Protest sign held by a "Refuse Fascism" activist at a 2017 protest in Berkeley, Calif.
Image Credit: Protest sign held by a "Refuse Fascism" activist at a 2017 protest in Berkeley, Calif. (Pax Ahimsa Gethen/Wikimedia Commons)

Free Speech and the End of the Old Rules

Free speech, open inquiry, and serious academic discussion are now being construed as the fruits of racism, white supremacy, sexism, or homophobia in my state of North Carolina. Differing points of view, once the hallmark of our college education system, are now routinely suppressed, and increasingly by professors and pusillanimous administrators at our universities.

A case in point in my neck of the woods is the message conveyed by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s officially sponsored conference, “Finding Expression in Contested Public Spaces.”  This gathering was held on Oct. 24 and 25, 2019 for the benefit of students and the public alike. The two-day program opened with keynote remarks by Dr. Eric King Watts, associate professor at UNC’s Chapel Hill campus, whose presentation was titled “Tribalism, Voicelessness, and the Problem of Free Speech.”

Setting the tenor for the conference, Professor Watts attempted to “contextualize” the concept of free speech historically and in terms of its effect on race and gender:

“In particular, freedom of speech is conceptualized and found in documents as a universal human capacity and right requiring legislative and judicial protections, but this late-18th-century idealism obscures the manner in which freedom of speech is always already implicated in racism,” Watts said. He identified the idea of race as a biotrope (a living, constantly developing piece of language that’s represented by different words), and free speech as instrumental in the social construction of race.

“The very idea of freedom, postulated in universalist terms in the 19th century, and serving as the ontological structure for the First Amendment, doesn’t allow the black,” Watts said. “This exclusion is not legal, nor paralegal; it is brokered by the psychic structure and pseudoscience responding to the biopower imperatives of racism.”

It seems the very concept and reality of free speech is corrupted irretrievably by racism. Free speech supposedly both serves and furthers a racist agenda.

Watts, who may have rightly assumed that most of his audience agreed, concluded:

“Put bluntly, the left is not really intolerant of conservative values. Indeed, many of us here probably wish for the good old days when we just had to deal with the neocons,” Watts added. “Rather, the left is intolerant of racism, homophobism, xenophobism, and misogyny.”

Branson Inscore of the John William Pope Foundation reported that “most speakers at the free speech conference promoted the idea of restricting free speech to ensure space for ‘marginalized’ or ‘oppressed’ voices.” 

What we are witnessing on college campuses makes absolute sense, given its own twisted logic. Although the left’s template posits equality as a goal, the implementation of its vision requires the throttling of dissent and the end of free speech as we have known it.

The evidence comes from the multiple attempts to stifle opposing viewpoints on campuses and increasingly in the public square. Non-“woke” personalities—cabinet secretaries, writers, and others—have been singled out and harassed in restaurants, in their places of employment, or at home—as happened to Fox News host Tucker Carlson in November. Literally hundreds of Trump supporters and conservatives have been assaulted by leftist mobs. Between March 1, 2016 and July 5, 2018, counted 70 acts of violence and harassment against non-woke dissenters. The conference at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro showed to what extent the Left, particularly its academic representatives, equate the expansion of equality with the suppression of unwanted views.

A few years ago—in the heat of the 2016 presidential race—I met the daughter of longtime friends. She was a college sophomore at a nearby university. Her parents had forewarned her that I was voting for Trump and that I wrote essays that suggested as much.  After some few pleasantries, she lit into me, and what followed was the acidic exchange:

The Student: “Mom tells me you support Trump? Is that right?”
Me: “Yes, I do, and I have written about him and the election.”
The Student: “How can you possibly support, much less vote for that racist white supremacist?”
Me: “I don’t believe he is what you call him—his program is to tear off the mask of the managerial administrative state. That needs to be done; we are losing our liberties.”
The Student: “Trump is a fascist, and needs to be stopped. Men like him have no place running for office. What they say and preach must be stopped. They should be prohibited from running. They don’t have a right to say those things because it’s racist and sexist.”

And finally, as the conversation was getting beyond the bounds of good manners, my interrogator concluded: “Well, at least you’re old and people like you—old white males—will die off soon and be replaced by my generation and lots of people of color, brown and black people.”

At that point, the conversation ended abruptly. But the message was clear: people like me had no right to “free speech.”

And now, reflecting on that exchange—which in a few phrases typifies the thinking of millions of regular people and not just students—the meaning of Professor Watts’ words becomes obvious: deviations from the new template will not be tolerated. Those of us who object will be labeled racists, homophobes, xenophobes and misogynists, and our speech restricted and banned. Old methods of playing by the rules of civil discourse no longer apply. “Woke” social justice warriors, their professors, much of Hollywood and the media, have declared war on us.


Boyd Cathey

Boyd Cathey

Boyd D. Cathey holds a Ph.D. in European History from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an M.A. in Intellectual History from the University of Virginia.

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My response to your anecdote is "What is wrong with your longtime friends, that they so poorly formed their daughter that she was vulnerable to this kind of indoctrination?" I have six recent graduates of public universities in my family, and not one of them responded to this sort of nonsense at university with anything more than an eye roll -- indeed, they emerged more conservative than when they entered, having observed first hand for four years the absurdity of the modern left.