By Luke Seminara
One of Spectator’s own wrote an article undermining free speech. Here’s why that’s problematic.
Last September, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) ranked Columbia University last in the country for students’ experience of free speech. I dismissed this as a partisan gesture, seeing that FIRE is often described as a right-wing ACLU and that our student body is unabashedly left-wing. That was until Avian Muñoz’s recent op-ed in the Columbia Daily Spectator, titled “Conservatives invited me, a progressive, to their convention. Here’s what happened,” convinced me otherwise.” In it, Muñoz rejects their conservative peers’ concerns over censorship, only to insist that so-called “intellectual debate” would be better off without entertaining their “antiquated, worn out values.” It follows that progressives have the “right to dismiss” conservatives, a conclusion that leaves free speech in a precarious position.
Let me first delve into the substance of Muñoz’s op-ed: apparently, they were invited to the 2023 David Network conference, a summit on the values and policies of “the Judeo-Christian tradition” and “first amendment rights,” and they found its conservative bent less than appealing. I assume they must have sat in on panels, conversed with fellow attendees, and so on, but they make no mention of particular interactions and instead quote the David Network website. Nevertheless, Muñoz insists that the speakers’ “Republican talking points” were “more tired and less nuanced” than ever. I must say that their refusal to reference even the publicly expressed views of those so-called “right-wing media celebrities” leaves me unable to tell whether this was in fact the case or whether Muñoz was unwilling to listen to them. After all, the conference “did nothing but affirm” their prior conviction that conservative ideas hold back intellectual debate.
Though Muñoz’s piece is not fond of references, it is fond of jumping to conclusions. Their account of the conference is dubious at best, but from that account—with the addition of two cherry-picked op-eds published on campus—they deduce that conservative students seek to “normalize misogyny, transphobia, and racism” by “citing the First Amendment.” Put simply, conservatives’ desire for free speech is merely a desire to propagate bigotry. Muñoz’s conjecture is troubling, given how they are an Administrative Deputy Editorial Page Editor at Spectator, and according to the Opinion section’s submission guidelines, “If a claim is not verifiable, we cannot publish it.” If a member of Spectator can level such heavy-handed accusations at an entire group of students without meaningful quotation, accusations that frame that group’s opinions as having no merit whatsoever, what does this suggest about the culture at Spectator? Moreover, is there not a risk that Muñoz’s ideas could unwittingly encourage other journalists to exercise their right to ignore conservatives in an editorial capacity? Muñoz mentions Lorenzo Garcia’s pro-life op-ed from last semester, and by the logic of their argument, progressives could have vetoed its publication with good reason. In Muñoz’s words, “engaging with conservatives only legitimizes their point of view, bringing intellectual debate and our country backward.”
At the very least, Muñoz’s argument is utterly misrepresentative of conservatism. Rather than analyze conservatism itself, they misconstrue it with Republican or right-wing beliefs. But conservatism is far more abstract and intellectual. In Burkean terms, it is the recognition of our fallibility as individuals. Lacking confidence in our ability to judge reality as individuals, the conservative argues that we should consult tradition: values and ideas that served our predecessors, fine-tuned over generations to better accommodate our needs as a species. Take the example of family, a topic discussed at the David Network conference according to its website. For the past half-century or so, America has witnessed a decline in stable, two-parent households, a powerful predictor of intergenerational upward mobility. Should we not consider, if not cherish, the long-standing beliefs and practices that sustained the two-parent household? Surely we can consult the past to address this issue without waging a “culture war.” However, this does not mean conservatives take tradition to be unqualifiedly good. Instead, the conservative realizes that to improve upon the values and ideas of yore, they must grapple with them in the first place.
To some extent, participants in any sort of discourse, even progressives, ought to acknowledge and understand the ideas that preceded them, especially if these ideas are in tension with what they believe. Otherwise, our arguments lose their nuance. This is evident in Muñoz’s op-ed, which refuses to dig into the substance of conservative arguments and resort to absurd, far-fetched comparisons—in their view, the proliferation of on-campus conservatism resembles the proliferation of views that led to “the killing of journalists in India” and “the rise of neo-authoritarianism in the Philippines.” Moreover, without engaging with our intellectual predecessors, meaningful progress becomes impossible. If we premise our arguments on strawmen, as Muñoz’s piece does, do we not lose touch with reality? How can we arrive at the “powerful, reformist ideas” they so desire if our ideas are grounded in sweeping generalizations of our opponents, past and present?
This gets at what is especially pernicious about Muñoz’s op-ed with respect to freedom of speech at Columbia—even more problematic than their implicit argument justifying the social censorship of conservatives or the fact that they are a Spectator editor. It is that discourse has become a means of self-congratulation rather than self-cultivation. Muñoz’s avowed right to ignore conservatives reflects a sense of infallibility, a conviction that somehow all the truth lies on their side. Thus, not only is there no need for us to tolerate the other side, but there is also no need to challenge our own opinions. Needless to say, this dogmatic mindset has taken hold of national-level politics, and given Muñoz’s op-ed, it has spread to Columbia’s student body. It is a mindset wherein “we” have the moral high ground while “they” stand for bigotry, regression, or whatever pejorative label we so prefer. The public square no longer serves the common end of progress but rather becomes a stage for the self-righteous to loudly express themselves. If we exercise our right to dismiss others and refuse to listen, free speech might as well be dead.
Luke Seminara is a senior at Columbia College studying political science. He is Vice Chairman of the John Jay Society, did not attend the David Network conference, and loves to play with Lego bricks.