SAN ANTONIO, Texas — When it comes to disputes about free speech, “snowflakes” occupy both sides of the aisle.
Once sacred ground for conservatives, protected without attention to ideology or association, free speech and the First Amendment are under attack from all sides, said Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The once-solid foundation on which free speech flourished is starting to erode, experts agreed during an Aug. 30 presentation at the State Policy Network’s 25th Annual Meeting.
Protests like those at University of California, Berkeley, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, are the monuments of a new era — built during the rise of the Trump administration, said Guy Benson, a political pundit and author.
For decades, “average American citizens” listened to a debate seeming to favor the Left, Benson said. They grew tired. They felt undermined.
Trump climbed onstage and promised to “fight fire with fire.” He vowed to ditch diplomacy and use verbal fisticuffs on behalf of the working man and woman. It was a novel approach, and it appealed to people who thought themselves forgotten.
They turned out to vote, and they chose a bully, Benson said. People who preached the principles of free speech locked themselves in their own echo chambers and perpetuated the very problem they once fought so hard quell.
Today, he said, both sides are guilty of pointing fingers. Both are guilty of launching attacks — verbal or physical — on people with opposite opinions. It makes sense conservatives are tired of taking blows and no longer want to play nice, yet fighting fire with fire is a good way to burn free speech to the ground, Benson added.
“If we get into an arms race of outrage and scalp collection, we’ll lose,” he said. “The Left will always outperform us. If that’s the standard, then it will be normalized. It’s also just soul-crushing, and wrong, and terrible for the country.”
The Right should be careful when accusing the Left of blocking speech rights, said Shelby Emmett, director of the Center to Protect Free Speech at the American Legislative Exchange Council.
“The majority of this problem now is cultural,” Emmett said. “We can have every judge on our side, but at the end of the day, if we as individuals aren’t OK with free speech, then it doesn’t matter. If you are uncomfortable with what someone says to you, and you want to censor them, it doesn’t matter how many lawsuits we win or how many laws we pass. We still lose.”
Some media portray the Left as successfully squelching First Amendment rights. That’s not accurate, Benson said. Institutions violating free speech typically lose in the end.
One example is the decline of the University of Missouri, which in 2015 fell into chaos under student protests, calls for violence against journalists, and the resignation of the university system president and chancellor of the campus.
Mizzou’s freshman enrollment is down 35 percent, and the university recently closed seven dorms and cut 400 jobs.
Parents don’t want to send kids to universities that undercut the First Amendment, Benson said. “People are voting with their feet and their wallets.”
Conservatives must transcend pettiness and vitriol. And North Carolina has done just that, Shibley said.
The state, which recently passed legislation to protect free speech at public universities, has the highest number of schools with excellent campus speech policies, Shibley said.
FIRE ranks more than 400 public and private universities each year, measuring First Amendment protections in three categories: red light, yellow light, and green light. Red light schools have “laughably unconstitutional,” policies, Shibley said. Green light schools protect speech rights.
North Carolina leads the country with eight green light schools. Pennsylvania has four, and Virginia and Indiana have three. As a whole, the country has only 33 greenlight schools, Shibley said.
The point of free speech is to make room for more speech, as opposed to stifling the opinions of political opponents. “One of the keys to argue on these issues is not adopting ‘snowflakery’ ourselves,” he said, referencing conservative readers who berate his work when they hear him defend speech rights for liberals.
“We have to live up to the values that we say we believe in ourselves, if we’re going to model that for anyone else.”