There’s a Missouri state legislative bill that would force student athletes to play unless injured, and thus prevent strikes of the type that the University of Missouri’s football team used to such great effect. Nora Caplan-Barker points out that this (hopefully doomed) bill represents a chilling imposition on the free speech rights of college athletes, yet some of those who have spoken out about free expression on campus have been silent.
And of course that’s absolutely true. This is a clear impediment to the free expression of these students. It’s unconscionable; students who are already having their labor power exploited in a brutally dangerous game that raises hundreds of millions of dollars of which they receive 0. Everyone who cares about intellectual and political freedom in college should be outraged by this.
But this only serves to show why the left’s recent flirtations with full-on illiberalism are such a mistake: this hypocrisy is the hypocrisy afforded to those with power. Missouri state Republicans can afford to be hypocritical because they have power in the state. Conservative commentators can afford to be hypocritical because the conservative movement is powerful in the United States. But the left can’t afford to reject free speech when it feels like it and seek its protections when it needs to, because the left is weak. We have no comparable control of political institutions in comparison to conservatism’s iron grip on the state legislatures that control our public universities. I’m not saying that fatalistically; the powerful actions taken by the MU protesters, and the consequences of deposing a university president, demonstrate that we can get stuff done when conditions are right. But the fact that college campuses are some of the few places in the country where the left enjoys some power can’t blind us to the fact that, in general, the American left is weak and disorganized and lacks institutional power.
To my great dismay, I’ve seen more and more lefties rejecting the very notion of freedom of speech. They put “free speech” in scare quotes, as though that’s not a well-understood and much-cherished concept in our country, simply for the purposes of insider signaling. They claim that free speech has always and only referred to preventing the government from coming and jailing you for saying the wrong thing, a profoundly ahistorical claim that ignores the vast philosophical and legal complexity of free expression in a democracy. They start to sound like libertarians, as they deny the salience of private coercion, suddenly insisting that only state power can meaningfully harm people, doing a complete about face from our traditional position. And they adopt a strange language of power, dismissing discussions of principle out of hand and demonstrating a team-first mentality that defines the right to speak as a product of who’s speaking.
The left should embrace free speech rights and other legal protections of rights because, due to our lack of power, the left is most likely to be subject to assaults on those rights from above. Attempts by the left to regulate who gets to say what presume that it will be members of the left that have the authority to dictate those regulations. But everything that we know about the broader American political economy tells us that the opposite is much more likely — that if anyone is going to be dictating acceptable speech, it’ll be people like those in the Missouri state legislature. And while I don’t doubt that speech rights have often been denied to the powerless groups that the left speaks for anyway, to erase the cultural norm of free expression would only deepen that tendency. I promise, the day hate speech legislation is passed in this country is the day that such a law will be invoked against pro-Palestinian protesters; the day we fully erase the norm of a right to political expression is the day that Planned Parenthood supporters are fired en masse. We cannot aid in our own oppression in this way.
The whole world isn’t media Twitter, or a cultural studies class at a liberal arts college. Allowing ourselves to mistake our influence in small enclaves for the broader reality of power is a profound error, a self-inflicted wound. In a world in which political freedoms are wildly popular, adopting the freedom-hating stereotype foisted on us by our enemies is suicide. We should instead insist that the campus protesters are the ones who stand for real rights and real freedoms, that what this movement seeks is the full and equitable extension of basic rights to students of color. That’s a message that can win. Mistaking what works in our social media bubbles for what works in the larger world will be nothing but disastrous for our movements.