Free speech stands and the triumph of hypocrisy

I write about free sp`eech. So ever since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, friends and colleagues have been asking me what I think about the state of free speech in America, especially on college campuses.

My answer is simple: we are all Marxists now.

No, not the evil communist indoctrinators you hear about on Fox News and its friends. Professors lean heavily Democratic, to be sure, but only a small minority describe themselves as followers of Karl Marx.

I’m talking about a more comedic Marx here: Groucho. My favorite Groucho line captures where we stand on free speech right now: “These are my principles, and if you don’t like them . . . well, I’ve got others.”

People on the left who formerly wanted to restrict hateful expression are demanding free speech for Palestinians and their allies, even when these protesters chant arguably antisemitic phrases like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” And on the right, people who used to condemn speech restrictions now want to censor the protesters.

It would all be funny — in a Groucho kind of way — if it weren’t so sad.

Consider Hannah Black, the artist who called for the removal of a painting about Black lynching victim Emmett Till from the Whitney Biennial in 2017. The reason? The painter, Dana Schutz, was white. “It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,” Black wrote, in an open letter. “If Black people are telling [Schutz] that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this.”

Most astonishingly, Black called for the painting to be destroyed — not simply removed — so that nobody could see it.

But last month, after Artforum magazine editor David Velasco was fired for publishing a letter calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, Black was reborn as a free-speech warrior. “It is absolutely McCarthyite and many of the dogmatic anti-Palestinians in the art world have, as Joseph Welch said of McCarthy, ‘no sense of decency,’ ” complained Black, one of thousands of artists and curators who signed the letter. “They are willing to destroy careers, destroy the value of artworks, to maintain their unofficial ban on free speech about Palestine.”

This, from the same person who wanted to destroy an artwork to maintain an unofficial ban on white depictions of Black subjects.

Let’s be clear: Black was right to denounce the firing of Velasco. He spent 18 years at Artforum, which has “always stood for freedom of speech,” as he told The New York Times. But Black stood for censorship — of a fellow artist, at that — until people she liked started getting censored. And then she went all ACLU on us, invoking the Cold War red-baiter Joe McCarthy and Welch, the brave lawyer who publicly challenged him.

Did it ever occur to her that some Palestinian speakers have “caused unnecessary hurt,” just like she says Schutz’ painting did? To repeat, that’s not a good reason to shut them down. But if you thought this moment would get the left to reconsider prohibitions on “hurtful” speech, think again.

The inconsistency on the right is just as obvious. Witness the specter of GOP presidential hopefuls Sen. Tim Scott (who suspended his campaign last week) and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who both promised to deny federal funding to colleges that allow antisemitic expression.

Never mind that Scott co-sponsored a 2021 Senate resolution condemning “restrictive speech codes” on campus, or that Burgum signed a North Dakota state measure that same year barring universities from discriminating against students based on their viewpoint. Now they want to restrict viewpoints that they find too hateful — or hurtful — for the rest of us to hear.

Ditto for private-equity titan Marc Rowan, who blasted the “the culture of self-censorship” and “the fear to present reasoned opinions” at the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach. Then Rowan — a Penn alum — demanded the resignation of university President Liz Magill for allowing antisemitic speech on campus. Translated: Penn is hostile to free speech, so we need to censor speech that Rowan thinks is hostile.

And if you don’t like his principles — or Black’s — they’ve got others. “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing,” Groucho quipped. “If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” There are a lot of fake free-speech advocates out there right now, who simply want freedom for speech they like. Until they resolve to defend speech they detest, you can write them off as hypocrites. That’s what Groucho would have done.

Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson) of “Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn.”

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