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Is Abbott’s Speech Order a Tactical Masterstroke?

The Texan governor is again challenging liberal complacency.


When Texas’s Governor Greg Abbott decided to bus illegal immigrants crossing the Southern Border across the country to various sanctuary cities, many were skeptical, including conservatives. Some argued that bussing a few hundred migrants each week would do nothing to reverse the millions crossing each year. Others ridiculed it as a grotesque stunt, using vulnerable human beings as political props. Most leftists insisted this was illegal somehow.

By now, many have come around and see Abbott’s brilliant gambit for what it was. He turned an issue that once concerned only certain Americans—usually the ones in border states—and made it a critical issue for everyone, even the pompous elites over in Martha’s Vineyard. Now, these people can put away their meaningless abstractions, progressive platitudes, and memorized verses of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” and instead consider the concrete realities of illegal immigration—the strain on public resources, the proliferation of slums and shantytowns, and the rise in crime and disorder


One would imagine that the whole busing episode would cause Abbott’s critics to give him the benefit of the doubt in other controversial decisions, like his recent executive order to punish antisemitic rhetoric on college campuses. But this hasn’t happened. Just like before, a large number of doubters have come together to denounce the order as misguided and counterproductive

Conservatives mainly accuse him of curtailing free speech rights, conforming to the leftist insistence on “safe spaces,” and implementing something that is legally dubious. Rather than impose speech codes like a typical Democrat, he should dismantle all existing speech codes and promote a more open forum that encourages respectful dialogue and debate. The cure of hate speech is more speech. Punishments inevitably drive those with hateful, irrational arguments underground to spread unchallenged. Moreover, this gives legitimacy to those on the left who impose their own speech codes and thereby tightens the deadly chokehold on public discourse. 

As a person who teaches rhetoric, I have recited these arguments constantly. I can also attest that they have mostly become stale and do little to shake the indifference of younger generations who have grown up with the internet. A decade ago, such arguments might have more merit, but today, they are incomprehensible to the majority of people. They only prolong a debate over an issue that for most of them has already been settled. Indeed, it’s very much like arguing about the problems with illegal immigration with Americans who have no experience of its effects and assume everything is fine. 

At the moment, a significant portion of Americans, particularly college students, do not actually care about free speech. And the ones who do mainly want to eliminate it and effectively criminalize dissent. Not only do they want to prohibit hate speech, but they also want to ban misinformation (accidentally saying something wrong), disinformation (purposefully saying something wrong), and malinformation (saying something true, but in the wrong context). Even if this amounts to viewpoint suppression and a totalitarian culture held captive by endless propaganda, they are fine with it because they assume it’s the other side who suffers, not them—“safe spaces for me and not for thee!”

Unlike his detractors, Abbott acknowledges this inconvenient truth and acts accordingly. Just as it was too late to plead with leftists to help close the border and care about illegal immigration, it’s again too late to tell these same people to stop silencing conservative voices and start caring about free speech. Now would be the time to have them reap the consequences of their own stupidity. Seen in this light, it’s apparent that Abbott’s executive order is not so much about changing leftists’ minds (though it might), but challenging their complacency. 


As was shown last year in the hearings with college presidents Claudine Gay, Liz Magill, and Sally Kornbluth, antisemitism is definitely the left’s Achilles heel when it comes to the issue of free speech. For a variety of reasons, opposing the state of Israel and excusing Palestinian terrorism has become a central pillar for leftism all over the world. They can’t let it go, no matter how irrational and abhorrent this view becomes. 

And if they’re forced to choose between allowing an open forum with a protected right to free speech and letting go of their visceral hatred of Israel, they will pick the former. Sure, they’d prefer to control the conversation and humiliate conservatives at every turn, but they will sacrifice this control if it means preserving their right to scream at Jews and call for more humanitarian funding for Palestine. In terms of power, speech is just one weapon among many; supporting Hamas and accusing Israel of genocide, however, is essential to the leftist identity.

In all likelihood, Abbott understands this, which is why he’s forcing the issue. Either leftists on college campuses will react by challenging the executive order in court and arguing that it violates their free speech and academic freedom, or they will actually abide by the order and stop defending Hamas and condemning Israel. In the first case, they would have to defend hate speech and explain why their arguments should be protected while those of their opponents are routinely suppressed. In the second case, they would have backed off from antisemitic rhetoric. It’s almost certain they’ll pick the first option for the same reason they would rather let the country be invaded than close the border for any reason: It’s core to their being. 

From Abbott’s perspective, it’s a win-win proposition. The only real objection to issuing an executive order against antisemitic speech is being called a hypocrite—a criticism any governor from Texas hears at least a dozen times a day. Once conservatives and free speech absolutists see how this works out, they will change their tune and pretend they were supportive all along. They’ll realize that Abbott isn’t playing into the left’s hands. He’s simply playing their game, and he’s going to win it.