The concept of free speech, so central to the American experience, is facing a trial in our society. This is not the first time, and surely won’t be the last, in which competing interests wrestle to define the term.
But it is our time to debate it, and those who would trammel speech in the name of justice, or patriotism, or anything really, are relying on several very flawed premises in their attempts to silence their fellow citizens. It’s time to tackle them, one by one, and establish a positive argument for free speech that recognizes it is a blessing, not a burden.
Much of the confusion regarding the idea of free speech stems from a fundamental misunderstanding that somehow the First Amendment of the Constitution invented and constrains the idea. This is hogwash.
In 399 BC, Socrates was tried, convicted, and executed for violating speech codes. For more than 2,000 years since then, Western culture has played a game of tetherball over speech, sending it this way and that. But the heart of the issue has nothing to do with government. It has to do with whether we, as individuals, value tolerance for perspectives we disagree with.
In the past decade or so, many people — usually but not always those on the Left — have distorted the concept of free speech in an effort to suppress it. Their arguments are not deep; they are not even shallow. It is useful, however, to look at and dismantle them so we are not tempted to snatch from ourselves the rights generations past established for us.
1. Free Speech Only Involves the Government
This is a curious and strange argument that relies on the notion that only the state is capable of censorship or violating principles of free speech. It is also a bipartisan delusion. Whether it is the Left trying to get conservative writers fired, or the Right trying to silence NFL athletes through boycotts, we hear the same defense. Private companies can do what they want; they aren’t constrained by the First Amendment.
Okay, but so what? Are we so damaged by viewpoints we disagree with that we wish to ban them from our hearing? If, as I imagine most Americans believe, there is real value to hearing and protecting speech we disagree with, why would we want private institutions to engage in censorious behavior any more than we would the state to?
Are private institutions free to create policies that curb free expression? Sure. Should they? Not if they are institutions dedicated to free and open debate, such as universities or newspapers. This is not to say that there may be no limits, but that the limits must be fairly applied, even if the state is powerless to enforce such fairness.
2. There Is No Right To An Audience
This is a free speech exception captured by an often-used but detestable cartoon that frequently makes its way around the Internet.
Let’s break down what this gets woefully wrong. Sure, as stated above, the First Amendment only applies to government action. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be tolerant of speech. The final frame suggests that bad speech is being shown the door. But showing speech the door means that one refuses to engage the speech, it doesn’t mean that nobody else should be allowed to engage in the speech. This is a crucial difference.
It is possible, and take a moment if you need it here, to use free speech to suppress free speech. Back? Okay, good. When a person takes actions such as boycotts or shouting down opposition, he is trying to get between a speaker and a potential audience, to stop people who want to hear something from hearing it. This is not something that anyone who supports a free, open, and liberal society should ever be doing.
3. Valuing Speech According to Privilege
I spent a fair amount of time chilling down at Occupy Wall Street back before it got shut down for being a haven for rape. The General Assembly, OWS’s governing body, employed a technique called a “progressive stack” in allowing speakers to pontificate. The most oppressed people got to speak first, the least oppressed — to them that meant straight, cis, white men — got to speak last.
The notion here is that to redress historical imbalance, we must favor the speech of the oppressed over the speech of the powerful. This is stupid, but that isn’t the point. The point is that this establishes the right, or ability, to speak on the basis of identity.
Saying that a trans black woman should have his speech valued over that of a white man regardless of what either says is an attack on the concept of free speech. It may be a reasonable attack (although I doubt it), but it is an attack nonetheless.
4. Speakers Are Responsible for Listeners’ Actions
What happens if some irresponsible speaker says something awful and people react by attacking or harassing the target of the speech? We saw an example of this in the case of professor John McAdams, who was fired from Marquette University for criticizing a graduate student instructor who told a student anti-gay-marriage sentiments could not be spoken of in class.
McAdams wrote a blog post defending the student’s right to express his beliefs. As a result, some people attacked the instructor, some with threats. So is McAdams responsible for every idiot who makes a threat based on a clear example of shutting down conservative speech? Is Black Lives Matter responsible for NewYork police officers killed by a lunatic apparently motivated by their rhetoric? No and No.
5. Speech Is Violence
Perhaps the most pernicious lie perpetrated by those who would hinder free speech is the idea that speech can be violence. We are told that trans people commit suicide at several times the rate of others because people are allowed to question whether gender is a matter of preference. Such questioning is considered an act of violence. This is abject hysteria.
We should probably worry about how our speech affects others, but to the extent that we truly believe something to be true, we cannot be afraid to say so because others may be bothered by it. Stating an opinion is not violence. Any philosophy of free speech that suggests so is wrong-minded and averse to the very concept of free speech.
It is a dangerous time for free speech. It’s not being well protected by either side of the political divide. But let’s be aware of these fallacious arguments against it and stay steadfast in our opposition to them. You say what you want to say, I’ll say what I want to say, and America will remain great, as it always has been.