Friday, January 28, 2005

The value of false speech

Thomas McCoy was my First Amendment prof in law school and he set up two matrices to explain both the Supreme Court's rulings in free speech cases and the competing theories of folks like Catherine MacKinnon who sought to outlaw various categories of speech and expression for different reasons. The MacKinnonite speech matrix entailed allowing government to regulate all speech, but it would have to meet a compelling interest test for political speech. Justice Stevens is closest to this approach.

The historical standard had four categories: general speech, commercial interest, political expression and pure political speech. The last category was inviolate under Brandenberg v. Ohio (until McConnell v. Federal Elec. Comm'n screwed everything up). The other categories had various "tests" -- if the speech fell within political expression, the state could regulate it if it could prove a compelling interest and the use of the least restrictive means in the regulation (see United States v. O'Brien); if the speech was commercial in nature, the state could regulate it if it met a midlevel scrutiny that balanced the quantum of intrusion on free speech against the state's interest in the intrusion (discussed in ConEd v. NY Public Service Comm'n, although the speech was found to be political); speech and expression that did not fall into those categories would be subject only to a rational basis test for restriction: is there a rational basis for the governmental entity to restrict this type of expression? Examples: fighting words, defamation, fraud, conspiracy, espionage.

What two of those examples (fraud, defamation) demonstrate is something that has been true in even the most enlightened societies: there is no value in false speech. Simply stated, lies and false statements are not protected because they are worthless to the political debate that both the First Amendment and the Anglosphere's tradition of free speech allow.

Facts are certainties and are provable: the Declaration of Independence is dated July 4, 1776; Australia is the only continent that is also a single nation; George Washington was the first president of the United States; the Holocaust happened; slavery was legal in the Confederate states at the time of their seccession; Sir Winston S. Churchill's mother was an American, etc. Opinions are not certainties but are disprovable if the facts underlying them are false: Australian aboriginal domestication programs have not had a deleterious effect upon the aboriginal communities in Western Australia -- a clearly false opinion.

But on college campuses, there is a devaluation of "facts" that renders them into nothing more than "opinions" and that renders the factual reality into merely one side of a "debate." Example: the concept of a "Holocaust Debate." This issue plagued various universities in 1991 when neo-Nazi Holocaust Denier Bradley Smith submitted full page advertisements that he sought to run in various college newspapers where he denied the Holocaust's existence. I was the Advertising Manager of the Cavalier Daily at the time and I told the editorial board if they wanted to run his ad (which was merely an editorial), they needed to refuse the money, run it as an editorial and ensure that they consult actual Holocaust historians to shoot down his nonsense. Ultimately, the CD ducked the question and returned the ad.

Simply stated, however, there is no "Holocaust Debate", it happened, Hitler ordered it, Himmler, Heydrich, Goebbels, Eichmann, Hoss and their lackeys carried it out and more than 6,000,000 Jews were systematically exterminated by the German state. The notion that there is another side to a historical fact devalues the fact, elevates the false opinion into a (semi-)legitimate notion and debases public discourse by lending credence to complete fiction.

Thus, the nebulous notion of academic freedom has similarly debased academe. How? Refer to the Ward Churchill fiasco at Hamilton College -- he called the 9-11-01 victims "little Eichmanns" implying that they got what they deserved for being capitalists. Hamilton's President, Joan Hinde Stewart, did not know about his remarks until recently but would not rescind his invitation to speak on campus because of "academic freedom." This is arrant nonsense.

As Roger Kimball notes in his excellent blog entry referenced in the title of this post, "[c]olleges and universities are institutions dedicated to the pursuit and transmission of the truth. Because the truth is often hard to establish and only imperfectly grasped, encouraging real intellectual diversity on important issues is a salutary part of the business of liberal education. But that does not mean that anyone can say anything he likes and have it accepted as a legitimate point of view. "

And that becomes problematic because everything is reduced to a mere "point of view":
. . . denying the Holocaust is only one of many efforts to undermine the authority of historical truth. The phenomenon of Afrocentricism (which, incidentally, often indulges in a bit of Holocaust denial as a sideline) belongs here, as do many varieties of academic literary "theory" that now reign in the academy: deconstruction, extreme examples of "reader-response" theory, new historicism, etc. For all of them, facts are fluid and historical truth is a species of fiction: what actually happened in the past, or what a given text actually means, are for them ridiculous questions. Nor are these attitudes confined to the cloistered purlieus of the academy: in watered-down versions they have become standard-issue liberal sentiment: Rather than risk having to make an unpleasant judgment about the facts, deny that there are any such things as facts.

* * *
. . . As Hannah Arendt observed in an essay called "Truth and Politics," opinion remains opinion only so long as it is grounded in, and can be corrected by, fact. "Facts," she wrote, "inform opinions, and opinions, inspired by different interests and passions, can differ widely and still be legitimate as long as they respect factual truth. Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute." What is at stake, Arendt concluded, is nothing less than the common world of factual reality and historical truth.

There is no value in opinions that have no basis in fact. There is no "academic freedom" to inquire into or espouse demonstrably false theories. The notion that the 9-11-01 victims are just "little Eichmanns" is a horrendous and false concept. The notion that academic freedom imposes a duty to allow someone who espouses such garbage an honored place to speak is ludicrous. Hamilton College has granted a soapbox for false speech and hampered its institutional mission in the process.

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