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Silencing free speech

by Bill McGaughey

A traditional model of a free society features institutions of free speech. One such institution would be the school, especially institutions of higher learning. Here diverse points of view collide in reasoned argument. The listener sorts out the competing arguments and facts to decide what is the truth. This model of decisionmaking derives from the Greek philosopher Plato, and from his mentor Socrates, who employed a technique called dialectics to arrive at purer and clearer ideas.

Still another institution of free speech would be the media, especially commercial newspapers. Newspaper stories are supposed to report significant events in the community. The editors and reporters enjoy broad discretion to decide which events are significant. “Objective reporting”, an idea upheld in traditional journalism, assumes that there will be balanced coverage where the community has broad differences of opinion on particular topics, including political views. In a free society equipped with a free press, it is assumed that all points of view will be fairly expressed. As in Plato’s academic model, the public can sort out the competing claims and points of view to decide individually what comes closest to the truth.

There has been an appreciable decline in the value of free speech at least since the 1960s. The Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement inspired the mass of college students and molded their values. Partisan participation in a movement such as that of ending segregationist society in the south became a badge of personal pride. The ideals of the Civil Rights movement and of similar movements that followed in the same vein (women’s liberation, gay pride, etc.) comprised the core of personal identity.

To support the dignity and rights of black people and fight the Ku Klux Klan members, southern hillbillies, or “white trash” who oppressed them seemed the essence of moral and cultural refinement. Was it not a reason for going to college that one would become a superior person and acquire such views? To be a white “racist” was about the lowest thing one could imagine in a socially enlightened age such as ours.

Proponents of those ideals enjoyed a common generational experience. After graduation from college, they quickly assumed positions in education, journalism, and other opinion-setting occupations. The educational upheavals of the ‘60s had advanced the notion that ideals such as “objectivity” and “reason” and the heritage of western culture were less important than what is relevant to contemporary society. Moreover, such ideals reflected the values of white or male society while excluding the newer, more creative voices of women and people of color.

And so political blocs came to dominate academic departments and the news room. Increasingly, these were demographic groups: blacks, Jews, feminist women, Hispanics, gays and lesbians. Persons of ideologically hardened views on subjects of interest to their bloc were now in a position to control the public discussion.
The “culture wars” of recent decades have followed the capture of the society’s major opinion-setting institutions by politically “liberal” or “progressive” individuals who were inspired by the Civil Rights movement or its aftermath. It may be that persons in charge of hiring or promoting hired or promoted younger colleagues who shared the same political views. That, in turn, has led to a conservative reaction. Hence, the term “war”, although cultural liberals remain much in ascendance.

John Leo, a conservative columnist who used to be published in U.S. News & World Report, has reported that the newsrooms of mainstream newspapers as well as of television and cable-television networks are filled with cadres of individuals advocating for their particular demographic group. The D.C. snipers, John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo went undetected and unsuspected for a long time, Leo said, because they did not fit the profile of the “angry white male”. It’s axiomatic that mass murderers are persons of this type who “belong to a long-advantaged class that is now having to share power and control.” Another columnist, John O’Sullivan, wrote that “most reporters and editors wanted the sniper to be a white male” because today’s newsroom people assume that “the great American majority that never went to Ivy League schools is made up of racists, sexists, and homophobes.”

Now, of course, there is a niche for conservative thinkers on social and cultural issues like John Leo, but they tend to be isolated in contrarian columns and not last that long. Seldom is this viewpoint reflected in news reporting itself. Driven by politically selective staffing in academic or journalistic institutions, we no longer have anything resembling a real “debate”. There is no longer a free and open “clash of ideas” that allows the listener to decide for himself which position to embrace.

In the academic field, the testing mania has led to a tightening of the teaching process and the so-called “teaching to the test”. The test, in turn, is controlled handfuls of professional educators and others who may have strong political views - e.g., that the role of women in society and culture ought to be emphasized.
The Advanced Placement test in world history, for instance, was written by employees of the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey, based upon guidelines issued by a committee of eight college and high-school teachers of world history who were appointed by the College Board. These guidelines, in turn, follow views prevalent in the World History Association.

Putting it all together, we find that an academic association with its own partisan point of view puts key members on a committee of eight teachers who are authorized to issue guidelines for a curriculum upon which tests for advanced placement in world history will be based. Teachers and students who want to do well on those tests will therefore study what is emphasized in that curriculum. In the process, they will accept the view of world history that appears in the curriculum or tests. There is no “free discussion” of what world history might or should include but a test-driven mandate from an academic clique. Students are effectively coerced into accepting certain views.

Another thing that has happened in recent years is that the general public has become increasingly attuned to the electronic communications media. Here the messages are put out by an unseen group of individuals within a corporate media bureaucracy with little consideration given to diverse points of view. What is important here is the space or air time given to certain messages. Advertisers pay for the space or time they use to present commercial messages. Given the politicization of journalism and the entertainment industry, political messages also appear though in the guise of news and entertainment.

Here, again, space is the important consideration. The name of the game politically is to maximize the space given to one’s own views while minimizing the space given to opposing views. Those who control the mass media play this particular game without scrutiny from the public. Works of “entertainment” are important in creating moral stereotypes to which the public will react. Whoever controls communication with the public essentially controls politics. There is no “debate” of important ideas, only media control of the message and the space each message will receive.

The point of this article is to suggest that other the past forty or fifty years there has been a shift in public handling of political and other ideas from what used to be a comparatively free and balanced discussion to the rigid ideological line known as political correctness which is defended with religious zeal. That is a point of view born in the era of the Civil Rights movement but not limited to it. The driving elements behind this shift are the political cadres that populate both academia and the newsroom and the focus upon controlling not only the message but the space given to its public expression.

These two developments together have produced a startling result: Whenever a politically incorrect view is expressed in public, the typical response from the liberal media is not to present a contrary position which would balance the discussion - i.e. Plato’s concept of truth emerging from colliding points of view - but simply not to report that particular view. In other words, public expression which contradicts the politically dominant view is met with silence. The editors and reporters pretend that the comments never happened. It’s a clear-cut strategy of maximizing the space given to expressing one’s own opinion and minimizing the space given to opposing views. “Liberal” or “progressive” editors, harboring contempt for the retrograde views of political opponents, will not “dignify” those views by giving them any space in which to be expressed.

As the era of political correctness has progressed, the politically correct editors have increasingly sought to demonize their opponents. They make the person who has expressed unorthodox views the issue, paying little or no attention to the views themselves. One must stamp out the political heresy, so to speak, by burning heretics at the stake.

All this leads to an increasing concern with “hate crimes”, which are ordinary crimes combined with speech or expression that disparages a “politically disadvantaged” group. The liberal media will, of course, report this. They will put examples of hate crimes on the front page of their newspapers while minimizing the space and position given to straightforward crimes of violence such as murder or assault. They will also print stories which make their opponents personally look foolish while ignoring opponents who present a dignified, reasoned argument for politically unpopular views.

I view such trends with alarm. First, the actions of politically correct individuals in positions of influence and power have undermined the principles of a free society by denying certain individuals an opportunity to engage in public discussion. Free speech as a social value is in jeopardy. Second, political discussion becomes increasingly less reasoned or conducted in an environment of mutual respect and increasingly more prone to demonization. The community becomes increasingly fractured. Political liberals talk only to liberals, and conservatives only to conservatives. We first think ill of others and then of ourselves.

Above all, people are afraid to speak out in public. They are afraid to tell jokes that might offend someone or some group. People can be fired for saying the wrong things. As in East Germany before the wall fell, the public mood becomes cynical and disillusioned when people dare not express their true thoughts or say what is on their mind. In my view, it’s no use to invade Iraq to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people when the American people are losing their political freedoms to a politically correct regime. True patriotism in my view means fighting to restore our freedoms, especially freedom of speech, in an often lonely battle.

Toward that end, I have been a candidate in several political campaigns and have spoken out in politically incorrect ways. My nemesis has been the Star Tribune, Minnesota’s largest newspaper, headquartered in Minneapolis where I live. Let me recount certain experiences.

In the summer of 2002, I decided to mount a primary challenge to the Independence Party’s endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate. To differentiate my position from that of Democrats and Republicans, I campaigned on two issues which were stated on opposite sides of a picket sign: Addressing the Republican corporate constituency, one side of the sign said: “I believe that the Federal Government should reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours by 2010.” Addressing the politically correct Democrats, the other side of the sign said: “I believe in the full citizenship, dignity and equality of white males (and of everyone else, too).”

The shorter workweek advocacy, though quirky to some, did not arouse particular concern. On the other hand, I soon discovered that being in favor of “dignity for white males” marked me as an overt or closet racist, with all the baggage that this carries. The Star Tribune ran a front page story on the primary races for U.S. Senate in the Green and Independence Parties. Only the party-endorsed candidates were mentioned in this story. I visited the newspaper’s political editor, met with him in the lobby, and asked if another article might be written mentioning some of the other candidates. None appeared.

I later attempted to place a paid ad in the Star Tribune which included a statement of my two campaign planks. I was told that the newspaper’s “legal department” would not allow the ad to run so long as it contained the words “dignity for white males”. The final indignity was that the Star Tribune refused to publish a story on the election results the day after the primary. I had received 31% of the votes, and another candidate 19.5% of the votes, compared with 49.5% of the votes for the winning candidate. There was only a brief statement that the winning candidate had won by a comfortable margin.

To refuse to report the results of a primary election for U.S. Senate where more than 25,000 votes were cast seemed to me to be carrying political censorship to an extreme. So did the act of refusing to accept a paid ad from a candidate because the newspaper did not like the candidate’s message. (Did the paper’s “legal department” really think it was against the law for someone to say he was in favor of dignity for white males as well as for everyone else? Was advocating human dignity such a controversial proposition in liberal Minnesota?) Should commercial newspapers be such zealous gatekeepers for what the public would be allowed about candidates in an election? Apparently so. I became ever more convinced that the democratic process was in peril. Media silence was the weapon of choice in silencing critics.

A year later, in December 2003, I read in the Star Tribune that the Roman Catholic archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Harry Flynn, had issued a “Pastoral Letter on Race” criticizing white Minnesotans for harboring racist attitudes beneath their veneer of “Minnesota nice”. The newspaper story said that Archbishop Flynn, who had previously served in Louisiana, thought the people of our northern state might be as racist as the people down south, though they hid their true feelings. Moreover, the Archbishop would appear as a public forum not far from where I lived to discuss race with a panel of black ministers. I made a point of being there.

In the question and answer session, I stated at the microphone that, as a white man, I did not agree with Archbishop Flynn or the black ministers. If whites were being accused of hiding their true feelings, one-sided discussions of race such as this would merely drive white sentiment further underground. I thought there was racism in all groups of people. One of the black ministers called me “insane” for saying such a thing. A reporter from the Star Tribune later took my name, but the article he wrote on this event neglected to mention that anyone had expressed views contrary to the majority opinion. On the other hand, Archbishop Flynn himself did respond in a kindly way to a letter I wrote. I had a personal meeting with one of his assistants. Bottom line was that, while the Archbishop believed in dialogue, the Star Tribune remained silent.

As a third example of my involvement in racial issues, I campaigned for a woman, Tammy Lee, who was the Independence Party’s candidate for Congress. Her DFL-endorsed opponent was an African American man (and a Muslim) named Keith Ellison. Late in the campaign, it was discovered that one of Ellison’s campaign supporters, Chris Stewart, a black man who was running for the Minneapolis school board, was associated with (but did not himself create) a website which mimicked Lee’s official website. The fake website, which contained visual elements similar to Lee’s, made her out to be an extreme racist. It also mentioned her vagina and proposed that her campaign lawn signs could be obtained by contacting David Duke. The discovery of this website created a scandal (which the Star Tribune decided not to report until after the election).

Being then active in the Minneapolis e-democracy discussion group, I was prominent among those who criticized Stewart, calling on him to resign from his newly elected position on the School Board. Interestingly enough, Stewart sent me a private email which was conciliatory in tone. I observed that forum participants’ views in this controversy seemed to follow their general attitudes on race. (For instance, some said that the fake website was OK because it was merely a parody of white-racist literature. It seemed to me more to be ridiculing Tammy Lee for her race.) I proposed that Stewart participate in a meeting that I would organize which would be a discussion of race, open to all points of view, without an effort to steer the discussion in a particular direction. Stewart accepted the invitation.

We did hold such a meeting on Saturday, December 2, 2006, in the community room of the Washburn public library. About thirty persons attended. I made a point of offering a hard-edged critique of the prevailing view on race. My main point was that racism was alive and well among all groups of people. I disputed the view that whites alone were racist because whites alone exercised power and racism was defined as prejudice plus power. Stewart called my views an example of white victimhood. In other words, it was a vigorous exchange of views. I respected Stewart for his participation and later withdrew my objection to his taking a place on the Minneapolis school board.

I noticed, however, that only a few persons in the room were participating in the discussion. Several people, mainly whites, were standing in the back of the room observing the scene. My call for people to identify themselves smoked out the fact that there were three newspaper reporters in the room - two from black newspapers and one from the Star Tribune. I therefore expected that three articles might appear.

In the end, only one newspaper, the Spokesman-Recorder, chose to do a story; and that story focused almost entirely on Chris Stewart and the controversy surrounding his election to the school board. Again, I concluded that an open and honest discussion of race was too hot for Minneapolis newspapers to handle unless, of course, there were white racists behaving in a ridiculous manner. Silence was the preferred mode of treatment.

My opinion is that black people are more open to racial discussions than white people, especially white liberals. When Bill Clinton called for an open discussion on this subject, it was a black newspaper, not the Star Tribune, which reported that a white man in Ohio was hauled off by security guards at such a discussion after complaining that the white point of view was being ignored.

I attended a meeting in New York City in January 2003 in which I told many people, including Dr. Lenora Fulani and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, that I had campaigned for U.S. Senate on a platform that included “dignity for white males”. I was positively thrilled when Rep. McKinney, an African American from Georgia, responded, “I’m for that, too”, and when a black veteran of Mississippi’s 1964 Freedom Democratic Party expressed an interest in my possible candidacy for President and said he might be willing to help. But the initial enthusiasms petered out. When I did run for President in the Louisiana primary in March 2004, I omitted any reference to a racial agenda.

In conclusion, I believe that free and open speech remain a potent cure for America’s spiritual ailments as a drumbeat of negativity besets its majority white population. The public should demand transparency in the media and in education. In wanting to control and suppress free speech, white liberals (or “progressives”) have created a real problem for themselves and for society since human thought is, in fact, free. Let erroneous fact or opinion be addressed by something substantial, not silence. This is, after all, no longer the 1950s or 1960s. It’s the 21st century. Get on with it. Make Socrates proud.


See examples of reporting hate speech and violent crime in the Star Tribune.

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