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Barbershop: Conservative Free Speech On College Campuses


It's time for the Barbershop. That's where we talk with a group of interesting and well-informed people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Joining us for our shapeup today are Sarah Westwood. She's the White House correspondent for The Washington Examiner. She's here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios once again. Welcome back.

SARAH WESTWOOD: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us is Danielle Belton. She's editor in chief of The Root, and she joins us out of our bureau in New York. Welcome back to you.


MARTIN: And joining us via Skype is Charlie Sykes. Charlie is a longtime conservative talk show host. Last year, he signed off from nearly two decades as host of a political talk show in Wisconsin. He did a stint covering the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. He's written a bunch of books. He's super busy, makes us all really tired and impressed. So, Charlie, thank you so much for joining us once again.

CHARLIE SYKES: It's good to be back.

MARTIN: So a lot of what we wanted to talk about this week has to do with talking or the contemporary way of - this is done, tweeting. It's about who gets to talk and where. And we're going to start with a story that sparked all kinds of conversation in recent days, and that's about Jemele Hill. She's the co-host of ESPN's "SportsCenter." This week, she tweeted, quote, that the president is a, quote, "white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists." ESPN said that her tweets did not align with their views.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders kind of elevated this by calling the tweet, quote, "a fireable offense" on Wednesday. Danielle, I'm going to start with you. As an editor, as a person who also tweets yourself, a lot of your reporters tweet, but you also have to enforce, I would assume, some kinds of standards for social media presence. And I wanted to ask if you think that Jemele crossed the line and if some discipline is called for here.

BELTON: Well, I think it depends on how you view it. On the one hand, she wasn't speaking on the behalf of ESPN. She was speaking on the behalf of herself. And those are her own personal views. They're not the views of ESPN. On the other hand, I'm someone who believes, like, just never tweet. Just - no. Like, don't tweet anything that you're not going to be comfortable with if it's up on a billboard on the highway the next day, you know, because the reality is is that what you say, even if it's just your own personal opinion, even if it's your own personal beliefs, even as what you know in your heart to be true, it doesn't matter.

In the court of public opinion, people can make your tweet whatever they want it to be. They can interpret it any number of ways. And it can get blown up and turn to a whole just storm, like, a tsunami of nightmares. So it's like you have to be really, really conscious of what you're putting out there. So on the one hand, I totally support her. I feel that she was just expressing her own personal opinions and that she shouldn't be reprimanded for this.

If anything, it should be a conversation around what, you know, maybe is or isn't appropriate when it comes to working for ESPN because the fact of the matter is at The Root, we have writers who have opinions. We encourage our writers to have opinions and to express them on a regular basis within reason. And at The Root, this wouldn't have been, you know, a controversy, but at ESPN, it definitely is.

MARTIN: Well, The Root is an African-American-oriented publication. It's a by-and-about opinion in the African-American community. But, Sarah, here's the thing. As a White House correspondent, I'm curious about how this played out at the White House. I'm curious in a week in which there was yet another missile test by North Korea of nuclear weapons and the ongoing, you know, catastrophe in the Southeast, why this was considered important enough for Sarah Huckabee Sanders to not only talk about at length, but she seemed quite familiar with the disciplinary history of employees at ESPN. And, you know, why was it that important?

WESTWOOD: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. One, once the president is tweeting about it, Sarah Sanders is sort of in the position where she has to provide some context to that tweet or it makes the White House have to deal with more controversy than it would otherwise. And on the other hand, I think this is actually kind of a clean victory for the White House in a lot of ways.

What Jemele Hill said was really angering to a lot of conservatives. ESPN did fire a conservative commentator - not a commentator, excuse me, a conservative-leaning sports commentator last year, I believe, for expressing his views on transgenderism. So a lot of conservatives thought ESPN was expressing a double standard by then keeping Jemele Hill.

MARTIN: OK. But in fairness, he had been repeatedly warned to stop. Different situation.

WESTWOOD: Exactly. And it's different situations, but to conservatives, it seems like a clear instance of hypocrisy. So they championed this as some kind of clear victory where it put ESPN in a lot of - maybe more liberal-leaning people in a more difficult position of having to defend her statements when they were - pretty clearly crossed the ethical guidelines of ESPN.

MARTIN: Charlie, where are you on this? What do you think?

SYKES: Well, you know, you asked a really good question there. You know, at the moment - we just step back a few feet. You do have the nuclear test with North Korea. You have the disaster in the Southeast. You have, you know, the West with its wildfires. And here you have the White House, the presidency, the spokesperson for the presidency of the United States, talking about a tweet by an ESPN staffer. I mean, that is remarkable. You know, you could unpack this several ways.

Number one, you got to be careful about tweeting. That's absolutely true. ESPN is vulnerable on the issue of double standard. That's also true. But I also think that we've reached this very strange moment where our intellectual toolbox appears to be empty. Is the only response to speech we don't like or a tweet we don't like that the person ought to be fired?

You know, and then on a much more serious level, there's something deeply disturbing about the use of the White House, the presidency the United States, to call for the firing of somebody who works for a private company, simply for saying something critical of the president of the United States. You know, Richard Nixon, you know, may have raged in the Oval Office and had an enemies list, but I don't recall that he actually used the bully pulpit of the presidency to try to crush a private individual for criticizing the president. That really is a remarkable moment when you think about it.

MARTIN: You know, Charlie, let's go to the next topic I wanted to talk about because this is this whole question of free speech on college campuses. The University of California, Berkeley has been very much in the news around this issue. The university plans to have a number of people, you know, far-right commentators - some people would call them - a lot of people would call them fringe, like, Milo Yiannopoulos, former - well, the political commentator Ann Coulter headlines something called Free Speech Week next week.

Some people object to their appearances. There have been demonstrations around their appearances. They've been sort of previously canceled. And now they're saying, you know, they're going to make them speak. There's a big security presence. I just - I'm just curious about how you feel about this, I mean, Charlie, because it's - I think people can figure out what the issues are.

You know, on the one hand, a lot of people say - a lot of these people are offensive. On the other hand, some people say, well, why are these people the emblems for free speech? What do you think - and but - and also, Charlie, you've been a person really critical about what you feel is kind of a stultifying lack of intellectual debate on campus. What do you think about this?

SYKES: Well, first of all, I want to, you know, congratulate the University of California, Berkeley for the way they handled the Ben Shapiro appearance. They actually did step up and made sure that that Ben Shapiro was able to speak and the people who wanted to hear him were able to hear him. Those who disagreed with him were able to express their opinion. That was a positive thing. Now, it's unfortunate that it cost $600,000 in security. Let's set that aside for a moment.

But, you know, the thing about free speech is it's got to be free for offensive speech as well. And there are few people more offensive to me than Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter. I mean, these people are not there to enlighten. They're there to incite and inflame. There's no question about it. This has become their identity is to go onto campus and hope to provoke some sort of a response, including a violent response.

This is their business model. This is what they do. And I think that they are grossly irresponsible. On the other hand, you know, this has to be a non-negotiable issue for universities that academic freedom and free speech must be protected, even for people as loathsome as the folks that are going there under the guise of the free speech event.

MARTIN: Sarah, a lot of these guests have been previously invited by youth groups on these campus - campuses, you know, Young Republicans, Young Conservatives. Are these people that these folks look up to? Are these people who follow - The Washington Examiner, for example, is a conservative-leaning news outlet - are these people considered heroes, exciting, to the younger readers?

WESTWOOD: You know, it's a really interesting mix of people at this free speech. On the one hand, you do have people like Milo Yiannopoulos, like Ann Coulter, whose views are repugnant to most conservatives, whose only job, like Charlie said, is to provoke people. That's what they live for. They love the controversy surrounding their speeches.

On the other hand, you have respected intellectuals like Charles Murray or Heather McDonald who do have a well thought out conservative platform. They do have something to offer students who have also signed on to this event. And that lends it an element of credibility that would not be there had they not agreed to join. So it's not really fair to paint the entire event as a fringe event, but some of the characters there like Milo and Ann Coulter and some others are - definitely occupy the fringes.

MARTIN: Danielle, finally before we get - you know, what about you? I mean, you obviously feature on your publication sometimes people that other people don't like. What do you think about the way the university handled this?

BELTON: You know, I have a mixed kind of view about this. On one hand, I'm very pro free speech. I believe adamantly that even if you don't agree with someone or someone is offensive, they should be allowed to express their offensive views. And you have a right to listen or not listen to that if you choose. On the other hand, the fact that it cost $600,000, that's how to do security? Like, that is outrageous and insane.

The fact that when these people do come speak, that they bring out this level of anger and hatred and fear and contention that really wrack the campus and makes students feel unsafe. It's one thing, like, when I was going to school, you know, back in the '90s, you know, we would have conservatives come speak to our campus. And the most that would ever happen is, you know, maybe somebody would write, like, an editorial in some paper...


BELTON: ...And that would be the end of it. I don't understand what's happening right now, where it's gotten to the point where it seems like people are trying to provoke this insane response.

MARTIN: Because they're trying to provoke this insane response. Well, thank you so much all of you for talking, hate to cut you off.

BELTON: That's OK.

MARTIN: It's not because I don't want to hear what you have to say.

BELTON: I know.

MARTIN: It's - Danielle Belton is editor-in-chief of The Root. She came to us from our New York bureau. Charlie Sykes joined us via Skype. And Sarah Westwood, White House correspondent for The Washington Examiner, was here with us in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

SYKES: Thank you.

BELTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.