TAR HEEL VIEW: Kanye West, a nutty professor and free speech

Who’s more intolerant of free speech — liberals or conservatives?

Both sides made a compelling case this week with angry partisan throngs trying to force the firing of a California professor for disparaging comments about the late Barbara Bush and savaging hip-hop artist Kanye West for daring to support President Donald Trump.

For those of us who see free speech as an end unto itself, not a tool to advance political ideology, it’s truly a race to the bottom.

Fresno State University faces a backlash from the right after announcing Tuesday that it would not fire or discipline Randa Jarrar, an English professor who wrote on Twitter that Bush “was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal.”

The caustic remarks following Bush’s death on April 17 infuriated millions of Americans. Barbara Bush is in rare company — she and Abigail Adams are the only women who have been both wives and mothers of presidents — and she is widely admired as a stateswoman who showed grit and decorum.

Many disputed and debated Jarrar’s tweets, fighting bad speech with good speech. Then the worm turned and critics insisted that Fresno State, a public university and an arm of state government, dismiss the professor for expressing her political views. No matter how wrongheaded those views may be, the First Amendment protects them.

When Fresno State confirmed it was investigating Jarrar’s conduct, a coalition of groups including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent university President Joseph Castro a letter explaining that it can’t punish a faculty member for political activism.

Castro said Tuesday that Jarrar would not be disciplined, writing that “her comments, although disgraceful, are protected free speech.” Critics responded by pressuring alumni to cease donations and vowing not to send their children to Fresno State.

Kanye West sparked a firestorm with a series of Wednesday tweets expressing an affinity for Trump and sharing a picture of his signed “Make America Great Again” cap. The Trump tweets came on the heels of West’s April 21 tweet, “I love the way Candace Owens thinks,” referring to the African-American conservative pundit and Turning Point USA spokeswoman.

“You don’t have to agree with Trump but the mob can’t make me not love him,” West tweeted. “We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.”

The president responded, quoting West’s tweet and adding the message “Thank you Kanye, very cool!”

Trump’s critics branded West a race-traitor, a charge often leveled against African-American conservatives. Fellow artist Chance the Rapper defended West, tweeting “Black people don’t have to be Democrats.”

Frank discussions about the relationship between race, identity and politics are healthy. But disagreeing with West isn’t enough for some outraged former fans who vow to boycott his music and apparel and warn that expressing his views on the subject is tantamount to career suicide.

While boycotts are themselves an exercise of free speech, critics of Randa Jarrar and Kanye West are stoking a decidedly censorious impulse — punishing people for expressing controversial opinions. Those who withhold donations to a public university for employing a nutty professor are misguided, as the First Amendment ties Fresno State’s hands. Firing her would be unlawful. Activists, then, are urging FSU to violate the Constitution.

Likewise, West’s fans are certainly free to pass on his products, but the message they’re sending — African-American musicians cannot espouse conservative views and retain their claim to authenticity in the black community — is a profoundly dangerous one.

“If you feel something,” West tweeted, “don’t let peer pressure manipulate you.”

As for which side of the aisle is more hostile to free expression, it’s looking more and more like a draw. We think Ari Cohn, an attorney and director of the individual rights defense program at FIRE, says it best in this Tuesday tweet:

“When conservatives complain that FIRE is defending speech from the left too, it very much destroys the narrative that ‘conservatives are the only ones who care about #freespeech’ and reinforces my narrative of ‘most people have hypocritical free speech tendencies.’”

If we genuinely care about freedom, we must defend speech we favor and dislike with equal vigor. Let’s reject tribalism and strive for consistency.

The Wilson Times

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