FIRE, Alexandra Wallace, and Defending Offensive Speech

FIRE, Alexandra Wallace, and Defending Offensive Speech

FIRE, Alexandra Wallace, and Defending Offensive Speech

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education inappropriately editorializes a racist video posted by a UCLA student.


This post was originally published by the invaluable

Roger Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), who I criticized yesterday for his remarks on the Alexandra Wallace video, has written a new piece at the FIRE website responding to my criticism and explaining that organization’s approach to the various speech acts it defends on First Amendment grounds:

“An integral part of being able to do the work we do is not letting our feelings about the viewpoint of the expression itself affect how we analyze the expression or how vigorously we defend the rights of the speaker…. Instead, we consistently present on our website all the evidence that we have about the expression in question in order to help people make up their minds for themselves, and we expect people to draw their own conclusions.”

That’s certainly a reasonable position, and indeed I have commended FIRE for taking exactly this tack in its letter to UCLA. But I criticized Shibley’s original blogpost precisely because it failed to follow this approach.

FIRE’s policy, Shibley says now, is to summarize each speech act fully and dispassionately without editorializing, and to let their readers draw their own conclusions about its merits. But Shibley did editorialize about Wallace’s video. He called it “pretty tame,” and “not particularly severe.” In it, he said, Wallace “couches her language in a number of ways and even apologizes at the beginning for not being ‘politically correct.’”

This is editorializing. Worse, it’s misrepresentation of the video itself, as Wallace at no point in it apologizes for her lack of “political correctness.” Instead, she deploys that term as a pre-emptive defense against the criticism she expects to receive: “we know that I’m not the most politically correct person so don’t take this offensively.” Instructing people not to be offended by your views is not an apology for those views.

And Shibley’s misrepresentation of the video doesn’t end there. As I pointed out in my original blogpost, Wallace’s “ching chong ling long ting tong” mockery of Asians’ speech and her snide reference to the Japanese tsunami went unnoted in Shibley’s summary, despite their centrality to campus criticism of Wallace and prominence in media coverage of the controversy.

I’ve done this dance with FIRE before. Twice in the past I’ve pointed out situations in which they’ve misrepresented or mischaracterized racist or sexist speech in ways that minimized the ugliness of those speech acts. This isn’t a one-time slipup. It’s a pattern.

Again, I respect FIRE’s principles as articulated. I can accept their belief that the work they do requires them to do no more than “present … all the evidence that we have about the expression in question in order to help people make up their minds for themselves.” But that’s not how Shibley approached the Wallace case, and it’s not how FIRE addressed the two previous cases I’ve highlighted. In each of these three cases, representatives of FIRE offered partial and incomplete descriptions of presumptively racist and/or sexist speech, with their omissions serving to create the impression that the speech was less obnoxious than it actually was. And in each of these three cases those same representatives offered editorial defenses of that speech on content-based rather than civil libertarian grounds.

FIRE is an organization encompassing members and leaders of wildly divergent political perspectives. It speaks out on behalf of controversial speech of all kinds. The work that it does on behalf of the rights of people with unpopular views is often valuable. But despite all this, its reputation in many quarters is one of political and cultural conservatism. There are many reasons that it has this reputation, but the phenomenon I’ve described here is, to my mind, one of the most significant.

If the folks at FIRE want to be accepted as a force for free expression across the political spectrum—if they want to be seen as, in Robert Shipley’s words, “an honest and trustworthy broker to whom people of all different values and beliefs can come for help”—they’re really going to have to do a better job with this kind of stuff.


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