Update | FIRE’s Robert Shibley has put up a response to this post. My reply to his response can be found here.

There’s something I find very weird about the campus-free-speech crowd centered around FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education).

Every time a new example of incendiary, bigoted campus speech hits the news, the FIRE folks rise up to defend the speaker’s right to express his or her views — as, in my opinion, they should. Like them, I’m generally opposed to campus speech codes and in favor of the principle that more speech is the best remedy for bad speech.

But see what I did there? I called bad speech “bad speech.” Because whether I think speech needs defending has nothing to do with whether I consider that speech obnoxious. I’m happy to describe bad speech as bad speech in the course of saying it’s entitled to First Amendment protection.

Contrast that with Robert Shibley of FIRE’s comments on Alexandra Wallace’s racist YouTube rant:

“It is easy to see why Asian students in particular, and others as well, might find it offensive—although in my opinion it is really pretty tame, as far as Internet rants go.”

It’s easy to see why some other people might find this speech offensive, he says, though he himself considers it “pretty tame.” And how does Shibley summarize the video itself? In it, he says, Wallace

“claims that the ‘hordes’ of Asian students at UCLA (UCLA’s undergraduate population is about 37 percent Asian and Pacific Islander) cause various annoyances like loudly talking on their cell phones in the library and having their extended families come over and do their chores for them.”

Kudos to Shibley for quoting the word “hordes,” I suppose, but I find it curious that he leaves out the other two most inflammatory elements of the video — Wallace’s racist “ching chong” caricature of “Asian” languages, and her mockery of students who might have been attempting to reach family members in the path of the Japanese tsunami.

Blogger Matthew Hurtt — who approvingly quotes Shibley — takes a slightly different tack, arguing in essence that if you take out the bigotry from Wallace’s rant, it’s really not all that bigoted, but the minimizing effect of his rhetoric is similar. Tellingly, for the epigram of his blogpost, Hurtt invokes Voltaire:

“I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend – to the death – your right to say it.”

I say “tellingly” because Hurtt gets the quote wrong.

The “defend to the death” line originates with Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who summarized Voltaire’s position as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire himself phrased it even more strongly, in a 1770 letter: “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

See the difference?

Alexandra Wallace’s speech was detestable. If you’re going to defend it on principle, there’s no reason not to admit that.

Update | Seems like I gave Hurtt too much credit. Responding to this post on Twitter, he says he doesn’t consider Wallace’s rant bigoted at all. Glad to have that cleared up, I suppose.

Second Update | FIRE’s letter to UCLA on the Wallace dustup does a much better job of threading the needle on these issues than Shibley’s blogpost. In it, they provide a dispassionate account of the video’s content (including the “ching chong” business, though omitting the “tsunami” joke), then explaining why they consider it deserving of First Amendment protection even if it is judged to be “hateful” or “offensive.” Law professor Eugene Volokh goes even further, defending Wallace’s free speech rights even as he characterizes the video as “bigoted” “moronic” “nonsense.”