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For Folks Who Just Love Suppressing Free Speech

By Charles Lipson     •     RealClearPolitics

Free speechThe Canadian government of Stephen Harper has a fascinating idea. Use hate-crime laws against groups that advocate boycotting Israel.

It’s a terrible idea. I love it.

It’s terrible because we should protect varied political views, not suppress them. That includes unpopular views and sacrilegious drawings. The only exceptions should be speech that threatens physical harm and does so directly and plausibly.

Still, there is a perverse humor to Harper’s idea because it targets the very people who try so hard to suppress others’ views and ostracize them. It tells them to enjoy their own home cooking.

Who are these fine folks? In days of yore, they were the Spanish Inquisitors and Salem witch trial judges. Today, they are the Canadian Quakers, United Church of Canada, the Muslim Students Association, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Modern Language Association, and lots of left-wing campus groups. Their goal is straightforward: delegitimize the Jewish state.

How much do they hate it? Let me offer two small but telling examples from my own experience on campus. Last year, when pro-Israel students at the University of Chicago celebrated Israel Independence Day, they served hummus and had a small stuffed camel nearby. Innocuous enough, you say. You poor, misguided racist, imperialist Zionist. Students for Justice in Palestine, which is virulently anti-Israel despite its innocent name, had signs calling the hummus and stuffed camel “cultural appropriations.” What they are saying is that no Jews can touch anything that they (and they alone) deem Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim. Many are students who came here to study the fruits of the West, from Plato to Jane Austen to quantum physics. Yet they are telling others that their own culture, as they alone define it, is strictly off-limits to others. No one had the heart to tell them they were filming their confrontation on cellphones powered by Israeli chips.

And then there is “pinkwashing.” You can’t make this up. Some left-wing, pro-gay groups attack Israel because it is tolerant of gays. See if you can follow the twisted logic: Since Israel is evil incarnate, its positive treatment of gays must be a way of diverting people’s attention. Devious people, those Jews. The Israel haters call it pinkwashing, meaning it is whitewashing with pink tint, to emphasize its sexual-orientation. People actually tour American, Canadian, and European universities pitching this tripe. The groups that invite them – guess who? – say nothing about ISIS sending out decoys to lure gay men out of the shadows so they can behead them. Of course, they remain silent about the 200,000-plus killed in Syria, Iran’s campaign of global terror, Hamas hiding rockets in school buildings, Christians being driven out of lands where they have lived since Jesus’ time, and on and on. That would only divide the group and divert them from their anti-Israel mission.

For years, these self-appointed guardians of righteousness, which includes every “victims group” known to man, have been using supine institutions to suppress others’ views. Their most potent weapons are three magical phrases: “Hate speech,” “I’m offended,” and their trump card, “I feel unsafe.”

Who defines “hate speech”? That’s the key, and that’s the trap Stephen Harper has set. Right now, it is defined by the left, working closely with vocal victims’ groups and unaccountable human-rights commissions. At most universities, their strongest ally is the dean of students’ office, always eager to quell any hurt feelings. The process encourages people to be offended about anything they dislike, complain loudly about it, and then demand it be stopped in the name of social justice.

“Feeling unsafe” works the same way. To be clear: Students absolutely deserve protection against physical threats and intimidation. But that’s not what “feeling unsafe” means on campus. It’s a term-of-art to hush up views you dislike. So, you can feel “unsafe” if someone advocates voter ID laws or hydrocarbon fracking. (Don’t worry. That could never happen. No one invites those speakers, and professors with those views would never knowingly be hired in the social sciences and humanities.) This precious worldview dominates elite colleges. If it prevails, universities will have less vigorous debate than the back of a Wheaties’ box.

What should administrators do? Grow a backbone. Tell students plainly, “We debate ideas at this university. We support free speech and don’t assist people who want to stamp it out. If you have different views, hold your own event. Feel free to protest outside their event. But if you try to block others’ events, assault people you disagree with, stop anyone from attending, or prevent anyone from speaking, you will be expelled. Do you understand me?”

Lest you think, “Oh, that’s just goofy colleges,” you should note that this kind of suppression of ideas is actually the law of the land in most West European social democracies. Given this encouragement, militant victims’ groups grow like kudzu and try—often successfully—to stamp out all kinds of dissenting views. Until recently, Canada was moving along the same dismal lines.

That’s why the Harper government’s idea is such a bombshell. What if, just for a change of pace, it was the opponents of free speech whose ideas were deemed hateful? What if people who demanded institutional boycotts of Israeli universities or products had to spend years in court and hundreds of thousands of dollars to voice their views openly, just as their opponents do now? It’s a terrible idea. It would be really bad public policy. But it certainly would be entertaining.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science and the Founder and Director of the Program on International Politicis, Economics and Security at the University of Chicago.