Free speech or misgendering?

What happens when rights conflict?

KODAK Digital Still Camera
© Dave DuBay. Flagstaff, AZ

A Virginia teacher has been fired because he chose to refer to a transgender student by the student’s preferred name while avoiding any gender pronouns. The school said Peter Vlaming must use pronouns.

While most media outlets reported the story as the teacher’s refusal to use pronouns, The Hill called it “misgendering.” But there’s no evidence that Vlaming has used feminine pronouns or the student’s “deadname” after the student came out as a transgender boy.

While Vlaming cites religious freedom, free speech is also at issue. Public schools are government run institutions and are bound by the first amendment.

It’s clear that government employees, or those employed by government funded agencies, can be prohibited from saying certain things. Harassment and verbal abuse are two examples. But whether someone can be forced to say something against their will—compelled speech—or be fired is an issue the courts must decide.

I’ve been critical of psychologist Jordan Peterson, who rose to fame alleging that Canada’s transgender rights law would result in compelled speech. And while I stand by my disdain for his absurd comparison of transgender activism to communism’s 100 million deaths in the twentieth century, social justice activists are proving Peterson’s concerns about compelled speech correct.

An essential point classical liberals make about advocacy for your equal rights is the reciprocal responsibility to respect other people’s equal rights. Vlaming’s choice to use the transgender student’s preferred name while avoiding both female and male pronouns is a reasonable compromise. But coercing people to using pronouns they don’t agree with—or lose their jobs—is an unreasonable violation of their human rights.

In other words, the equal rights of both parties are respected when we draw the line by saying that employees cannot use pronouns against a person’s request, but that person cannot force you to use pronouns that you don’t want to use.

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Liberals Against Free Speech (But Not Me)

Left leaning students started the free speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s and faced opposition from conservative administrators who didn’t like what the students had to say. As a child in the 1980s I remember conservative campaigns to ban books that conservatives felt promoted liberal ideals.

But somewhere along the line liberals lost their way. Many liberals still support free speech, but today the anti-free speech crowd has as many liberals as conservatives. And this is a problem because liberals control the nation’s universities and have a big voice in mainstream media. That’s the verdict Kirsten Powers delivers in The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech.

The liberal response often focuses on Powers rather than her arguments: She’s not a real liberal. As an (oppositional) commentator on Fox News she’s been brainwashed by her conservative colleagues. She’s a bubble headed blonde. (Which is totally not sexist when a liberal says it.) Also, she’s a Christian, which makes her conservative on one issue: abortion. Ergo, she hates gays and lesbians.

Well, not really. She’s pro-gay marriage. But liberal commentators use the same strategy as Fox News: people won’t question what they want to believe, even when the logic is so strained it could be a comedy skit. After all, some of the same people who scoff at Fox News often watch MSNBC and fail to see the irony.

Like many book titles, The Silencing is melodramatic. Today, you can’t assume that a pro-free speech individual is liberal, or that a pro-censorship person is conservative. And for all the liberal attempts to silence others (mainly on social media and college campuses), they’re (thankfully) having little success.

Perhaps The Bullying would have been a more accurate title. Professor Laura Kipnis was brought up on Title IX charges for writing against trigger warnings and “sexual paranoia” on college campuses. Though her accusers framed exposure to dissenting opinions as harassment, in reality they were harassing Kipnis by hauling her before a board without representation and without a prior verbal or written description of the exact charges against her.

Eventually Kipnis was exonerated. But this was an inquisition, pure and simple. No different from what right winger Joseph McCarthy did in the 1950s. Novelist Judy Blume also compared today’s liberal censorship to yesterday’s right wing censorship.

The experience of professors such as Dr. Janice Fiamengo, her lecture interrupted by students determined to silence her, is increasingly common. A Sun News (Canada) interview with Fiamengo illustrates the authoritarian approach that is increasingly common on college campuses. Fiamengo was going to deliver a lecture questioning the claim that the Western world is a rape culture (that North American and European culture tacitly promote and condone rape). To campus liberals, however, the existence of rape culture is to be believed and not questioned.

Which reminds me of 8th and 9th grade, when I attended a school run by the evangelical and Pentecostal Assembly of God church. Much of what they taught was to be believed and not questioned. But thankfully, there are groups such as FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), which act as a watchdog group and advocates for free speech at universities.

I no longer call myself a liberal, not because my views on civil liberties have changed (though economically I can’t say I agree with either Democrats or Republicans, who are both corporatist but in different ways). But I remain anti-authoritarian, pro-civil liberties (including free speech, that guarantee that you will be offended at some point), and skeptical of ideological excess.