Free speech is more than a 'right wing' cause
If you didn't know better, you might think -- as some people appear to believe -- that "free speech" has become some sort of a right-wing plot.
That's because we see so many prominent examples these days of "free speech" used as an excuse to promote right-wing provocateurs and suppress, if possible, provocateurs on the other side.
President Donald Trump provided a fresh example Tuesday morning with a tweet attacking ESPN host Jemele Hill one day after her suspension for criticizing Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on social media.
Hill said Jones statement that any Cowboys player who "disrespects the flag" during the National Anthem will not play had created a problem for his players, particularly the black ones. "If they don't kneel," she said, "some will see them as sellouts."
As almost everyone knows by now, some players have taken to kneeling instead of standing during the anthem following a trend launched by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who said he was protesting questionable shootings of unarmed African-Americans by police.
That's a worthy cause, although taking a knee is an unfortunately vague way to express it. A vague message is easily misinterpreted and hijacked by critics who call it a protest against the nation's flag and anthem. The problem is not so much in what the players are saying, but in what others are hearing.
Leading that pack if misinterpreters has been President Trump, who has taken breaks from bigger problems in the world to call for the protesting players and Jemele Hill, who described Trump in another social media blast as a "white supremacist," to be fired.
She came under fire for violating ESPN's social media policy with that remark but was not punished until her later tweets included a suggestion that her followers boycott advertisers of the Cowboys to protest Jones' policy.
I know the charges and countercharges flying back and forth can be confusing, but welcome to the Age of Trump, who seems more eager to roil troubled waters than calm them, if he thinks it will please his base.
Earlier Tuesday, Trump tweeted veiled threats to National Football League's "tax breaks" if owners and coaches don't start firing protesting players.
Since the First Amendment protects speech from infringement by government, not one's private employer, the president's pressure by tweet on the National Football League and ESPN raises questions about how much he appreciates constitutional protections of speech that he doesn't like.
Answer: Not so much.
His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, raised similar questions last month in a speech at Georgetown University Law School. He criticized the transformation of America's universities "into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos" and vowed to "protect students' free expression," regardless of political leanings.
Good for him, but his sentiments did little to calm concerns about his boss, who has threatened new libel laws and other impositions on the "dishonest media," as he calls those who report news he does not like to hear.
It was also ironic that Sessions' vow to protect free speech was delivered while protesters were kept outside. But I don't fault him for wanting to avoid the "heckler's veto," as civil liberties lawyers call the uncivil act of shouting down speakers.
Pushing back against hecklers and more serious disrupters of campus speakers is a big reason why the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents last Friday passed a policy pushed by Republican state lawmakers to punish students with suspension or expulsion for repeated disruption of campus speakers with opposing views.
What's disturbing to me is how partisan the issue of free speech has become. As much as Republicans and other conservatives are quick to decry discrimination against their views on campus, it is left to Democrats and other liberals to raise concerns about how students could be unfairly punished for expressions that are dissenting -- such as booing -- that is not necessarily violent or disorderly.
In the end, both political sides have an interest in providing orderly forums for opposing views. It would be helpful if President Trump acted to calm these troubled waters for the good of the country, not stir them up for political gain.
(E-mail Clarence Page at email@example.com.)(c) 2017 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.