Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Derbyshire, the American Renaissance, and "free speech culture"

John Derbyshire defends the America Renaissance movement. Oh dear. There's much here that is cringeworthy. Jews are okay because they look white! And why is it that conservative Jewish intellectuals so frequently decline to grace white supremacy groups with lecture appearances? Also, some white supremacists are actually quite cultured!

This feels awfully Libertarianism 101, but here goes nothing. Yes, the people who want to stop the American Renaissance convention should not have used death threats and other threats of violence to get their way. Yes, the sponsoring hotels had the right -- perhaps, even, the responsibility -- to call the police once they heard such threats.

But we libertarians are committed to freedom of speech when such means freedom from state action. This does not mea that a private hotel has any duty to sponsor groups it finds offensive. And similarly, private individuals and groups have every right to use moral suasion to stop private hotels from harboring groups whose views ought to be beyond the pale.

The more interesting angle to problems like the above, which Derbyshire doesn't explore: groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education occasionally publish things about the need for "free speech culture" on campus. Even private universities which aren't state actors for First Amendment purposes, they argue, ought to inculcate in their students respect for freedom of expression and dissent. In the name of creating such a "free speech culture," universities should regulate speech with a light hand even when they legally can do otherwise. I am not so sure I agree. Yes, FIRE is good at pointing to egregious cases. But universities also have had traditionally some responsibility for the moral and ethical formation of their students, a responsibility which makes it difficult for universities to act like small scale libertarian states.

Hotels, of course, are different from universities. They have no traditional responsibility to encourage respect for freedom of expression and dissent. But what role should non-academic institutions play in creating "free speech culture?" Put another way, I don't think that this hotel's actions compromise freedom in any significant way. But it may have compromised "free speech culture," which may be as problematic in a different way. Derbyshire would have done better to spin this out more clearly.

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