Libertarians, It’s Time to Decide: Compassion or Free Speech Purism?

What would you say to the protestors at Mizzou?
November 12, 2015
We Need More Philosophers and Fewer Politicians
November 13, 2015

As libertarians, our inclination is to defend free speech at all costs. But as people – and people who care deeply about oppression – it’s our obligation to look deeper into the tension between free speech advocacy and the black experience at Mizzou and Yale. There’s a larger context in which we must understand the events leading up to these tipping points. We can, in no way, excuse protesters for how they treated student journalist Tim Tai, but we can – and should – dig deeper into their experience with oppression on campus. We should interrogate how the Constitution’s definition of black people as property rather than citizens, changes the way that people of color view the First Amendment.

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Student protesters at the University of Missouri.

As libertarians, we often subscribe to the concept that if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. This is true when I talk to people about civil asset forfeiture, about sentencing enhancements for firearms, about police abuse of power. A prominent libertarian economist claimed, at a civil asset forfeiture panel this past summer, that there are two types of people – those who dislike civil asset forfeiture and those who don’t know about it yet.

This outrage is the very core of libertarianism, at least in the way I’ve experienced it. When the NSA’s unconstitutional data collecting became known, libertarians demanded transparency and lauded Snowden for his courage. When journalistic integrity is lacking and misinformation spreading like wildfire, the libertarian Reason is always one of the first news outlets to voice skepticism (see Robby Soave’s coverage of the Rolling Stone story and Nolan Brown’s coverage of nail salon pay practices). Our entire movement is predicated on the importance of digging deeper – but, based on my newsfeed, Mizzou is an exception.

As former SFLer, James Padilioni Jr., pointed out to me, the same Constitution that protects our free speech also safeguarded slavery. In his words, there’s “something about every facet of the document that cannot account for blacks as citizens.” For an American libertarian, that’s hard to digest, but I fear he may be right.

Picture the context these University of Missouri protesters have grown up in. NPR ran a story about school integration in Normandy, Missouri, not far from Ferguson. In the segment, white parents railed against the proposal to  bring low-income, black students from a nearby failing school into their childrens’ wealthier schools. I’m not a frequenter of PTA meetings by any means, but this one was clearly a hotbed of racism that would shock even the most skeptical observer – parents kept yelling that these black kids would bring knives to school, threatening the livelihoods of their own kids. The worst part? The story was recorded in 2013.

The institutional memory of black communities in America, in general, is astounding. Events like those at the University of Missouri are not happening in a vacuum, devoid of context. No, many of these students have grown up in school districts like Normandy, surrounded by the legacy of Ferguson, fearful of being treated like Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice (unfortunately, I could go on and on).

How can you trust the state to keep you safe when they’ve repeatedly betrayed people who look like you? How can you trust the school district when it’s comprised of parents who equate poorness and blackness with the threat of violence? How can you trust your university, when it’s halls have been decorated with  racist flyers (2012), racist graffiti (2011), a Swastika (2015), and various messages that make it clear your peers see you as inferior because of the color of your skin? Duke and Mississippi saw nooses hanging from trees; a Yale fraternity thought it perfectly acceptable to have a white-only party. The message is clear: if you are a black person on a college campus, you are not safe from the violence of racism, even in 2015.

When your fundamental rights are infringed upon – or you have a reasonable fear that they could be, at any moment, in a place that functions not only as your school, but your home – I think it’s fair to not champion free speech quite as much as you normally would. I think it’s fair to be angry.

I think it’s fair to be skeptical of Tim Tai and other members of the media (though I take great issue with the decision to resort to force). I also think, we, as libertarians, tend to latch onto the concept that any denial of First Amendment rights invalidates the rest of a group’s message and renders them our ideological enemies. Instead, we should back them up in decrying institutional racism as an evil, oppressive force. No student should be barred from getting an education because of bigotry and hatred. As libertarians, we have always fundamentally concerned ourselves with oppression and the situations faced by students at Mizzou are among the most poignant examples of oppression that I can see in the United States today.

We champion collective action through voluntary association, believing that power can be checked through activism that holds institutions accountable for their flaws. The Mizzou students have done just that, and with extraordinary efficacy.

I don’t know if their President should have stepped down and I don’t think creating a sign that declares public grounds a “safe space” is particularly reasonable (or legal, for that matter). But I do think that there is a human element to these issues that we sometimes forget about in our hurry to be frustrated by PC culture and the speech wars in academia. Trigger warnings are counterproductive and erode discourse, safe spaces are impractical and largely ridiculous, and microaggressions seem like another word for someone simply acting like a dick. But the protestors at Mizzou are people, not just puppets of PC culture – and their fight against racism shouldn’t be neglected during our crusade for free speech purity.


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