When I was in college and in graduate school (so the 1980s and 1990s), the dividing line on free speech debates was, for the most part, a pretty conventional liberal/left divide. (I’m excluding the right.) That is, self-defined liberals tended to be absolutists on free speech. Self-defined leftists—from radical feminists to radical democrats to critical race theorists to Marxists—tended to be more critical of the idea of free speech.
What’s interesting about the contemporary moment, which I don’t think anyone’s really remarked upon, is that that clean divide has gotten blurry. There were always exceptions to that divide, I know: back in the 1980s and 1990s, some radical feminists were critical of the anti-free speech position within feminism; some liberals, like Cass Sunstein and Owen Fiss, were more sensitive to how power differentials in society constrained speech, and thus were more open to more regulatory approaches to speech; some Marxists were always leery of the critiques of free speech. Even so, there was a divide. That divide hasn’t now reversed, but it’s no longer the case that it maps so easily onto a simple and clear divide between liberalism and the left.
From what I see online, a lot of mainstream liberals today are far less absolutist in their defense of free speech, particularly on campuses; indeed, that absolutist position increasingly seems like the outlier among liberals. And parts of the left are now taking the more absolutist position. Once upon a time, a Jonathan Chait would denounce leftist campus critics of free speech, and it all made sense. Today, when he does that, he seems completely out to lunch: a lot of the people he’s talking about are conventional liberals just like him.
(On a related note, there was a funny moment on Twitter yesterday, when the ACLU defended Ann Coulter’s right to speak at Berkeley. Twitter liberals freaked out in surprise: the ACLU, defending Ann Coulter’s right to speak! How could that be? None of them seemed to remember or realize that once upon a time, back in the late 1970s, the ACLU defended real Nazis—as in members of the American Nazi Party—marching in Skokie, a Chicago suburb whose residents included many Holocaust survivors.)
Just so we’re clear. Nothing in this post is meant to be normative or prescriptive; I’ve tended to stay out of these debates of late, in part because they mostly don’t speak to my experience of campus free speech. Our challenge at Brooklyn College has never really been how to keep speakers off campus; it has almost always been how to get them on campus.
All I’m doing here is making a simple, and I believe non-normative empirical observation: that something new is happening on the divide between liberalism and the left over the question of free speech. Unlike the recent past, the free speech argument now cuts right across that divide. And to that extent, it takes us back to an earlier moment, in the 1930s and 1940s, when American liberals and the left were also in dialogue, and taking a mixture of cross-cutting positions, on the question of free speech.