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Editor’s Note: When a columnist for IndyWeek suggested the Durham Performing Arts Center should cancel Jordan Peterson’s upcoming lecture, I reached out to the alt-weekly and offered to provide a counterpoint in defense of Peterson’s free-speech rights. The nonpartisan National Coalition Against Censorship has also criticized the effort to deny Peterson a platform.
Today’s column appears in IndyWeek and is written with its primarily progressive audience in mind. As a nonpartisan First Amendment advocate, I’ll continue calling out folks of all political stripes when they seek to silence those with whom they disagree.
Progressives have a free-speech problem. Exhibit A: The Durham City Council’s recent histrionics over bestselling author and Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s upcoming DPAC appearance.
Mayor Pro-tem Jillian Johnson penned a scathing June 6 statement opposing Peterson, and each of her council colleagues and Mayor Steve Schewel signed on in agreement. After paying perfunctory lip service to free speech, Johnson and her co-signers endorse censorship.
“We would like to be clear that we respect Mr. Peterson’s right to hold his opinions and to freely state his opinions without government interference,” Johnson writes. “However, we wish to emphasize that a person’s right to free speech does not include the right to a platform or an audience.”
Apart from publicly condemning Peterson, the missive’s practical effect is to exert political pressure on theater managers to revoke the Sept. 12 rental. That ought to raise eyebrows in the Triangle arts community. If the effort goes unchallenged — or worse, is successful — fellow elected officials may feel emboldened to play amateur art critic, a role for which they’re ill-suited.
DPAC is publicly owned and privately run. Theater space is rented from Durham Performing Arts, LLC, a North Carolina corporation whose registered agent is Rhode Island-based Professional Facilities Management. This arrangement insulates DPAC managers from city politics and frees Durham officials from responsibility for controversial bookings. Breaching that firewall is a bad idea.
Peterson, the author of “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” describes himself as a classical liberal. He’s popular with conservatives and libertarians, and his most vociferous critics are on the left. Notably, he condemns government-compelled speech and socially enforced political correctness, and those he offends are eager to try to shut him up.
Johnson’s assertion that the right to free speech “does not include the right to a platform” is problematic when a government entity owns the stage. This may be news to the Durham City Council, but de-platforming and disinvitation are indeed forms of censorship.
These efforts to silence speakers take place most often at colleges and universities, which are supposed to be bastions for free inquiry. The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a leading voice in opposing campus censorship, and Robert Shibley, FIRE’s executive director, happens to live in the Triangle.
“While this is not strictly a FIRE issue since it does not involve campus, the general rule is that a publicly owned venue cannot engage in viewpoint-based discrimination when determining who can rent it,” Shibley wrote in an email. “It appears that the Durham City Council stopped short of ordering Jordan Peterson’s speech to be canceled, but if it had, that would most certainly be a First Amendment issue.”
Could the city of Durham successfully be sued if DPAC yielded to political pressure and told Peterson to get lost? Perhaps a better question is whether it’s worth gambling with taxpayer money to find out.
Some progressives feel free speech is out of bounds when it’s hurtful to members of marginalized groups. That view is both illiberal and shortsighted.
“What it says to these groups is, ‘We believe that you are too weak to live with freedom,’” explains Alan Charles Kors, a University of Philadelphia professor and FIRE co-founder. “‘You’re too weak to live with freedom of speech. You’re too weak to live with bearing witness in your speech and in your protests against things that you find offensive.’”
Infantilizing people sure is a funny way to empower them.
Jillian Johnson and her council colleagues positioned themselves as defenders of the downtrodden. For self-styled critics of the patriarchy, it’s awfully paternalistic to presume any of Peterson’s opponents needed their help in the first place.
The remedy for speech you don’t like is more speech, not suppression. The show must go on.
Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times. Reach him at 252-265-7813 and firstname.lastname@example.org.