David Moats: All speech is not created equal


Long before author Charles Murray caused an uproar at Middlebury College, Frederick Douglass, fugitive slave and abolitionist leader, came to Middlebury and faced a similar reception.

Murray, whose books have been denounced as racist, brought national attention to Middlebury last year when students shouted him down and refused to let him speak, then joined a melee outdoors that injured a faculty member. The incident became an example of what critics, both conservative and liberal, have decried as a wave of intolerance on campuses across the country.

The poor treatment received by Douglass when he came to Middlebury in 1843 was a mirror image of the Murray incident — one incident involving a towering champion of racial equality and the other a popularizer of dubious theories about race. Taken together, the two events raise important questions about free speech, hate speech, false equivalence and the nature of tolerance.

Douglass described his visit to Middlebury in his autobiography, and local newspapers reported the event at the time. Looking back from the 1880s, Douglass wrote: “Those who know the State of Vermont as it is today can hardly understand, and must wonder that there was need for anti-slavery effort within its borders forty years ago.”

Douglass had embarked with fellow speakers from the American Anti-slavery Society on a 100-convention tour of Vermont, New York, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Middlebury was Vermont’s “chief seat of learning,” he wrote, and it was the home of abolitionist Congressman William Slade, and so it became the first stop on his tour.

“And yet in this town opposition to our anti-slavery convention was intensely bitter and violent,” Douglass wrote. “… The college students had very industriously and mischievously placarded the town with violent aspersions of our characters.”

Newspapers reported that youths pelted the speakers with gravel and eggs, though one account said that when Douglass began to speak, the house became “perfectly still.”

In 1843 Douglass was still new to the abolitionist cause. He had escaped from slavery in Maryland only five years before, and as he well understood, the forces opposing the anti-slavery movement were strong, even in Vermont. His treatment in Middlebury caused him to conclude that the state “was surprisingly under the influence of the slave power.” (He was more welcome in Ferrisburgh, where the Quaker Rowland Robinson and others were happy to receive him.) Indeed, many Vermonters feared that abolitionist troublemakers threatened the nation’s most cherished institutions, and the Middlebury People’s Press declared that Vermont did not need “itinerant lecturers to convince us of the evils of slavery.”

Audiences in 1843 had no way of knowing that Douglass would become a singularly important figure in American history, the most widely photographed American of the 19th century, and a moral beacon comparable to Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. a century later. To many in Middlebury he was an outsider with dangerous ideas, and the harassment he encountered there foreshadowed in less extreme form what would befall him later when a mob in Indiana broke his hand and knocked him unconscious.

The “mobocracy” that abolitionists encountered in Middlebury and elsewhere provides ironic counterpoint to the Charles Murray incident in 2017. In both instances mobs of a sort sought to silence people whose ideas they believed to be dangerous.

And yet Bill Hart, a professor of history at Middlebury College, cautions against drawing a false equivalence between racist speech and anti-racist speech. The former is exclusive and divisive; the latter is inclusive and unifying. It is the sort of false equivalence that President Donald Trump sought to exploit when he talked about “good people” on both sides of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a year ago.

Is all speech equal?

The issue of equivalence raises a question: Is all speech created equal?

All men are created equal — that is our national creed — and the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech to all. But a set of specific values inheres within democracy, and so it is inevitable that some speech, though it is constitutionally protected, is antithetical to the values enshrined in the Constitution. Free speech allows room for pernicious and hateful speech — white supremacy, Nazism. But the First Amendment does not make those ideas other than hostile to democracy and antithetical to human dignity.

Thus, the question becomes, not whether to quash noxious speech, but whether to invite it. Liberals who revere the First Amendment may be inclined to adopt an anything-goes attitude toward noxious speech. Indeed, the leader of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, made an appearance at my university, in full Nazi regalia, spouting racist trash, and he was allowed to speak to a full auditorium. But that was the 1960s.

The spread of noxious speech in 2018, abetted by the racism emanating from the White House, has caused people to rethink their approach to hate speech. Thus, Apple, Facebook and YouTube have expunged hate monger Alex Jones from their platforms, and campuses all across the country are wrestling with the question of how to respond to racist provocateurs. Jones is free to say what he likes, but no one is required to amplify it, and those who do may be complicit in his hatred.

The racist implications of Charles Murray’s ideas may be less obvious than the outright bigotry of a fabricator like Jones. Yet in the eyes of Bill Hart and many others, the case of Charles Murray was clear enough that he believes Murray should never have been invited to Middlebury or been given space on campus to speak. Hart remembers when Murray came to the college 10 years before, angering many on campus by arguing, among other things, that people of color should not aspire to elite colleges like Middlebury.

So all speech is not created equal — at least it’s not equal in worth. Though all kinds of speech may circulate freely within the marketplace of ideas, some is cheap and full of hate and deserves to be ignored. When it enters the public conversation, it must be countered. Efforts to silence it, as in Middlebury, may end up drawing more attention to it.

Some speech has greater value in a democracy — speech like that of Frederick Douglass, which has lasted through the decades because it rings with moral courage in defense of human dignity.

Anti-fascists and anti-racists are still learning the best methods for countering hateful speech or behavior — whether to ignore Nazi marchers or to stage a counter-demonstration at another site, whether to debate a racist or ignore him. No one need apologize for labeling hate speech as hate speech. The great advocates of human dignity — Douglass, King, Mandela — have shown that democratic values are a powerful force field that need not incorporate the tactics of the mob and whose inherent strength can withstand the worst of the mobocracy.

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law. This piece originally ran on VTDigger.org.

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