Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
the national interest

Georgetown Abandons Its Free-Speech Policy Over Ilya Shapiro

Dumb tweets for me, but not for thee.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Everybody supports freedom of speech for ideas they agree with. The concept only has meaning if it’s applied to ideas you don’t agree with.

I don’t agree with the idea conservative lawyer Ilya Shapiro expressed in January, when he objected to President Biden’s promise to appoint a Black woman to the first Supreme Court opening. (I wrote a column attacking his position.) But rather than simply refute his easily refutable arguments, Shapiro’s critics demanded he be fired by Georgetown, which had just hired him to teach at its law center. Georgetown agreed on principle with the demand that he could be fired for his opinions but kept him on staff on a technicality.

Shapiro is quitting his position on the grounds that Georgetown refuses to grant his opinions the same protection afforded to people with progressive points of view, and I have to admit he appears to be correct about that.

Shapiro’s initial offense was to complain that Biden’s promise to appoint a Black woman compromised the credentials of his nominee. This was a common right-wing belief, which suffers from two main flaws. First, it hypocritically ignores the fact that Republican presidents have made similar promises and conservatives have praised them for doing so. Second, it imagines merit as a clear, linear ranking. Shapiro tweeted, “Objectively best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan,” as if the distinctive brilliance of the various left-of-center judicial minds could be ordered in a straight ranking, not to mention one that was so obvious it was “objective.”

Shapiro followed this up by declaring that Biden’s (then-unnamed) Black female jurist would be a “lesser” choice. This followed clearly from his premise that Srinivasan was the “objectively” best option. It also reflects a standard-issue conservative critique of affirmative action, which places a great deal of weight — an unrealistic level, in my view — on the ability to measure qualifications of job-seekers or students in a precise and linear fashion.

Shapiro quickly deleted his tweets, conceding he had worded his point inartfully without renouncing his underlying disagreement with Biden’s policy. Some Georgetown students swiftly demanded his firing anyway on the grounds that his tweets had caused harm.

Georgetown then suspended Shapiro pending the results of an “investigation,” which took more than three months, even though the only source material to investigate was three short tweets that Shapiro wrote and deleted.

The actual cause of the delay was an irresolvable contradiction between the University’s free-speech policy and demands of student protesters. Georgetown’s official policy pledges to safeguard the “free and open inquiry, deliberation and debate in all matters, and the untrammeled verbal and nonverbal expression of ideas.” Protesters depicted Shapiro’s tweets as causing damage so severe they could not tolerate his continued employment.

Georgetown’s solution was to evade the contradiction. It concluded its investigation by determining Shapiro could not be punished because he had not yet begun his job at Georgetown. (Presumably Georgetown could have discovered this fact in a considerably shorter time period than three months.)

However, Shapiro reports, the school’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action sent a report calling for “appropriate corrective measures” for his “objectively offensive comments” — Shapiro is not the only person involved who thinks the word objective means the opposite of what it actually does — “and to prevent the recurrence of offensive conduct based on race, gender, and sex.”

“The University’s anti-harassment policy does not require that a respondent intend to denigrate,” the report says, according to Shapiro. “Instead, the Policy requires consideration of the ‘purpose or effect’ of a respondent’s conduct.” The emphasis on effect allows anybody to claim that ideas they find offensive have harmed or threatened them, and obligates the University to punish whoever has uttered them.

Georgetown has previously (and correctly) allowed left-leaning scholars to express ideas that could certainly be construed as offensive or threatening. Shapiro cites professor Carol Christine Fair of the School of Foreign Service tweeting during Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation process: “Look at this chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement. All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.” In practice, Georgetown is revealing a double standard in which conservatives must avoid giving offense while progressives are free to express any unguarded thought.

We don’t need to pretend that Shapiro’s defenders on the right care about free speech either. William F. Buckley made his name in “God and man at Yale” attacking academic freedom on the grounds that it permitted too many liberals in academia. Conservatives later retreated to a defense of academic freedom as a tactic after their efforts to dominate academia failed. Nate Hochman, who has covered the Shapiro episode for National Review, recently wrote in Claremont Review that conservatives should emulate Buckley’s original ideas, and they have broadly rallied to the cause of Ron DeSantis and his model of Orbanism in one state.

Conservatives don’t generally care about free speech. They use the cause cynically to defend their allies.

But we shouldn’t take the fact that conservatives don’t care about free speech to mean liberals shouldn’t either. Just the opposite, in fact.

Georgetown Abandons Its Free-Speech Policy Over Ilya Shapiro