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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

The biggest threat to free speech? It’s the left

University of California, Berkeley, police guarded a building where conservative pundit Milo Yiannopoulos was to speak in February. Ben Margot/Associated Press/File

With every passing week, those who predicted the tyranny of President Trump look sillier. Blocked by the courts, frustrated by Congress, assailed by the press, under mounting pressure from a special counsel, and reduced to reenacting “The Apprentice” within the White House, the president has passed from tyranny to trumpery to tomfoolery with the speed of a fat man stepping on a banana skin.

So does that mean we can all stop worrying about tyranny in America? No. For the worst thing about the Trump presidency is that its failure risks opening the door for the equal and opposite but much more ruthless populism of the left. Call me an unreconstructed Cold Warrior, but I find their tyranny a far more alarming — and more likely — prospect.


With few exceptions, American conservatives respect the Constitution. The modern American left, by contrast, thirsts to get rid of one of the most fundamental protections that the Constitution enshrines: free speech. If you want to see where that freedom is currently under attack in the United States, accompany me to some institutions where you might expect free expression to be revered.

Almost every month this year has seen at least one assault on free speech on an American college campus. In February the University of California, Berkeley, canceled a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, the British “alt-right” journalist and provocateur, after a violent demonstration. In March students at Middlebury College in Vermont shouted down the sociologist Charles Murray and assaulted his faculty host. In April, it was the turn of conservative writer Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna and pro-Trump journalist Ann Coulter at Berkeley.

Nor is it only right-wing speakers who have been targeted. Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College in Washington state, always thought of himself as “deeply progressive.” In May, however, it was his turn to fall victim to the unfree speech vigilantes. Weinstein refused to acquiesce when “white students, staff, and faculty” were “invited to leave campus” for a day. In response, a group of about 50 students confronted him outside his classroom, shrilly accusing him of “supporting white supremacy” and refusing to listen to his counter-arguments.


No one could accuse the great Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins of being right-wing. Yet last month it was his turn to be silenced. A public radio station in — you guessed it — Berkeley canceled a discussion of his latest book because (in the words of a spokesman) “he has said things that I know have hurt people,” a misleading allusion to the atheist Dawkins’s forthright criticism of Islam. The station’s general manager declared: “We believe that it is our free speech right not to participate with anyone who uses hateful or hurtful language against a community that is already under attack.”

These are weasel words similar to those published in The New York Times back in April by Ulrich Baer, a professor of comparative literature at New York University who also glories in the title of “vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity.” “The idea of freedom of speech,” wrote Baer, “does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community.”


“Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute,” Baer went on. “[I]t requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters.”

Sorry, mate. Freedom of expression is an unchanging absolute and, as a free speech absolutist, I am here (a) to defend to the death your right to publish such drivel and (b) to explain to as many people as possible why it is so dangerous.

Freedom is rarely killed off by people chanting “Down with Freedom!” It is killed off by people claiming that the greater good/the general will/the community/the proletariat requires “examination of the parameters” (or some such cant phrase) of individual liberty. If the criterion for censorship is that nobody’s feelings can be hurt, we are finished as a free society.

Where such arguments lead is just a long-haul flight away.

The regime of Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro, in Venezuela, used to be the toast of such darlings of the American Left as Naomi Klein, whose 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine” praised Venezuela as “a zone of relative economic calm” in a world dominated by marauding free market economists. Today (as was eminently foreseeable 10 years back), Venezuela is in a state of economic collapse, its opposition leaders are in jail, and its constitution is about to be rewritten yet again to keep the Chavista dictatorship in power. Another regime where those who speak freely land in jail is Saudi Arabia, a regime lauded by Women’s March leader and sharia law enthusiast Linda Sarsour.


Mark my words, while I can still publish them with impunity: The real tyrants, when they come, will be for diversity (except of opinion) and against hate speech (except their own).

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.