President Donald Trump fantasizes from time to time about “opening up” the nation’s libel laws to give himself – and presumably other rich and famous people – a leg up on a “very unfair” press. It’s a far-fetched fantasy.
Here’s a better one: Why not confound people’s expectations, be a champion for real freedom of speech? To do that, however, would mean making college and university officials very uncomfortable.
Trump didn’t defeat Hillary Clinton so he could pursue a quixotic campaign to overturn New York Times v. Sullivan. The half-century-old U.S. Supreme Court case established that public figures must prove a publication acted in reckless disregard of the truth when printing an allegedly defamatory statement. Yet to hear White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus tell it, the administration has spent time and resources pondering the idea.
“I think it’s something that we’ve looked at,” Priebus said on Sunday. “How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story.”
It would be better if it went nowhere – not when the First Amendment is under genuine assault and public officials are standing by doing practically nothing.
Over the past few months, we’ve seen actual violence on campuses from UC Berkeley and Claremont McKenna to Middlebury in Vermont, all in an effort to silence controversial voices, almost all of whom speak from the political right.
I don’t believe these students have read a syllable of Charles Murray, Heather Mac Donald or Ann Coulter, but they’ve seen fit the brand those writers as “fascists” and use mob tactics to drive them from campus.
Old liberals like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who now teaches at Berkeley, told The New York Times last week that he was embarrassed by universities’ surrender to threats, vandalism and violence, saying they “played into a narrative that the right would love to advance.”
Except the “narrative” has been “advancing” for decades. I saw the same sort of thuggish tactics from the hard left at UC San Diego 25 years ago. The student Objectivist Society – stiff-necked acolytes of Ayn Rand – had invited Pepperdine University economist George Reisman to campus to discuss the “racist roots of multiculturalism.”
In retrospect, Reisman’s talk was pretty mild, even a bit boring. But he was interrupted with catcalls and jeers the instant he began to speak. One student walked around with a camcorder filming the people in the audience, yelling: “Remember the face of this fascist!”
Then, as now, the cops did nothing except escort Reisman safely out of the auditorium and off campus.
Why university officials let these events get out of hand remains a mystery to me. Cowardice, I suppose.
These clearly aren’t “peaceful” demonstrators. They intimidate, threaten and shout down. In short, they violate the speaker’s right to deliver his message and the crowd’s right to hear it unmolested.
Now I don’t believe in absolute freedom of speech, and neither do you. The law has always recognized exceptions, including for libel and defamation.
H.L. Mencken, who called himself an “extreme libertarian” on matters of free speech, put it this way in 1948: “I think there is a limit beyond which free speech can’t go. … I’ve got a right to say and believe anything I please, but I haven’t got a right to press it on anybody else.”
“Nobody’s got a right to be a nuisance to his neighbors,” Mencken added – or to “hurt their feelings wantonly.”
Nowadays, of course, student censors and their faculty enablers would say the very appearance of Coulter, Murray, et. al., is an assault. The fact they are allowed to speak at all hurts students’ feelings “wantonly.”
That’s crazy. Nobody is forcing students to attend. The speaker says his or her piece. People listen, they ask questions and they sometimes disagree. Or they don’t. That’s as it should be.
So where does Trump come in?
The president should remind Americans that government exists to protect individual rights. Where local and state officials fail to protect the First Amendment right to speak, as on a public university campus, it’s incumbent upon federal authorities to step in.
Colleges and universities receive millions of dollars in federal aid, often with strings attached. What’s one more string, especially if it helps ensure a truly robust and free exchange of ideas? It wouldn’t be the first time the feds have forced recalcitrant college administrators to follow the law and served justice in the process.
Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness (www.amgreatness.com). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @benboychuk.