Letter to the Editor: Gavan Titley Responds to Stephen Rohde

March 28, 2021   •   By Gavan Titley, Stephen Rohde

Gavan Titley Responds to Stephen Rohde’s Review of His Book, Is Free Speech Racist? (January 24, 2021):

IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH of his essay on my “flawed and lazy” book, Stephen Rohde dictates the book he thinks I should have written. Such presumption is rarely a good look in a review, but as it turns out, this is just for starters. He is far more interested in another, more sustained projection onto my work, which is conjuring up the book he wants to write about. Given that alleging misrepresentation in response to a hostile review is rarely a good look either, it’s worth noting at the outset that I primarily view this as an exaggerated example of the difficulties that beset debates about “free speech.” It is a subject which demands that radically different philosophical and political commitments encounter each other, and too often this engagement goes no further than attempts to drag interlocutors onto one’s preferred foundations. For that reason I would be happy if, once these misrepresentations have been addressed, my response also served as an invitation to Stephen Rohde for further, substantive debate.

Rohde declares in opening that in the “spirit of free speech” he is prepared to give my arguments a “fair reading.” This is also a basic requirement of a book review, but from the very first synoptic engagement the reading is inaccurate, representing the central argument as one where “he [Titley] blames free speech for racism, and his antidote is to block, cancel, and eliminate racist speech.” Both of these claims are wrong, and this response will address them in turn.

Blaming free speech for racism?

I do not blame free speech for forms of racism, and my book is very clear about what I do blame — the living legacies of colonialism, racial capitalism, exploitative and punitive migration regimes, the security and cultural politics of the “War on Terror” era, the resurgent nationalisms of the post-crash world. The idea of that I blame free speech for racism demands that Rohde bracket the entire political context of the book. The specific hook for this accusation would appear to be derived from a lengthy quote that Rohde presents in summary of the book’s central argument. I reproduce that argument more fully here, to clarify the misreading:

It is the central argument of this book that where racism is dominantly understood in terms of ideology and ideas, invocations of free speech have become fundamental to reshaping how racism is expressed and legitimized in public culture. […] [T]his politics has many overlapping strands. Cumulatively, they fuel recurrent public controversies and media spectacles, where the right to express racist ideas and circulate racist discourse is increasingly marked out as what is most at stake in relation to freedom of speech. Yet what is principally at play in these disputes is not a legal right to speak or freedom from coercion. Instead it is the legitimacy of what is being said, and the contested reception it received in diverse, antagonistic and reactive public spheres. In contexts where there is intense public contestation and public confusion as to what constitutes racism, and who gets to define it, free speech has been adopted as a primary mechanism for validating, amplifying and reanimating racist ideas and racializing claims.

As this extract suggests, the key thematic concern of Is Free Speech Racist? is how contemporary understandings of racism and freedom of speech intersect. Specifically, it examines conflicts as to what racism means and who decides in what are often described as “postracial societies.” In these Western contexts, racism is uniformly condemned as evil, but dominantly understood as an unfortunate remnant from the past horrors of fascist and supremacist regimes, now defeated and repudiated. In this pronounced political rationale, racism today is therefore always an aberrant expression, the product of individual prejudice or irrationality, and recognizably extremist and supremacist movements, ideas and ideology. Postracialism is a complex topic, and takes different shapes across the societies I discuss, but a defining feature of it in public cultures is the insistence on a restricting understanding of racism as — sporadic moral aberrations and exceptional lapses aside — an evil largely overcome.

The problem is that, as Ambalavaner Sivanandan famously put it, “racism does not stay still.” The politics of capitalist crisis, national security, migration and borders, and ethno-nationalist and populist mobilization touched on in the book are dynamic, and also contested. Consequently, the racisms shaped and given material and political expression by this dynamism and contestation do not map onto the constricted and hegemonic “definition” of racism discussed above. However, postracialism does not just hinge on a limited understanding of racism, but on substantive control over its meaning. This openly conflicts with the insistence, in anti-racist movements and scholarship, on the historical, political, and contested nature of racism.

This is where “freedom of speech” comes into my book’s argument, as free speech politics is mobilized in this antagonism in two ways. Firstly, anti-racist attempts to capture the changing forms and politics of racism inevitably refuse closure on its supposedly settled meaning. This makes it easy to cast them as chilling free expression by marshaling the moral force of racism as an “accusation,” shutting down open debate by “bringing race into everything,” or defining “everything as racism.” In practice, this postracial closure on the meaning of racism radically constricts the ways in which those who experience and struggle against forms of racism can speak, contest, and be heard in public culture.

At the same time, an apparently contradictory thing happens. The postracial conviction that racism is primarily a matter of attitudes and ideas, rather than an active material and historical force, opens up public space for the rejuvenation of racist discourse:

If the “pastness” of racism requires sticking to the “accepted meaning” of racism, it is also taken as licence to position racialized knowledge, artefacts and discourses as innocent-once-more, valid subjects of open debate and enquiry because we are all over race.

This intersection of closure (on the meaning of racism) and openness (to the contents of racist discourse) is politically generative. Closure on the accepted meaning of racism is accompanied by concerted attempts to rehabilitate racist discourse as nothing more than ideas, ideas that should not be “arbitrarily” excluded from the putative marketplace of ideas. This studiously amnesiac openness is, for example, the signature move of the so-called “intellectual dark web” and well-resourced ideological networks that seek to launder racializing discourse while marking their distance from the “accusation” of racism. Moreover, this occurs in a digital media culture structured by the endless circulation of content, an infrastructure predicated on opening up issues and controversies over and over again.

This central examination of postracialism and the public politics of racism and anti-racism takes up half of the book, and it is entirely neglected in Rohde’s discussion, and this inevitably produces misrepresentation. There are two probable reasons for this. Firstly, Rohde fully reproduces the understanding of racism that I critique in the book, summarizing his understanding of what is at stake in the book as: “If free speech is based on the pursuit of truth and racism is universally known to be false, then there is nothing further to pursue, and racism is automatically disqualified from its status as free speech.” This is a bewildering reading. Whatever the merits of my argument, it is the political problems produced by the ahistorical, postracial contention that racism is nothing more than bad ideas “universally known to be false” that are at the heart of the book.

Secondly, Rohde explicitly refuses to accept a basic premise of my overall argument, flagged from the very first page, that contemporary debates about freedom of speech are not just about the “limits of speech” and the normative and legal status of restrictions on speech, but are also conflictual processes about the legitimacy and status of particular kinds of speech, and the conflicted nature of their public reception. I suggest that so-called “free speech crises” are better understood as a genre of public controversy, spectacles that give expression to the antagonisms and complexities of contemporary publics, uneven struggles over who can speak and who is heard. These established tensions and conflicts are being transformed by the density, speed, and abundance of digital communications. These transformations pose questions for how we understand “speech,” its relation to the circulation of ideas and “debate,” and its political significance as democratic action. Rohde side-steps this entire discussion of the contemporary production and circulation of ideas-as-content and simply reaffirms that “all ideas must be protected.” What does that mean, for example, when “ideas” are produced as media noise and political disruption by machines and content farms?

The review, in fact, does not feature a single mention of the book’s extended discussion of contemporary communications and public formation, despite noting in opening that I am a Media and Communications scholar. Instead, Rohde flips the book’s critique of a flat idea of “speech” into the excuse he needs to drag the book onto his preferred normative terrain of timeless liberal certainty. This is most overt in how the review’s refusal to engage with the extended treatments of postracialism and digital communications reduces the entire discussion of the contemporary fluidity of racist discourse to the quasi-legal category of “racist speech” — that is speech that categorically crosses a threshold from “not-racism” to “racism.” This three monkeys methodology allows Rohde to fault me for failing to define a category that the book explicitly criticizes:

While everyone, including Titley, has their own working definition of “racism,” in a book whose essential purpose is to eliminate an entire classification of speech from public discourse, the author has a special responsibility to define what he means by “racist speech.” He is advancing a very serious project of categorically excluding what he calls “racism” from the protections afforded to the universal notion of free speech.

This “project” of “elimination” and “categorical exclusion” is the most egregious of Rohde’s projections, and I turn to it now in conclusion.

Blocking, canceling, and eliminating racist speech?

The preponderance of Rohde’s engagement with my book is a thought experiment of the gotcha! variety cherished in university debating clubs, a rhetorical cascade of righteous questions directed at exposing the blind spots in what he repeatedly — and without embarrassment — terms the “Titley regime” of speech suppression and elimination. In the guilty-until-proven-not-fully-innocent dynamic of refuting a review, it’s not all that easy to respond to projection on this scale. Perhaps the easiest thing is to try to reconstruct how the reviewer got to the point where this sanctimonious diversion seemed like the right or obvious thing to do.

Is Free Speech Racist? is a book of four short chapters, each divided into three to four sub-sections. The United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the Nordic Countries feature centrally; the United States appears as a substantive focus of discussion in two of these sub-sections. Rohde makes a single mention of this transnational scope, taking me to task for “unnecessarily limiting critique […] to capitalist societies” and not leavening this with, well, condemnation of Lenin for imposing controls on the press in 1917. Having located the reds under my bed — I dream of enforcing my “regime,” remember — the rest of the world is simply shelved. His analysis is narrowed not just to an exclusive focus on the United States, but to the even more comfortingly bespoke terrain of North American debates about the First Amendment.

Excluding most of the book’s scope from his essay is more than mere parochialism on Rohde’s part. Central to my argument is tracing how contemporary free speech politics are produced through transnational processes of exchange and translation, and are consequently relatively autonomous from the legislative and institutional frameworks that govern speech in these nation-states. Rohde’s approach to this scope is to cut out and keep the only bit he wants to write about: controversies over “no platforming” fascists, white supremacists, and alt-right entrepreneurs in US universities and elsewhere.

Rohde assembles the “Titley regime” from my “approv[al]” of “no platforming” of fascist or supremacist speakers on university campuses. He attempts to render this approval irredeemably subversive by noting that I “endorse” an argument from Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (2017). Yet, his enthusiastically parochial argument does not recognize that my “approv[al]” is consonant with far more mainstream US writing. My chapter section on university free speech politics notes how — highly financed and deliberately staged — campus controversies generate conflicts between incommensurable political evaluations of what is at stake in a “debate.” The line of analysis I pursue also appears in Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust (1993), where she examines how confusion between the right to speech and the provision of a platform is exploited by fascists to engage in “calculated manipulation of two principles dear to Americans: free speech and the search for historical truth.”

Rohde is correct nonetheless, that I approve of “no platform,” but as a tactic, not a principle. This is an important distinction, and his substitution of rhetorical questions for applied analysis neglects to examine why. The book’s discussion of “no platforming” controversies lays out the political and philosophical thinking which has shaped the emergence of such tactics at key moments of far-right advance. While examining limitations and unintended consequences, it takes seriously the democratic processes and collective intellect which has shaped these movement strategies. Rohde regards all such contextualization and explanation as nothing more than evidence of insufficient fidelity to a settled principle, a certainty which allows him to dismiss my book as “play[ing] into white supremacists’ hands” — a nasty aside which a grandee of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) might think twice about doling out to others. As for the reality of experiencing far-right intimidation and racialized threats and humiliation on campus that drives “no platform” politics, Rohde says not a word.

My book opens with the reflection that aphorisms from free speech heroes of the past will not help us to understand the mesh of conflicts and contradictions that shape “free speech debates” today. Rohde concludes his review with precisely this kind of quotation. No doubt this feels bracing, but analytically it achieves very little, burnishing an idealist and undifferentiated idea of speech that fails to attend to the distribution of constraints and closures on different forms of speech, and speakers. In cross-examining the Titley regime, Rohde asks the question, “Who decides?” The point is that forms of power are deciding all the time, at different scales across all aspects of social and political life. The whole point of my book is to draw attention to how multiple forms of constraint and coercion on human agency and expression cannot even claim visibility or recognition as “free speech issues.” Sorry Stephen, the regime already exists.

Stephen Rohde Responds to Gavan Titley:

Based on his seven-page letter, Gavan Titley didn’t like my review of his book Is Free Speech Racist? I took his letter seriously and I appreciate LARB giving me an opportunity to respond. I’ve reread my review in light of Titley’s criticism and I’m satisfied my review is not “inaccurate,” did not “misrepresent” his book, and did not “conjur[e] up the book” I wanted to write about. In fact, after reading Titley’s letter, I’m even more convinced that I offered readers a cogent, fair, and well-reasoned review. Titley says he would be happy if his letter served as an invitation “for further, substantive debate.” That was the spirit in which I wrote my review, and that’s the spirit in which I’m responding to his letter.

Titley takes me to task for ignoring his discussion of the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the Nordic Countries and instead focusing my review on the United States, which he admits is “a substantive focus of discussion” in various aspects of his book. I did indeed focus on free speech in the United States, an area I believe is of genuine interest to readers of LARB. Titley’s letter says that “the key thematic concern” of his book “is how contemporary understandings of racism and freedom of speech intersect,” and that’s precisely the focus of my review.

If one were to only read Titley’s objections, they would not realize that my review of his book was actually part of a trifeca in which I also compared and contrasted Confessions of a Free Speech Lawyer: Charlottesville and the Politics of Hate by First Amendment attorney Rodney A. Smolla and Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All by Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive officer of PEN America. Far from being a “hostile review” of Titley’s book, at the very outset I compliment all three authors:

Taken together, these three books initiate a far more sophisticated, nuanced, and realistic conversation about the role of free speech in contemporary society than the tiresome and headline-grabbing “free speech debates” where so many strut and fret upon the stage, superficially magnified in the media, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And in fact I end my review with these words:

Titley, Smolla, and Nossel have done their duty venturing into this controversial public discussion about free speech. It’s up to the rest of us to sustain that vital discussion, not merely by defending the right to speak, but by ensuring the widest opportunities for those who historically have been silenced.

Titley accuses me several times of “bracket[ing]” and ignoring “the entire political context of the book,” of acting as if the evils of racism are “now defeated and repudiated,” of pretending that racism is “an evil largely overcome,” that “racism is primarily a matter of attitudes and ideas, rather than an active material and historical force,” and that racism is “nothing more than bad ideas.” On the contrary, I share Titley’s concerns about the legacy, persistence, and realities of racism and I said so early in my review in this passage, which Titley ignores:

Titley is at his best when describing “the stark realities of subjugation and humiliation” imposed by racism, which possesses “an irrational hostility based on race, usually accompanied by a belief in the superiority or inferiority of certain races.” He calls out a few recent examples of racism such as President Donald Trump saying that Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should “go back and help fix the […] crime-infested places from which they came,” singling out two women of color oblivious of the fact that they are actually “from” the United States. Titley describes the frustration of writers such as Reni Eddo-Lodge, who has suffered the sting of racism to the point of exclaiming, “I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race” because of “a lifetime of self-censorship that people of colour have to live.” Had Titley written a book developing these themes, exposing the evils of racism, explaining the nature of implicit bias, white privilege, and systemic racism, and outlining concrete steps that societies can take to dismantle racism, he would have contributed significantly to the progress of racial justice.

In light of this lengthy excerpt from my review and other portions in a similar vein, it’s astonishing that Titley would falsely accuse me of saying “not a word” about the realities of those who experience the intimidation, threats, and humiliation of racism.

While Titley and I are united in our shared desire to dismantle racism, there is no question that we have fundamental differences when it comes to answering the very question that is so central to his book he titled it Is Free Speech Racist? Titley denies my assertion that he “blames free speech for racism.” It’s curious that he would try to run away from my interpretation, since his book makes an elaborate case that, in his own words, “free speech has been adopted as a primary mechanism for validating, amplifying, and reanimating racist ideas and racializing claims.”

He also denies my interpretation that “his antidote is to block, cancel, and eliminate racist speech.” Yet his letter in fact concedes that “Rohde is correct nonetheless, that I approve of ‘no platform,’ but as a tactic, not a principle.” Whether a “tactic” or a “principle,” his concession confirms my summary of his argument, which he now labors so mightily to disavow:

Titley is deeply concerned that conferring on racist speech the respectable mantle of “free speech” gives it the same deference and hallowed status that has been bestowed on great and worthy ideas over centuries of classical liberal thought. As a result, free speech no longer serves its neutral role in the storied “marketplace of ideas” because it elevates, honors, and promotes racism and all of the hatred, oppression, and silencing that it represents. For him, free speech has become “weaponized” in the service of racism. He sees a tendency of “appropriating ‘free speech’ as a shield against criticism or as a licence [British spelling] to provoke.” The “central argument” of his book is that “where racism is dominantly understood in terms of ideology and ideas, invocations of free speech have become fundamental to reshaping how racism is expressed and legitimized in public culture.” Consequently, “free speech has been adopted as a primary mechanism for validating, amplifying, and reanimating racist ideas and racializing claims.”

Titley does not dispute my analysis that as he sees it

giving a racist a platform on a university campus or community forum to voice hate-filled rhetoric anoints that speaker with the imprimatur of the university or forum. “The very idea of public debate,” he writes, “exudes a glow of democratic potency, one that all too often remains undimmed by any reckoning with the barriers and inequalities to meaningful participation that shape public cultures.”

His letter also leaves intact my description of his argument that

the far-right has “captured” free speech. Racists have replaced hackneyed KKK appeals to “White Power” with the rhetoric of free speech, converting challenges over the validity of what they say into attacks on their cherished right to say it. “Anti-racism is increasingly cast in the role of censor,” he writes, “granted exceptional powers to silence in a context of abundant, endless communications.” By hijacking free speech, Titley argues, racists attract support from a wider swath of society who are more comfortable defending such a universal value but would never be caught dead defending racism or white supremacy itself.

Titley even tries to pick a fight over issues on which we actually agree. In my review I wrote that Titley is “rightly skeptical of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ metaphor.” Instead of “side-stepping” these issues, I explicitly and favorably acknowledged the very themes — quoting him directly — he now accuses me of ignoring:

The “dominant liberal vision,” he writes, “has always been shadowed by the constraints it neglects: the forms of material possibility, structured inequality, political power, media access, and communicative capacity that organize the meaningful distribution of expression and attention in racially ordered capitalist societies.”

In fact, I wrote that “Titley makes a valid point.” And then I added that

there has always been something abstract and pristine about the Holmesian notion that we exchange our ideas in a free and unconstrained market where truth will inevitably emerge from the clash of ideas openly expressed by all sides. The ability to be heard and compete for recognition has never been conducted on a level playing field and has always been subject to “market constraints” Titley mentions and, one might add more explicitly, severe economic, racial, and gender disparities across society.

Then why is Titley “bewildered” when I summarize his argument that racism is “a categorically false and discredited idea that does not deserve to be treated as free speech”? His book and now his letter argue that, in my words,

If free speech is based on the pursuit of truth and racism is universally known to be false, then there is nothing further to pursue, and racism is automatically disqualified from its status as free speech. If free speech is based on the power of reason to identify what is good for society, which people and governments should endorse and nurture, then because racism is irrational, invalid, and incoherent, it is not entitled to the protection of free speech.

My review supported my interpretation with explicit excerpts from his book, which his letter ignores:

He argues that “opposition to far-right speakers is based on a rejection of the idea that racializing discourse should be treated as debatable in societies and contexts where it acts in and on the lives of its targets.” He considers it key to his argument that “because fascist speech is action oriented toward furthering a violent politics of domination, there is no possibility of democratic debate. Instead, all forms of fascist activity constitute attempts at mobilization which must be defeated before they achieve traction.”

His letter admits that he approves of the observation in Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (2017) that “[i]nstead of privileging allegedly ‘neutral’ universal rights, anti-fascists prioritize the political project of destroying fascism and protecting the vulnerable regardless of whether their actions are considered violations of the free speech of fascists or not.”

As noted earlier, when it comes to racists speaking on campus or at other forums, Titley approves of tactics such as “blocking,” “disruption,” and “no platforming.” That is what his book says. That is what my review called attention to. And now his letter confirms it. His book and my review have prompted the “substantive debate” which he claims to welcome. But that is the very debate which I believe our society at large — far beyond one author and one reviewer — should be having, free of the “blocking,” “disruption,” and “no platforming” which Titley endorses. We have squared off on these fundamental issues and readers can decide for themselves.

Titley also complains that I pointed out that his book doesn’t define what he means by “racist speech.” I asked,

[W]hat ideas, ideologies, practices, and policies are encompassed within Titley’s definition of “racism” which are sufficiently false, discredited, irrational, and beyond the pale to no longer deserve to be debated? What ideas, ideologies, practices, and policies should be blocked, canceled, or disrupted? Titley never says.

And now in his letter, he again refuses to do so.

In fact, Titley seems downright annoyed that in my effort to figure out what speech he would block, cancel, disrupt, or place beyond the realm of debate, I raised a series of real-world examples. Titley’s letter gave him a perfect opportunity to explain the scope his theory of free speech as applied to these various contemporary controversies, but unfortunately he took a pass. If Titley deems the expression of any or all of these ideas sufficiently “racist” to exclude them from any further debate and allow them to be blocked, canceled, or disrupted, I think his readers are entitled to know:

Is it racist to counter “Black Lives Matter” with a demand that “All Lives Matter”? Is it racist to call racial sensitivity training “divisive anti-American propaganda”? Is it racist to label Critical Race Theory “cult indoctrination”? Is it racist to deny that America is inherently a racist country? Is it racist to complain about multiculturalism, ethnic studies, and identity politics? Is it racist to claim that there is more Black-on-Black crime compared to police shootings of unarmed Black men? Is it racist to argue that affirmative action programs constitute reverse discrimination against whites? Is it racist to object to reparations? Is it racist to prohibit the teaching of the New York Times 1619 Project in public schools? Is it racist to deny the existence of white privilege and white fragility? Is it racist to deny that systemic racism exists in law enforcement? Is it racist to demand that athletes salute the American flag rather than take a knee? Is it racist to oppose the removal of Confederate statues? And so on.

Titley is also upset that I criticize his book for never doing the heavy lifting of explaining who is going to decide what is debatable and what should be blocked, canceled, or disrupted. But unfortunately his letter also declined the opportunity to answer those critical questions. Instead, he asserts that “forms of power” already exist which constrain and coerce human agency and expression. While no one, including me, would quarrel with that observation, ignoring my questions hardly helps readers navigate these difficult issues. In the university setting, my review asked who will decide what is “debatable” and what should be blocked, canceled, or disrupted. The administration? Faculty? Students? And regardless of who is on “the committee,” I asked by what reasonable and objective standards would speech be deemed sufficiently “racist” to place it beyond debate and suitable for blocking, canceling, or disruption? In a seven-page letter, these important questions remain unanswered.

In his letter, Titley appears to be oblivious of the fact that when he quotes Ambalavaner Sivanandan to the effect that “racism does not stand still” and argues that racism is indeed “dynamic” and “contested,” he is in fact supporting my view that issues of racism deserve ongoing discussion and debate. And when he makes the valid point in his letter that “postracial closure on the meaning of racism radically constricts the ways in which those who experience and struggle against forms of racism can speak, contest, and be heard in public culture,” he is actually paraphrasing the conclusion of my review in which I urge that we live up to our responsibilities in a free society “not merely by defending the right to speak, but by ensuring the widest opportunities for those who historically have been silenced.”

Titley tries to recruit Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust (1993), in his defense, but in fact her views are far more nuanced and ultimately closer to mine than he lets on. In an interview in 2016, she agreed that the existence of historical events such as slavery, the Armenian Genocide, and the Holocaust can’t be debated. But she didn’t stop there, as Titley does.

Maybe you could say how slavery could have been ended. Could it have been ended without a war with such tragic consequences or was the war absolutely necessary? You might debate could the Holocaust have been prevented if certain actions had been taken in the ’30s. Was it possible only in Germany? All those kind of questions.

Lipstadt parts company entirely with Titley when it comes to banning and “deplatforming” such subjects. “I spoke to the Oxford Union, which is probably one of the world’s oldest debating societies. And I spoke against laws outlawing Holocaust denial.” Referring to that “pesky thing called the First Amendment,” she said, “I’m not for laws outlawing Holocaust denial.” She added, “Well, I think part of the cost of living in a free society is that you have this messiness of freedom of speech. And the way to counter freedom of speech is with facts.” Citing Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, she endorsed the principle that “the antidote to bad speech is more speech.” When Holocaust denier David Irving was sentenced to three years in prison for violating Austria’s Holocaust denial law — he served one year — Lipstadt spoke out against his punishment “because I believe in free speech.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. In fact, I wish I had quoted her in my review. I appreciate Titley bringing her into this discussion so I have this opportunity to share her views with readers.

I ended my review by quoting Justice Brandeis’s famous comments on free speech; a memorable scene from A Man for All Seasons; a powerful excerpt from Defending My Enemy: American Nazis, the Skokie Case, and the Risks of Freedom (1979) by Aryeh Neier, former executive director of Human Rights Watch and former national director of the ACLU at the time of the Skokie controversy; and the incisive words of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in its decision in Collin v. Smith, upholding the right of the Nazis to march in Skokie. Titley belittles all these references as mere “aphorisms.” On the contrary, I found them illuminating and inspiring and I encourage readers to check out them for themselves.

At the end of his letter, Titley complains that my review argues that seeking to block and deplatform racist speech plays into the hands of white supremacists by allowing them to portray themselves as free speech martyrs. Instead of addressing the substance of my argument — which I think we see growing in importance every day — Titley dismisses it as “a nasty aside which a grandee of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) might think twice about doling out to others.” The ACLU is an admirable defender of civil rights and civil liberties, and if my work with the organization for over 40 years, entitles me to the esteemed status of “grandee,” I wear it as a badge of honor.

I gave Justice Brandeis the last word in my review, and I truly hope Titley agrees that “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.”


Gavan Titley is senior lecturer in Media Studies at Maynooth University.

Stephen Rohde is a retired constitutional lawyer, lecturer, writer, and political activist.