye roll)
Just the day before, American University cancelled a similar event on free speech and Title IX, forcing the organizers to hold their discussion off campus.
How did it come to this? That a conversation about our First Amendment rights now has to be barricaded? The panelists at Friday's ADF discussion, Bre Payton of The Federalist, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, and Townhall's own Guy Benson, attempted to answer that question. ADF's Casey Mattox moderated the discussion, entitled “Charlottesville, Free Speech, and Violence.”
Guy, who our readers know co-wrote End of Discussion with Mary Katharine Ham, knows a thing or two about the threats to free speech and had to agree with Mattox. Since the book's publication, Donald Trump became president and Berkeley went up in flames. As such, the topic deserves to be “revisited,” he said.
It's clear that the suppression of idea is not a problem that solely exists on the left, Guy noted. Both sides are attempting to shut down debates. The “impugning of motives” tempts people to take intellectual shortcuts to damn others.
"We are seeing in vivid color how the right is making America less free and fun," he said. This needs to be a nonpartisan ideal in which both sides stand up against "outrage mobs."
The Federalist’s Bre Payton weighed in on how Millennials are exacerbating the problem. That demographic, Payton said, are “well intentioned,” but “dumb.”
Payton pointed to a poll in which young people overwhelmingly supported religious freedom, but on the other hand are against Christian bakers deciding not to cater gay weddings.
"Widespread ignorance" is to blame, she said, as well as federal funding - a topic she frequently returned to to demonstrate how the government is adversely affecting campus culture. For example, she pointed out how President Obama "weaponized" Title IX by mandating how schools should treat sexual harassment cases.
Payton and her fellow panelists also referenced a recent study in which most students surveyed said hate speech is not protected by the Constitution. One in five students said it’s okay to use violence to shut down what they perceive as extremist speeches.
But, is free speech suppression bigger than Millennials? Is it a cultural problem?
The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf believes it’s the latter. There is an "inherent intolerance" not only on campuses, he said, but in society at large, for opposing viewpoints. He cited a Colorado study in which two groups of people, liberals and conservatives, were thrown together in rooms with like-minded people and ending up becoming more partisan than ever.
"We’re sorting ourselves ideologically" and it is causing us to become more polarized, Friedersdorf noted.
Bre Payton (The Federalist), Guy Benson (Townhall), Conor Friedersdorf (The Atlantic) and moderator Casey Mattox (Alliance Defending Freedom)
The panel then dug a bit deeper into the terms themselves. What exactly is considered hate? Guy pointed out, as we often have at Townhall, that the Southern Poverty Law Center has outrageously labeled ADF as a hate organization. It is "terribly awry and wrong" to equate the religious freedom-protecting non profit organization with neo-Nazis, Guy said.
"You are watering down and diluting what those words ought to mean," he added. "We’re running out of words because they’re casually bandied about."
Conservatives can’t defend fired Google employee James Damore, who exposed the company’s leftist ideology, yet still agree with Trump’s call for firing NFL “SOBs” who kneel during the national anthem. It’s hypocrisy at its finest, Guy pointed out.
On the other hand, Republicans have rightly condemned the pitchfork carrying white supremacists in Charlottesville, while Democrats have been a bit slower in calling out Antifa.
Democrats need to "self-police" their side too, Guy noted.
In summary, whether he or she plans objectionable or non-objectionable remarks, a speaker - be it someone as controversial as Milo Yiannopoulos or as tame as Ben Stein - has the right to the podium.
“We have to say that neo-Nazis have a right to speak,” according to Guy. “We have to say it out loud. Or else we go down a very dark path.”
The survey that revealed 1 in 5 students believe violence against hate speech is acceptable is alarming, Guy admitted. But, the large silver lining is that a supermajority of 80 percent of students say no, violence isn’t okay.
“You can loathe the speech but still appreciate the protection of it.”