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Surely Lucy Won’t Yank the Football Away This Time!

April 30th, 2008 · 29 Comments

It’s a little depressing, on multiple levels, to see Jessica Valenti and Pam Spaulding celebrating because protesters at Smith College managed to shout down some bigoted halfwit who’d been invited to give a speech to the College Republican group on campus. Apparently, the “awesome feminists of Smith forced [anti-gay speaker Ryan] Sorba out after a mere twenty minutes of speaking, when he was drowned out by protesters.”

It’s sad first at a principled level, because two women who student feminists around the country look to as guides are endorsing the utterly illiberal idea that the proper response to bad speech—and after skimming a draft of Sorba’s preposterous forthcoming book, I can confirm that his remarks were destined to be both loathesome and stupid—is to silence the speaker. The man’s views may be repulsive, but the students who invited him were entitled to have an opportunity to evaluate those views and come to their own conclusions about their merits. Indeed, had the protesters sent in a couple of halfway-bright students from the biology and philosophy departments during Q&A, I’m confident they could have made the poverty of his reasoning embarrassingly clear to all in attendance. It probably would have made a hell of a YouTube clip, as well. Instead, by choosing bullying over persuasion, they handed this jackass the moral high ground, for what I can only assume is the first and last time in his life.

It’s also sad at the tactical level, because it shows how little some folks have learned from a decade of David Horowitz’s antics. Congratulations, guys: You’ve just elevated this obscure clown into the online right’s celebrity du jour. I’m glad you enjoy the video clip of the students shouting Sorba down so much, because you’re about to see a lot of it, on a hundred conservative blogs, as proof that those awful boorish feminists are so afraid of Sorba’s “ideas” that they’re unwilling to engage him in debate, or indeed, to even let anyone hear whatever “devastating” case he was planning to make. How many times does this scenario have to play out before people start to recognize that it always ends up as a PR coup for the supporters of the silenced speaker?

Addendum: The comments at Feministing show this to be an interesting Rorschach blot. Plenty of folks took more or less the position I did, provoking a variety of responses.

A number of people appear to think that showing up at an event for which a student group has properly reserved space, then making it impossible for anyone to hear the speaker, simply counts as countering his speech with theirs. I’m curious how many would take that view were the situation reversed; I suspect few.

A few think that “free speech” is not at issue because the government wasn’t censoring the speaker. Of course the First Amendment is not at issue for just that reason, but “free speech,” the broader concept, surely is. Some of those folks made a similarly confused appeal to private property. But, of course, the property belongs to Smith, which had allowed the College Republicans to use that property to host a speaker.

Most common, though, was some variant of the idea that free speech and open debate are wonderful, but this particular fellow is so hateful or so irrational or so beyond the pale that his remarks don’t count. But the value of endorsing “free speech” as a general principle is precisely to avoid having to make these kinds of decisions about the merits of the speech, barring some very specific exceptions like “incitement to riot.” Speech that isn’t controversial, that isn’t going to occasion protest, will never require us to invoke free speech as an ideal. Conversely, speech that is controversial—the kind of speech that might actually need the protection of that principle—is always going to be regarded as “beyond the pale” or “too much” by somebody. (Fill in the blanks yourself for the variant where this case is different because he’s not a “scientist” or an “expert.”)

Conservatives think Jeremiah Wright’s sermons are “hate speech”. “Men’s rights” activists say feminists regularly engage in hate speech. Presumably they, too, would like to send a message that those speakers are unwelcome on their campuses. You can say “well, their view is wrong and the Smith students’ view is correct,” but insofar as the disagreement is still there, this is pretty unhelpful: Everyone thinks they’re right, and so everyone feels entitled to drown out the speech they dislike. You end up with the meaningless principle: “Free speech, except when we feel strongly enough about how terrible and wrong it is.”

I suppose that works out fine in Northampton: If someone’s invading your safe space, someone whose ideas and way of life are not just wrong but deeply abhorrent, an assault on your identity and community by their very presence, then the community can hound them out—at least if enough people feel strongly enough about it. But I’m guessing LGBT folks in the rest of America might be less sanguine about living under that set of rules.

Tags: Academia · Sexual Politics



29 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Peregrine // Apr 30, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    I’m a queer Smithie. I stayed away from Sorba’s talk and refused to participate in any related protests or “alternative events.” People who went to the talk and helped shut Sorba down are now claiming it was an act of queer solidarity at Smith, which frankly makes me sick. The word around campus is that the Smith Republicans invited Sorba because he asked to come, further supporting the idea that he came to Smith hoping to cause a ruckus and get publicity. I feel betrayed by those who gave him exactly what he wanted. Not only did they make Smithies look stupid, but they also helped Sorba, effectively joining his attack on queers (including myself).

    Thank you adding your voice of reason to the internet chatter surrounding this incident.

  • 2 gimmefiction // Apr 30, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    Hear, hear!

  • 3 Shannon // May 1, 2008 at 1:03 am

    I was actually at the protest, and I’d like to point out a few things.

    a.) People didn’t start completely drowning him with political slogans out until after he was about 10 minutes into his speech – nearly the exact same scripted speech he gave at the lecture in CA as seen on YouTube – and repeatedly connoting gay men with pedophilia and molestation;

    b.) Engaging him in “reasoned debate” doesn’t work because he’s so extremely twisted and uninterested in an honest pursuit of knowledge and he would have felt smug *no matter what* because he sees himself as a hero for the anti-gay movement;

    c.) His PR came from being invited to Smith in the first place because the right-wing attack machine would have twisted it in his favor anyway, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to stand by and let him trample the safe space of a fellow Seven Sister [I attend Mount Holyoke] as well as the fabric of the LGBTQ community’s lives;

    d.) The reason why people were even able to attend an alternative event at the queer community center is because people before them fought in the streets and were abused by police to acquire the minimum civil rights we *have* today such as queer community centers.

    I am 110% proud of our solidarity, and I would venture to say that at least 100 of my fellow protesters were energized and inspired by the palpable love and sense of community that was garnered in that room Tuesday night. We raised our voices in unison to speak out for our existence, because that is what Ryan Sorba was challenging. No new, nuanced argument there.

    “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

  • 4 John Cain // May 1, 2008 at 2:04 am

    That’s what bothered me, really: the commenters seem to feel that bullying someone offstage is “speech” and not “force”, simply because they were shouting at the time.

  • 5 Aaron Barlow // May 1, 2008 at 9:47 am

    “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” That’s Kant, of course, but it could still be good advice to those who shouted Sorba down.

    Shout down one person, then it is OK to shout down anyone and everyone?

    No thanks.

    Let’s not shout down anyone. There are better ways, ones we can be proud of, rather than shame-faced in defense of those whose viewpoints we generally agree with.

  • 6 asg // May 1, 2008 at 9:47 am

    Have Valenti and Spaulding previously expressed more liberal notions of free speech? Is their reaction particularly surprising?

  • 7 Anthony // May 1, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Very good post indeed. Well said.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // May 1, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    Look, I’m happy to assume that (1) the speaker himself is enough of a warped imbecile that there would be no convincing him (2) he wasn’t saying anything especially novel or interesting, and (3) the people who shouted him down felt good about it afterward.

    None of those things, it seems to me, constitute a justification for shutting him up. Free speech is not a game you play for a little while, until it becomes clear that the person on the other side isn’t going to come around to your view, at which point bullying is justified. But for what it’s worth, in this context, the point of reasoned debate is not necessarily to persuade the asshat on stage; it’s to show the rest of the people present — the people who presumably thought he might have views worth considering — that the better arguments are all on the side of accepting sexual diversity. Do you think that anyone there who wasn’t sure where they stood on the issue was convinced by all this, or learned anything?

  • 9 Helen // May 1, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    When Ann Coulter came to speak at Smith in – was it 03? – she packed the largest auditorium on campus. She was protested a little, and a number of students arrived early and filled up the front few rows and calculatedly stood up and walked out after she was a few seconds into her speech. It was (as protests go) emphatic but not, you know, unconstitutional. So, at least 5 years ago, we Smithies knew how to do a protest.

    BTW: those of us who stayed got a treat: as the walkouts were heading for the door, Coulter made a crack about the anal sex/strapon workshop that was going on next door (oh, Smith). But for whatever reason, her tone of voice sounded more wistful than sarcastic. Maybe someone needs to buy her a copy of Bend Over Boyfriend.

  • 10 Lester Hunt // May 1, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    Great work, Julian! Now I won’t need to blog about this.

  • 11 southpaw // May 2, 2008 at 12:36 am

    I’m generally with Julian on this. If you don’t like the guy who’s featured at a speaking event, challenge him respectfully, protest outside, or don’t go.

    That said, I think there are situations–generally more parliamentary ones–where shouting someone down (at some point) can have a salutary effect.

    One benefit of free speech is that everyone gets to air their views. Another benefit is that truly noxious views eventually fade into irrelevance because they are vocally opposed. That doesn’t mean that you rush the stage when a man’s been invited to speak, but, in my view, it can mean that you shout down the gay-baiting provocateur who shows up at your city council meeting.

  • 12 Dan Koffler // May 2, 2008 at 2:07 am

    There are Smith College Republicans?

  • 13 Will Creeley // May 2, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Excellent – and eloquent – post, Julian. Beautifully said; I couldn’t agree more.

  • 14 The Listener // May 2, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    Although disrupting Mr. Sorba’s speech in that manner was definitely out of line, I think that Mr. Sorba is being tendered far too much respect. There is a difference between support of free speech and support of giving a bully-pulpit to every conspiracy-theorizing crank who screams, “THOSE BIG SCARY [insert name of scary group here] ARE OUT TO GET ME!”

    Lest it be said that I am biased, a disclaimer: my statement is informed by a bias against cranks of all persuasions, from Mr. Sorba, Judith Reisman and Lyle Rossiter to Andrea Dworkin and Robert Altemeyer.

  • 15 Julian Sanchez // May 2, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    So, quickly scanning my post, I characterized Mr Sorba (on the basis of what I’ve seen and read of his views) as a bigoted halfwit, a jackass, stupid and loathsome, an obscure clown… I’m wondering what you imagine it would look like if I WASN’T affording him “too much respect.”

    Seriously, I don’t know how much more strongly I can put it: This man’s ideas are ignorant, odious, dishonest, and utterly without merit. Indeed, I agree with those who think that nothing whatever of value is lost if these ideas don’t circulate. I just don’t think my assessment is what should actually determine what ideas get to circulate.

  • 16 The Listener // May 3, 2008 at 1:50 am

    Mr. Sanchez, I did not say that YOU were affording Mr. Sorba too much respect. Indeed, I agree with you that your assessment, consisting of objections to the substance of Mr. Sorba’s arguments and ideas, should not determine whether he speaks.

    I was instead criticizing the people who will invite someone in to give a talk, justifying it only by a desire to “uphold free speech.”

    I am certain that at least some members of the Republican club (the “neo-cons,” so-called) are more interested in the free-speech issue than what Mr. Sorba has to say. This criticism is directed at them.

  • 17 Glenn // May 3, 2008 at 8:26 am

    Well said Mr. Sanchez. It’s quite clear to me that comments like this one posted byThe Listener validate our desire to protect free speech at all costs. By name calling, the implication is that certain speech should not be allowed, especially if it is from “the Republican club” which is disparagingly called “neo-cons”. As each day passes, I value more and more the Constitution and the foresight of its drafters.

  • 18 Scott Wood // May 3, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    The saddest thing is that, 200+ years after the Bill of Rights was penned, this post still had to be written.

  • 19 H. Harrison // May 4, 2008 at 12:45 am

    Why does it have to be “Lucy” who pulls the “football” away? Why not “Luke”? Or a “Women’s Softball”?

    Latent sexism may help explain your kinship with Sorba…

  • 20 AJ // May 5, 2008 at 7:13 am

    I just love how the supposedly enlightened, fair-minded, tolerant liberal left 1) will not tolerate free speech unless its speech they agree with, 2) won’t debate based on merits of thought, or debate the science behind the idea, but rather just resort to just labeling the speaker with hateful comments and name calling (“bigoted halfwit, a jackass, stupid and loathsome, an obscure clown”). Now THAT’s pursuit of higher understanding, free debate and rational social intercourse. I’m embarassed to call myself a liberal to be associated with these closed-minded ‘thugs’ of Smit college. Pity.

  • 21 Julian Sanchez // May 5, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    I think there is an important difference here between silencing speech and treating it as legitimate. If Ryan Sorba was properly invited, he’s entitled to have his say and be heard by the people who invited him. It’s quite different question whether inviting him in the first instance was a good decision, or whether we ought to accept his pose as some kind of scientific expert if (as it seems clear to me) he is just trying to place a respectable veneer on his loathing of gay people.

  • 22 HP // May 6, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    –> H. Harrison

    Is that a purely sarcastic comment or do you not know of the Charlie Brown vs. Lucy (football) line of comics?

  • 23 H. Harrison // May 6, 2008 at 9:58 pm


  • 24 Adam Hyland // May 7, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    I’m really torn on this. I don’t agree with what the students did. But I also don’t feel that we can always treat things as if they were a symmetric field.

    We can visualize the marketplace of ideas operating and we can stipulate that the noxious ideas of Mr. Sorba would find no takers and would soon be replaced by some different speech. Presumably that exchange would and should take place after people access the relative merits of the ideas and decide to support one or another. On the whole I feel this is a proper, though strained, analogy. Given this premise of meritocratic reward for “good” speech and marginalization of “bad” speech, the Smith students’ acts were reprehensible. they circumvented this mechanism and replaced discourse with their views.

    But….I’m finding it terribly hard to make some general claim as to the protected nature of speech from protest. When the architecture of discourse is not symmetric, as in a lecture hall with one speaker before an audience, one speaker is operationally favored. Even worse are cases where the speaker himself (or herself) controls the venue, either explicitly or implicitly through the use of plants in the audience to softball questions, etc. In those cases the opportunities for protest that represent countervailing speech acts (and not suppression of the speech in question) are very limited. If the venue allows for a rebuttal time, then one person may respond. If questions are allowed, then questions may be asked (although these frustrate me to no end when used as avenues for soapboxing).

    This is not a problem if you accept the fundamental assumption that everyone (on average) is capable of telling rotten messages from good ones and therefore the broadcast of rotten messages will likely have no ill effect. This is what pains me. I DESPERATELY want to believe this. I’m in school to be an economist, and this is kinda the fundamental basis for the profession: that we are, on the aggregate, actually capable of looking out for our best interests. But I don’t know. Certainly the students had this in mind when they unilaterally decided that their interpretation of Sorba’s speech would suffice as a proxy for others. If you accept that as given (as some on feminisiting probably do), then they might be justified in stopping his speech.

    Presumably the logic would go something like this (either one of two ways or both):

    1. The continuation of his speech without strident protest might represent some tacit normative approval for the values behind his speech. This approval might be seen to stem from the university or from the students attending and approval of his views goes against everything that the student body is thought to believe in. there are a lot of ifs here, and I’m not defending the reasoning, just speculating on it.

    2. More likely, the students felt that they had (as in #1) a superior understanding of the merits of Sorba’s speech than others might. They also felt that the nature of the platform and the repetition of the speech itself would inculcate these views into others or (intertwined with the above point) give them the impression that the ideas behind the speech represented some normatively good thing. This is (more so than #1) at its core a paternalistic notion. The students would foreclose on future speech out of some concern for the weak-minded nature of possible audiences for that speech. That particular line of logic has a long and storied history with tyrants.

    But I think that while these two lines of logic are statist (were they beliefs held by the state), they aren’t necessarily as toxic when held by those out of power. Or, to be more clear, these are not bad positions to operate from when you don’t hold the actual power to silence the speaker. In this particular case, what you suggest would work moderately well. I suspect that brining in smart questioners to poke holes in logic would convince people on the fence of the ludicrousness of the claims. But the nature of returns on that strategy is unpleasant. Any speaker equipped with the minimal amount of wits would be able to filibuster the questioning session and obfuscate the topic. This is akin to attempting Saul Alinsky style confrontational tactics with slum lords today. 35 years ago, you could count on a slum lord to act the part for the media and to fall for traps (Schedule a private meeting, but invite the press). today, the naive slumlords have been pushed out. Plan a meeting and they will bring a press liaison. They will show up in a suit and tie and promise the world. The same thing applies here. Only the merest level of sophistication is required to thwart passive protesting methods. People without access to the floor have to resort to asymmetric warfare. I understand the point about not giving people like David Horowitz reason to bloviate on anything but I don’t agree with it. Disruptive acts of protest are important to inserting non-priviledged discourse into a structured event.

    But my hesitancy to endorse these students’ actions comes from a deep distrust of expanding that model. Here the non-priviledged discourse was probably Mr.Sorba and not the inclusive message of the students at large. Here the logic of the oppressed was used to silence someone at the margins. So I would go halfway. I would condemn the actions of the students but I’m not prepared to go so far as to condemn the principal.

  • 25 Adam Hyland // May 8, 2008 at 12:01 am

    Arg. principle. Also numerous grammatical errors. I’m so bad at this. 🙂

  • 26 AJ // May 8, 2008 at 11:50 am

    Adam… Protest? Sure! Stand outside, hold placards, form a picket line, stand with your back to the speaker.

    However, preventing speech by being a thug is what the Nazi’s and the Fascists did in WWII, what the islamofascists are doing today. And, sadly, is what these students did. And, what they did was in no way ‘inclusive’, tolerant, nor designed to stimulate the exchange of ideas and information.

  • 27 Adam Hyland // May 8, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    I’m not saying what they did was right. Maybe I wasn’t emphatic enough about that. but in some sense, I don’t think that non-disruptive protest should be the limit.

    In this case I specifically said that Sorba represented the ‘outside’ non-privileged view and the smith students were operating from a position of power, but this isn’t always the case with protests.

    Also, godwin’s law. 🙂

  • 28 Ike // May 12, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    Adam Hyland: And if we assume the validity of your “feelings”, that you, “… don’t think that non-disruptive protest should be the limit” then what ought to be the limit? What principled method is available to determine what that limit ought to be? Shall a vote be taken, counting only the votes of those who “don’t think that non-disruptive protest should be the limit”? Shall we then ignore the laws defining and condemning as criminal acts of physical violence or actions tantamount thereto, in order to substitute one’s “feelings”?

    Your lengthy argument is well-written, but falsely premised: (1) there is no necessity in logic or in principle that “the architecture of discourse” in each and every event or occurence of public speech be symetrical – I infer that by that you mean that each “side” or “position” be given an equal opportunity to be heard on each and every occasion. In fact, such a requirement is impossible to meet. Only one person may speak at any given time. Given that physical property is a necessity to disseminate one’s views, only one view may be heard at any given venue (excepting those circuses we often see disguised as political debates). Even at such “debates”, only one speaker may speak at a time, else there is no exchange of ideas or thoughts, only a childish shouting contest.

    Any population is entirely cabable of retaining the substance – at least an outline thereof – of any given presentation long enough to be able to hear a rebuttal given, even hours, days, weeks, or longer after an opposing viewpoint has been presented. You betray your lack of faith in the intelligence and capacity of your fellow humans by implying that they must have the protection of such paragons of fairness as the protestors at this presentation from the sort of devious and evil-minded propaganda the speaker here presented. The history of the human race, overall, and especially with regard to the appearance of the notions which comprise Western political philosophies of freedom – from which label I free socialism and its variants – proves the inaccuracy of your assertions about how free speech genuinely works to produce freedom. That the result may not be to your liking – or even to mine for that matter – is an insufficient reason to rationalize threats of violence and the like as proper alternatives to a genuinely free exchange of ideas, allowing our fellows to reach their own conclusions, uncoerced by your – or my – views of what constitutes “proper” speech or presentation of thoughts.

    There is no middle ground between “non-disruptive protest” and criminal violence. There is no principled method to silence speakers and topics and words and ideas which are repugnant to us, no matter how strongly we believe those ideas to be wrong or noxious, no matter how much smarter and stronger and more knowledgeable we believe ourselves to be than are our fellows. There is either free speech or there is not free speech.

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