University of California president Janet Napolitano has attacked “free speech Darwinism” in an op-ed to be published in Sunday’s Boston Globe. While her essay purports to be a defense of free speech, Napolitano actually crafts a devious defense of “safe spaces” on campus and “trigger warnings” in the classroom.
Along the way, Napolitano attacks the University of Chicago’s so-called “free speech Darwinism” — a term she uses to defame, but does not bother to define.
Napolitano’s university system is rife with the suppression of free speech and academic freedom, both in an official capacity (and, more worryingly, by students themselves). Last year, the University of California circulated a list of terms that it called “microaggressions” that faculty should avoid, and which included such controversial statements as “America is the land of opportunity,” “There is only one race, the human race,” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”
In her op-ed, Napolitano offers up familiar free speech mantras: “[T]he way to deal with extreme, unfounded speech is not with less speech — it is with more speech,” she says. Yet she also claims, erroneously, that speech “designed to personally intimidate or harass falls outside First Amendment protections, as outlined by the Supreme Court.”
That is more restrictive than the actual boundary of free speech established by the Court, and it is a definition that the campus left has exploited by defining “intimidation” and “harassment” expansively, to shut down opposing (or insufficiently radical) views on campus.
Napolitano also defends “safe spaces” by distorting what they are. She calls them “student centers and student activities,” implying that they are meant to be inclusive. In fact, “safe spaces” are exclusive, designed to keep out unwelcome views or people.
She also says that “trigger warnings” are little more than a professor telling students “that a piece they are about to study explores the difficult topic of race,” which “helps students appreciate what they are reading.” In fact, “trigger warnings” do the opposite: they tell students that they should regard what they are about to read or hear with suspicion, fear and hostility.
The capstone of Napolitano’s intellectually dishonest “defense” of free speech is her accusation that the University of Chicago is engaged in “free speech Darwinism.” Napolitano is referring to a letter sent by that university’s dean to incoming students, informing them that while debate on campus must be civil, they can also expect it to be challenging, and that it is not the job of the university to protect students from uncomfortable ideas or diverse views with “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”
The letter says nothing about “free speech Darwinism,” which Napolitano appears to have invented. If she means that only ideas that pass the tests of reason and debate will survive, there can be no objection to the term: that is the job of a university, in teaching and research.
But what Napolitano actually appears to be doing is linking free speech with social Darwinism, a nineteenth century movement that the left often uses to caricature capitalism and meritocracy as ruthless and predatory. By inference, she is signaling that arguments defending the free market and free competition should not enjoy equal tolerance.
And so what Napolitano is really doing is not defending free speech, but defending restrictions on conservative views by left-wing dons.
Notably, when Napolitano cites an example of offensive speech, she finds a way to attack Donald Trump: “Chalking an anti-immigrant pro-Trump slogan on a sidewalk is one thing; spray painting it on a building is another.”
The latter has never happened — but there are plenty of examples of left-wing vandalism in the Black Lives Matter vein, which universities have chosen to tolerate. Napolitano’s call for “free speech” is really a manifesto for more suppression on campus.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, is available from Regnery through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.