Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Speech Cases and the Corporatization of Speech: A Review Essay

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Speech Cases and the Corporatization of Speech: A Review Essay

Article excerpt

Speech Cases and the Corporatization of Speech: A Review Essay

Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus Donald Alexander Downs. Oakland, CA: The Independent Institute; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 295 pages. $19.99 (pb).

To say the least, Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus grapples with a controversial topic-one that continues to roil universities and colleges in the United States and Canada. It is sure to draw the ire of those who believe that campus speech codes are a necessary counterweight to systemic inequality. Yet it is also a book that raises profound questions about a more generalized erosion of free speech and thought in the academic milieu-a milieu whose central purpose, ideally envisioned, is to provide a forum for the expression of views that are challenging, contentious, uncomfortable, and disturbing. Its detailed examination of the way that some institutions have chosen to deal with the expression of troublesome ideas opens up an avenue for a nuanced consideration of the forces transforming 21st-century North American higher education.

Downs, a professor of Political Science, Law, and Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, originally supported speech codes in the middle 1980s. It was natural for him to do so, since his first book, published in 1985 by the University of Notre Dame Press, was Nazis in Skokie: Freedom, Community, and the First Amendment, which argued that "targeted racial vilification" of the kind practiced against Holocaust survivors "does not merit First Amendment protection because of the trauma and moral harm it inflicts" (pp. 13-14). But he quickly realized that speech codes, whose ostensible goal was to create an environment similarly free of trauma and moral harm, were a new kind of censorship: originally well-meaning, but in the end "producing illiberal, repressive consequences that [were] just as detrimental to open universities and minds as traditional forms of censorship" (p. xx). Thus, in the place of reactionary censorship emanating from voices external to the university, there arose "progressive censorship" that was spearheaded by "leftist sources inside the ivory tower" (p. xx).

Why did speech codes come into being? Downs traces "the seeds" of progressive censorship to the replacement of "liberal principles" (such as "integration, individual moral conscience, and universalism" as practiced by Martin Luther King, Jr.) with "antiliberal political movements" that were in part based on Frantz Fanon's advocacy of "group-based identity, recognition, therapeutic self-esteem, and oppression consciousness" (pp. 36-37). But it was Herbert Marcuse's book A Critique of Pure Tolerance (1969) that provided the intellectual justification for progressive censorship. Because Marcuse believed that "Imperialism, militarism, racism, bureaucracy, corporatism, technology, and mass marketing and media had undermined the possibility of truly rational liberation by systematically inculcating [many individuals with] false consciousness and mental conditioning," it was foolish to allow those "manipulated and indoctrinated" individuals the right of abstract free speech (pp. 38-39). Such tolerance was nothing less than "repressive" or "false" tolerance, insofar as it would continue the existing pattern of oppression. What was instead needed was "true tolerance," which would "include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc." (qtd. in Downs, p. 39).

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, these ideas formed the basis of "a new form of radical, group-identity based feminism" associated with the legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon and writer Andrea Dworkin, who suggested that pornography should be censored "in the name of civil rights and progressive causes" (pp. …

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