A few years ago, while I was editing a newspaper in Jacksonville, Florida, the Bible-thumping president of the city council wandered into the Museum of Contemporary Art one day—he was grabbing lunch at the museum’s cafe—and came upon an image of a woman who was eight months pregnant, reclining on a couch, breasts exposed.
He lost his damn mind. That afternoon, he fired off an email to the mayor’s office, demanding that the museum remove the offensive artwork, which he deemed pornography that could corrupt children, or the mayor “immediately cause to be pulled all funding designated for MOCA for the current fiscal year.”
The mayor’s office declined, and under a mountain of public shaming, the council president backed down. Regardless, this incident has stayed fresh in my mind as a cautionary tale about the dangers of public officials declaring themselves the arbiters of morally acceptable speech.
Which brings us to Jordan Peterson. A few weeks ago, when the Durham Performing Arts Center announced that the controversial (to use very neutral language) author and professor would be gracing its stage come September, I asked our copy editor, Laura Bullard, who’d followed the various Peterson-related imbroglios with some fascination, if she wanted to pen an opinion piece on the booking.
She did. Her piece questioned the wisdom of offering a platform at the city’s premier venue
"As many in our community have been disturbed and angered by Mr. Peterson’s racist, misogynist, and transphobic views, we would like to use this opportunity to reiterate our commitments and values to all of you as your elected representatives," the council’s statement reads. “… We invite the Durham community to recommit ourselves to these values as a city and a community and to reject and resist bigotry wherever we encounter it.”
That alone would have drawn the Peterson minions’ venom. But it was this part where the city skated on thin legal ice: “We would like to be clear that we respect Mr. Peterson’s right to hold his opinions and to freely state his opinions without government interference. However, we wish to emphasize that a person’s right to free speech does not include the right to a platform or an audience.”
It is here, at this last sentence, that Corey Friedman (and other free-speech advocates I’ve spoken to) objects, and reasonably so. As Peterson noted in his response to the council’s rebuke, he’d rented DPAC; DPAC’s management company did not seek him out. That may seem pedantic. It’s not.
DPAC is a city-owned venue, and publicly owned venues cannot discriminate based on ideological viewpoint. If dead-eyed Gumby impersonator Stephen Miller and his white supremacist Duke pal Richard Spencer want to rent DPAC for Miller’s inevitable post-White House book tour, the city can’t stop them. If the NRA wants the stage to advocate for arming toddlers, it’s entitled. If the lovely folks from Westboro Baptist Church want to rent the building to tell gay people they’re going to burn in hell … you get the idea.
No matter how inimical a viewpoint may be to Durham’s values, Durham’s government can’t dictate what speech it will allow. The genius of the First Amendment is that we do not entrust the government with deciding where the line is drawn. So Friedman’s not wrong that the council’s statement edges close to dangerous terrain when it says that “a person’s right to free speech does not include the right to a platform or an audience.”
If DPAC’s management company took that as a cue to cancel the event, Peterson would have legitimate grounds to sue. While the First Amendment does not guarantee an audience, this particular platform happens to be a public facility; if Peterson’s got the money to rent it, DPAC needs a better reason to refuse him than that city officials think he’s a boor.
Full disclosure: I don’t claim expertise on Jordan Peterson. I’ve not read his books or watched his lectures, nor do I care to (especially after being deluged with emails from his devotees, many of whom seem stuck in a protracted adolescence). But as Bullard’s piece notes, and as other media outlets have documented, Peterson has a history of making statements that you don’t have to squint too hard to see as racist, misogynistic, or transphobic—all things that are, in fact, inimical to Durham’s values.
So no, it’s not the city’s place to suppress Peterson’s speech. But it is the city’s place to assert its values, to resist bigotry, and to stand up for marginalized communities when someone like Peterson takes to a city-owned stage. More than that, because it’s a city-owned stage, it’s city officials’ obligation to put as much daylight between themselves and Peterson’s regressive attitudes as possible, to signal that he’s not taking their stage with their endorsement.
The council can’t, and shouldn’t, shut down Peterson’s event. The council can, and should, and did, announce to the world: Fuck this guy. We want nothing to do with him.
That, as Friedman suggested, is countering speech with more speech. Editor’s note: Jeffrey C. Billman is the editor in chief of INDY Week. To read Corey Friedman’s op-ed criticizing the Durham City Council for its statement on Jordan Peterson’s DPAC event, click here.