Be Very Worried About The Future Of Free Expression

Be Very Worried About The Future Of Free Expression

If you don’t believe political correctness is a threat to free speech, you haven’t been paying attention.
David Harsanyi
By

“Ads that perpetuate gender stereotypes will be banned in UK, but not in the good ol’ USA!” reads a recent headline at the Web site Jezebel. Yay to the good ol’ USA for continuing to value the fundamental right of free expression, you might say. Or maybe not.

Why would a feminist — or anyone, for that matter — celebrate the idea of empowering bureaucrats to decide how we talk about “gender stereotypes”? Because these days, foundational values mean increasingly little to those who believe hearing something disagreeable is the worst thing that could happen to them.

Sometimes you need a censor, this Jezebel writer points out, because nefarious conglomerates like “Big Yogurt” have been “targeting women for decades.” She, and the British, apparently, don’t believe that women have the capacity to make consumer choices or the inner strength to ignore ads peddling probiotic yogurts.

This is why the “Committee of Advertising Practice” (and boy, it takes a lot of willpower not to use the cliché “Orwellian” to describe a group that hits it on the nose with this kind of ferocity) is such a smart idea. They will ban, among others, commercials in which family members “create a mess, while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it up,” ones that suggest “an activity is inappropriate for a girl because it is stereotypically associated with boys, or vice versa,” and ones in which a man “tries and fails to perform simple parental or household tasks.”

If you believe this kind of thing is the bailiwick of the state, it’s unlikely you have much use for the Constitution. I’m not trying to pick on this one writer. Acceptance of speech restrictions is a growing problem among millennials (one poll, for example, shows 40 percent of them okay with limiting speech offensive to minorities) and Democrats (more than 50 percent have warmed of the idea of banning hate speech). For them, opaque notions of “fairness” and “tolerance” have risen to overpower freedom of expression in importance.

You can see it with TV personalities like Chris Cuomo, former Democratic Party presidential hopeful Howard Dean, mayors of big cities, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office claiming that “hate speech is not protected by the Constituion.” It is Sen. Dianne Feinstein arguing for heckler’s vetoes in public university systems. It’s major political candidates arguing that open discourse gives “aid and comfort” to our enemies.

If it’s not Big Yogurt, it’s Big Oil or Big Somethingorother. Democrats have for years campaigned to overturn the First Amendment and ban political speech because of “fairness.” This position and its justifications all run on the very same ideological fuel. Believe it or not, though, allowing the state to ban documentaries is a bigger threat to the First Amendment than Donald Trump’s tweets mocking CNN.

It’s about authoritarians like Laura Beth Nielsen, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University and research professor at the American Bar Foundation, who argues in favor of censorship in a major newspaper like Los Angeles Times. She claims that hate speech should be banned because it has “been linked to cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and requires complex coping strategies.” Nearly every censor in the history of mankind has argued that speech should be curbed to balance out some harmful consequence. And nearly every censor in history, sooner or later, kept expanding the definition of harm until they shut down the rights of their political opponents.

Anyone who’s watched partisan groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, who accuse civil rights lawyers of being in a “hate group,” understands where this goes.

Actually, you can see where it’s going by checking out Europe. Dismiss slippery slope arguments if you like, but in Germany, where “hate speech” has been banned, police have raided the homes of at least 36 people accused of posting “illegal content.” There is a proposed bill right now in Germany that would fine social media companies millions of dollars for failure to remove hate speech within 24 hours. When debates about immigration are at the forefront in Germany, the threat to abuse these laws is great.

In England, a man was recently sentenced to more than a year in prison after being found guilty for stirring up religious hatred with a stupid posting on Facebook. There are “hate crimes” cops who not only hunt down citizens who say things deemed inappropriate but implore snitches to report on the vulgar words of their fellow citizens.

When I was young, liberals would often offer some iteration of the quote misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This was typically in defense of artwork that was offensive to Christians or bourgeoisie types; a soiled painting of Mary or a bad heavy metal album, or whatnot.

You don’t hear much of that today. You’re more likely to hear “I disapprove of what you say, so shut up.” Idealism isn’t found in the notions of Enlightenment but in identity and indignation. And if you don’t believe this demand to mollycoddle every notion on the Left portends danger for freedom of expression, you haven’t been paying attention.

David Harsanyi is a Senior Editor at The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter.

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