September 15, 2017
Make no mistake: Free speech is under heavy attack
by Ian Dreiblatt
Yesterday, former Breitbart news editor Ben Shapiro showed up to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. It was many things: a pointless provocation, a field day for newsroom thesauruses, and the inaugural installment in a year-long series of campus visits by far-right speakers that Chancellor Carol T. Christ announced shortly after taking office this summer. Over the coming months, further appearances are planned by the likes of Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos. Christ has given the event series a name that makes, alas, all too much sense in America’s current political climate. She’s calling it “Free Speech Year.”
It certainly looks like Christ is taking her cues from the fringe right, which increasingly cries “free speech” in defense of a movement under the increasingly mainstream leadership of racists, xenophobes, and charlatans. A recent LA Times piece by Javier Panzar, Benjamin Oreskes, and Teresa Watanabe describes the chancellor’s “belief that the best response to hate speech is ‘more speech,’” before going on to note, “If protesters spill into the city business district south of campus, along Telegraph Avenue, they will encounter the city’s police force — which is now free to use pepper spray on individual protesters officers deem are committing acts of violence.” Even setting aside vital questions about how the police will define “acts of violence,” identify the protesters committing them, or be held accountable for those presumably spur-of-the-moment determinations, it strains credulity to describe this scheme as a good-faith implementation of the chancellor’s directive to answer hate speech with more speech.
Another difference, perhaps starker, lies under the surface. While Shapiro has griped publicly about a $15,000 contribution Berkeley requested to cover security costs, some excellent reporting by the Daily Californian’s Ashley Wong reveals that Young America’s Foundation, co-sponsor (with the Berkeley College Republicans) of Shapiro’s visit, has been receiving donations from private donors in massive quantities. Between 2014 and 2015, the foundation nearly doubled its expenditures on campus events, from $4,883,094 to $8,093,394. Among those linked to this welter of cash are the Koch brothers, “Diamond” Don Rumsfeld, and Betsy DeVos.
That millionaires of the far right can simply throw money at campuses to open doors for high-profile provocateurs may not sound like most people’s idea of what “free speech” is supposed to mean. But it is very close to the vision of free speech that the Supreme Court enshrined as federal law in 2010, when it decided Citizens United v. FEC. In that case, a far-right non-profit called Citizens United, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association, argued that, because corporations have the legal status of persons and money has the legal status of speech, any law restricting the corporate use of money to influence politics violates the free speech protections of the First Amendment. (The lawsuit arose out of Citizens United’s attempts to buy air time for TV commercials advertising a production called “Hillary: The Movie”; Citizens United founder Floyd Brown is better known for his work creating 1988’s legendarily race-baiting “Willie Horton ad.”)
This view of “free speech” as the unchecked prerogative of the moneyed is morally impoverished, intellectually incoherent — and increasingly ubiquitous. Another example: next Monday, UC Santa Cruz professor (and mushroom genius) Anna Tsing had been scheduled to visit Berkeley and deliver the university’s Annual Distinguished Lecture in anthropology. Tsing’s talk bore the sweet title “The Life and Times of Water Hyacinth.” After it had been on the calendar for months, Milo Yiannopoulos declared his plan to return to Berkeley that very same week. In order for Tsing’s talk—which could not have less to do with Yiannopoulos’s visit—to proceed, the anthropology department was informed it would need to pay thousands of dollars in added security costs. It couldn’t, and, over vociferous objections, the talk was postponed by months. Yiannapoulos, by contrast, has access to millions of dollars, thanks to Koch-supported enterprises like Young America’s Foundation, and is readying a tent city from which to enjoy what he’s calling, of course, “Milo’s Free Speech Week.” (Berkeley faculty are, generally, not chuffed.)
The issue is by no means confined to university campuses. For one more profoundly distressing example, consider Disney’s settlement last month of a lawsuit brought for $1.9 billion by Beef Products Inc., a company that does, well, exactly what you think. Beef Products sued Disney over a 2012 report by Jim Avila that aired on ABC News (which Disney owns), in which USDA scientist Gerald Zirnstein describes a process by which meat waste is sorted in a centrifuge, sprayed with ammonia, and repackaged as “lean finely textured beef.” Zirnstein refers to the stuff as “pink slime”—because, to paraphrase Pee Wee Herman, it’s a pink slime—and says he won’t eat it. The segment is less than three minutes long.
Think about that. A former Department of Agriculture scientist commented as a concerned citizen on a matter of public interest related to his expertise. To see a news broadcaster sued for $1.9 billion after giving him a couple minutes’ airtime is not galling — it is terrifying. In the end, Disney survived the suit only because it is, after years of hardcore media consolidation, a massive corporation. They settled by paying out $177 million in addition to an undisclosed insurance award.
For scale, that’s $37 million more on Disney’s end alone than was at stake in the lawsuit that Trump-besotted tech creep Peter Thiel used to destroy Gawker.com almost exactly a year earlier. While that was happening, Thiel—a guy who clearly has his own ideas about what “more speech” means—wrote a New York Times op-ed championing the lawsuit — in which he noted, true to form, that “a free press is vital for public debate.”
This power to decide who can speak and who can’t seems to look a lot like “free speech” to the people who have it. From without, it seems like a veto that’s been passed from heckler to banker, a rod held ever-tighter by the ruling class as it falters. There are small things we can do, and should, of course, but in the long run, deep, structural changes to our configurations of value are the only thing doing. That’s going to be a lot of work.
Until then, Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement Cafe is open at 6:30 weekday mornings. Put your body upon the gears and upon the wheels… of flavor!
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.