The national conversation about free speech is a mess. Because the concept of “violating free speech” is so elastic and is so rarely used to indicate a strict violation of the law or the Constitution, there’s a lot of argumentative tomfoolery afoot. To take a slice of that tomfoolery: On the one side are folks who describe things that can’t be credibly viewed as actual free-speech violations — raucous protests and petitions against a campus speaker, for example — as free-speech violations. On the other are folks who refuse to acknowledge that things that should be credibly viewed as free-speech violations, like physically blocking a campus speaker from giving a speech at a public university, aren’t free-speech violations.
The ongoing debate about this stuff is as noisy as it is slippery. And it’s given rise to a situation in which hardly anyone seems to be making principled arguments about these very important subjects — rather, “free speech!” and its punny homophone “freeze peach!” are endlessly tossed around on an ad hoc basis in response to the latest outrage, or outrage at someone else’s outrage.
All of which offers some rather incendiary context for a paper published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the paper, Mark H. White II and Christian S. Crandall of the University of Kansas conducted eight studies designed to probe the connections between anti-black prejudice and free-speech defenses for racist speech.
Let’s get more specific: The first study concerned a March 2015 incident in which “a video showing fraternity brothers in Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) at the University of Oklahoma chanting a racist song on a bus went viral on the Internet.” As a result of the video, in which the brothers were shown chanting about how black people (referred to with the N-word) will never be allowed into the frat and should be lynched, “all fraternity members were forced to move out of their fraternity house within days,” and two students who led the chant were expelled.
The researchers were able to test respondents’ reaction to the video just six days after it went viral. They recruited 175 Amazon Mechanical Turk workers and asked them to register their levels of (dis)agreement with three statements pertaining to the incident and its potential free-speech implications: “Kicking the fraternity off campus is a violation of their free speech,” “The students in the video have a right to free speech, so they should not have been expelled,” and “The university being so harsh on the students in the video is not respecting the students’ freedom of speech.” They were also asked to respond to various statements gauged at measuring their levels of so-called symbolic racism — “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as Whites” — and their levels of more explicit prejudice, such as one question which asked “In general, how much do you feel the following emotions when you are around Black people?” and then listed 12 options, ranging from negative to positive. They also completed a so-called “feeling thermometer” which asked them to rate how they felt, on a scale of 0 to 100, about a bunch of different groups, including African-Americans.
As the researchers anticipated, “Anti-Black prejudice positively correlated with freedom of speech.” The more likely someone was to be prejudiced, as measured by the items in the survey, the more likely they were to believe it was unfair, on free-speech grounds, that the fraternity brothers students were punished for the racist song.
The next study is where things start to get more interesting. “If a principled belief in the sanctity of freedom of speech is naturally related to racial prejudice,” write the authors in the introduction to that study, “then prejudiced people should endorse the relevance of freedom of speech equally regardless of context.” In other words, if those people who thought that punishing the frat brothers for their racist song violated their free-speech rights were really concerned with free speech qua free speech, rather than being opportunistically indignant in some sort of effort to defend their own racist views, they should apply the principle equally, and should defend those punished for speech in other, non-racist incidents as well.
So that’s what the researchers tested. In study two, respondents were assigned to read about a scenario in which someone is fired for making either anti-black or anti-police statements on Facebook, in the form of a post reading “These [protesters/cops] are just a bunch of [looters and thugs/racists and pigs]. They’re all bastards. [Blacks/police] are the ones causing all this racial tension in America right now, and I’m sick of it. Fuck them.” The respondents were again asked whether they thought the firing violated the terminated employees’ free-speech rights, and again assessed for their levels of anti-black prejudice. In the anti-black condition, prejudice predicted free-speech defenses; in the anti-police condition, it didn’t. Which lends credence to the researchers’ theory that people would invoke free speech in an opportunistic way.
The other experiments in this study produced similar findings, and went into some more detail that I’ll skip over. Overall, write the researchers, “This endorsement [of free speech] was not principled — high levels of prejudice did not predict endorsement of free speech values when identical speech was directed at coworkers of the police,” rather than black people. In other words, people high in anti-black prejudice use opportunistic “free speech!” defenses to defend anti-black speech, but withdraw those defenses in other situations. Now, these scenarios weren’t particularly pure distillations of genuine free-speech concerns — you can be a staunch defender of the First Amendment and still not have a problem with a company firing a racist employee likely to harm business — but the results are still interesting, and will likely resonate with anyone who spends too much time on Twitter and regularly comes across people with swastikas in their profiles who cynically refer to themselves as “free speech activists.”
But based on one fairly-well-retweeted Twitter thread by Zoé Samudzi, a writer and medical sociology Ph.D. student with a big following on Twitter, it does seem like some folks are using this finding to buttress the idea that free-speech defenses of problematic speech should be seen as inherently suspect. Summing up the research, Samudzi writes that “‘Free speech’ defenses of bigoted arguments are often indicative of tacit support for the argument & non-desire to publicly state it.”
Sometimes, yes. But it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between principled and non-principled free-speech defenders. This study didn’t examine the views of people who are principled free-speech defenders — that is, those who would defend the speakers of both anti-black and anti-police sentiments against repercussions they (the defenders) saw as brushing up against their free-speech rights. “We just cannot say who would be principled, because we never gave anybody a chance to defend free speech in both conditions,” said Crandall in an email when I raised this point. “That would certainly be interesting to do, but we haven’t done it yet. Because there’s still plenty of variability, I suspect that some would be principled and some would not. Just like the ACLU defending the Nazis in Skokie, there are people with a principled commitment to free speech. Our studies simply show that plenty, plenty of people lack the consistent commitment. [Wikipedia added by me]”
This might seem like too thin a point to harp on, but it’s actually important given people’s tendencies to over-extrapolate from limited study findings: “People who are more racist are more likely to make unprincipled arguments about free speech” is a very different claim than “People who make principled arguments about free speech are more likely to be racist.” This study supports the former but doesn’t say a word about the latter, and there really are some people who are committed to certain free-speech principles regardless of the content of the speech involved. All the more reason to have these conversations in as nuanced and principled a manner as possible.