Beware the Judas goat, who leads unsuspecting cattle down a stockyards chute to the slaughter pen, stepping aside at the last minute to preserve his own survival.
There’s a Judas goat at work in the culture to destroy the First Amendment guarantee of free speech for all. This Judas goat, pretending to protect the feelings of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized among us, naturally expects to preserve his right to say anything he likes when the rest of us suffer the censor, the blue pencil and the billy club.
The Judas goat once worked on the right margin of the public debate, eager to silence liberals, Communists, Socialists and others out to harm “the American way of life.” Why, asked many conservatives, “must we suffer the evil lies of those who would do grievous harm to the country we love? Communist speech, after all, is wrong and wicked.”
The political left scorned such reasoning as the work of rubes and hayseeds, intellectual primitives without learning, distinction or sophistication.
But now, argues Alan Dershowitz, the emeritus law professor at Harvard and a leading defender of the guarantee of free speech, assembly and religious worship, “the right shoe of censorship is on the left foot.”
“Those who seek to ban what they call hate speech are on the hard left, particularly at universities,” he writes in The Washington Post, reviewing a new book advocating a haircut for the First Amendment. “Those who seek to defend free speech,” observes Mr. Dershowitz, “are accused of bigotry.”
The book, “Must We Defend Nazis?” by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic, tries to make the case for race-based affirmative action in the context of free speech, demanding special rules designed to protect minorities, especially racial minorities. “It bases its argument on the following highly questionable proposition: ‘There is no correlate — no analog — for hate speech directed toward whites. There is nothing comparably damaging that whites have to undergo. The word ‘honky’ is more a badge of respect than a put-down. ‘Cracker,’ although disrespectful, still implies power, as does ‘redneck.’ Tell that to a first-generation college freshman from the Ozarks who is called by those names.” Mean-spirited as those terms may be, that college freshman from the Ozarks, his skin thickened by an inherited Scots and Scots-Irish culture of centuries of warming to a fight, is not likely to melt like a snowflake.
Trashing the First Amendment is a small price to pay, in the view of the trashers, for soothing the fragile psyches of the weak. Some black students, oblivious of the pain and suffering of their immediate forebears in smashing the law of “separate but equal,” now demand the “safety” of segregated dormitories and segregated dining halls as protections against the rigors of life amongst white folks and the slings and arrows fired by the inheritors of “white privilege” who bask in comfort where the sun always shines, rain never falls and the sky is not cloudy all day.
On campus, everybody suffers. “Some Asian Americans,” writes Mr. Dershowitz in his review, “argue that race-based affirmative action programs discriminate against Asian applicants. Some Jewish students point to anti-Israel hate speech, including accusations that they — American Jewish students — are complicit in genocide, apartheid and war crimes. Some Muslim students claim that the very presence of Zionists on campus makes them feel unsafe. Some Christian students say their religious beliefs, particularly regarding abortion and same-sex marriage, are mocked and belittled. Some gay, lesbian and transgender students feel marginalized in a hetero-dominant culture. Some women [argue] that campuses promote ‘rape culture’ and that allowing anti-abortion voices to be heard exacerbates the view that men control women’s bodies.”
“Editing” or “adjusting” the First Amendment is the most treacherous of all slippery slopes. Snowflakery is contagious, and it’s not difficult to imagine where snowflake fever can lead. Not so long ago the mayor of Houston, a lesbian sensitive to slights of her LGBT and Q constituents, was so offended by clergymen who preached of the sin of same-sex marriage that she proposed that all sermons be delivered in advance to City Hall for approval. This was such a rape of the First Amendment, unimaginable even a decade earlier, that she rescinded her demand in the face of near-unanimous public outrage. She protested that of course she loved the First Amendment, but.
The would-be trimmers of the First Amendment always profess devotion to free speech, but the “but” is always on the way. There is no “but” in defense. The First Amendment was written by the Founders in language so clear and plain that even a lawyer can understand it. It’s absolute, and it means what the words say. It’s worth dying for. And beware the Judas goat.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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