When free speech gets ugly

Expert asks: Is censorship the answer?

Stephen Sherlock, a political-science professor at Chico State with expertise in the Bill of Rights, led a public discussion of political correctness and free speech on Jan. 29.

Stephen Sherlock, a political-science professor at Chico State with expertise in the Bill of Rights, led a public discussion of political correctness and free speech on Jan. 29.


“Along with the freedoms we have come the ugliness and burdens of such freedoms.”

This statement, made several times, was the overarching theme of Stephen Sherlock’s keynote speech at the annual joint meeting of the Chico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and its partner at Chico State, the Wildcat ACLU.

The meeting, held downstairs in the university’s Bell Memorial Union on Jan. 29, turned out to be mostly a refresher course on free speech—its legal limits and inclusiveness—with a side excursion into freedom of speech in academic settings such as Chico State.

It was delivered against a backdrop of heightened discussion of such matters as whether political correctness has run amok in an effort to protect students—ethnic minorities and women in particular—from what is called “microaggression,” or casual, unintentional racism or sexism. It was this issue that occasioned the liveliest discussion of the evening.

Sherlock is a political-science professor at the university with expertise in the Bill of Rights. He spent the bulk of his lecture talking about the legal limits to freedom of speech, such as obscenity, defamation and dangerous words (likely to lead to lawlessness). He noted that the Constitution protects only against government censorship, and that freedom of speech can be limited in terms of time, place and manner.

An example: Noting that Chico State once had a designated “Free Speech Area,” Sherlock said it was the university’s right to prohibit a rally there if the lawn was being mowed at the time.

Another example: If you burn a cross on your neighbor’s lawn, it’s a violation. If you burn a cross somewhere in the mountains, where nobody else can see it, it may be ugly, but it’s perfectly legal.

“There is a constant tension between cultural values and free speech,” Sherlock said. “It’s a given.”

The rules regarding free speech apply on campus. “Public universities are supposed to be about the open, robust exchange of ideas,” Sherlock insisted. “That sometimes involves stepping out of your comfort zone.”

He pointed out that Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, and a former secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama, last year asked all deans and department chairs to attend classes to overcome their biases toward minorities and women and learn how to avoid microaggressions. Attendance was voluntary, but Napolitano was to be given a list of attendees. This potential threat to people’s jobs, Sherlock said, could have a “chilling effect” on speech.

A fellow political-science professor in the audience, Michael Coyle, defended students’ sensitivity to microaggressions. They’re the product of real grievances, a “rising up” of students responding to white privilege and blindness, he charged.

Microagression is usually the product of ignorance and insensitivity. Some examples, from a piece on BuzzFeed: “So what do you guys speak in Japan? Asian?” Asked of a black woman: “Why do you sound white?” Asked of a Latina: “You don’t speak Spanish?”

“Where do you draw the line?” Sherlock asked in response. “Is censoring speech the way to do it? Speech isn’t the problem; bigotry is the problem. Censorship just breeds resentment.”

Don’t take your freedoms for granted, he urged. He pointed out that whoever is elected president this year will almost certainly be able to appoint two or more justices to the Supreme Court, which potentially could tilt the court even further to the right than it went in the Citizens United case.

“I grew up with this idea that once we had these rights, they’d be there forever,” he said, “but that’s not necessarily true.”