Too few people these days seem able to imagine what life would be like without freedom of expression. To put it plainly, without the First Amendment we’d have no recognized right to a private life or personal relationships. Period. Are you okay with that?
Below I’ll try to explain the connection. But first, we need to understand that the war on free speech started decades ago in America. Prince Harry’s recent comments calling the First Amendment “bonkers” is merely the latest in a long line of public beatings. Such talk should mystify any freedom-loving person, American or not. Yet the ground has rapidly softened for it.
The slogan “free speech is hate speech” has gained a lot of traction on college campuses since the 1990s. People are easily canceled today for any misplaced word. More than five years ago now, nearly 40 percent of young adults polled by Pew Research said they considered free speech dangerous. They don’t have a clue how dangerous this road is.
Those of us committed to freedom of religion, speech, and association talk about it mostly in the context of daily life and business. We rarely discuss the deeper purpose of the First Amendment, which is to preserve our right to build families, our right to make friends without state interference, and even the right to think our own thoughts.
In short, the First Amendment serves as a shield against social isolation. You are being socially isolated whenever the mass state or Big Tech regulates your speech so that you can’t express an opinion without fear of losing your livelihood.
Such isolation would be a huge effect of the Equality Act because it’s so blatantly unconstitutional. It would abolish freedom of religion and speech in defiance of the First Amendment, which explicitly states “Congress shall make no [such] law.” In any case, once power elites start forcing regulations on speech, the First Amendment’s shield against social isolation is gone.
Bonkers Is as Bonkers Does
Another narrative that serves social isolation is the peculiar idea that the First Amendment is something only conservatives are concerned about preserving. When major news outlets reported on Prince Harry’s comments, they focused less on his words than on the “backlash” of supposed right-wingers.
A headline in Newsweek said he made “Red America ‘Raging Mad.’” Vanity Fair ran a snarky headline claiming Harry’s words “gave some talking heads an excuse to re-litigate the Revolutionary War.” Another article claimed that Harry “has a good point” because free speech can be abused. Of course, any and all freedoms can be abused, and are. But the biggest abuse would be outlawing the guarantee of freedom.
Without the protection of the First Amendment, you lose the government’s protection of your right to speak freely. You’re thus less able to speak to those with whom you wish to speak. You’re cut off from hearing those to whom you would choose to listen. Thus, cut off from open conversation, your ability even to think — to generate new ideas, consider new ideas from others, improve those ideas by communicating — evaporates. In turn, your ability, your right, to develop new relationships and friendships erodes drastically.
Prince Harry admitted he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And his comments on the First Amendment are not really intelligible: “You can find a loophole in anything. You can capitalize or exploit what’s not said rather than uphold what is said.” This indicates his clear lack of understanding about what’s at stake.
Maybe if Prince Harry understood the connection between freedom of speech and the right to live and let live, he would not be so quick to call the First Amendment “bonkers.” Maybe he’d understand that it is the entire basis of what protects his right to establish — or disestablish — his personal relationships at will. Maybe he’d even come to appreciate it.
How to Think About the First Amendment
If our government didn’t recognize the First Amendment, those who run the state and its allies in Big Tech and media would eventually have the power to dictate everything we could say to anyone, supposedly for our own protection. Prince Harry’s work with the Aspen Institute’s “Commission on Information Disorder,” is, after all, meant to decide for everybody what is “misinformation” and what is not. Presumably, we don’t have the wherewithal to figure it out on our own.
Unfortunately, that push for censorship is routine today. The techno-lords at Twitter, Google, and Facebook now openly censor content. They say they do so on grounds that some information is “disputed,” or that their (anonymous) fact-checkers have determined falsehood, or that the content is dangerous, or just inappropriate. The real grounds are “because conservative,” as we see in media narratives that criticize conservatives for wishing to protect the right to free expression.
These tribunals’ efforts are actually building a void of information, an ironclad single narrative where no other exchanges of ideas are permitted. This vacuum curtails your ability to communicate with others and therefore your ability to verify reality with others of your choosing. If we let this go on indefinitely, civil society will ultimately collapse, just as it always does in regimes that put a lid on free expression.
Let’s also consider how the freedoms are ordered in the First Amendment. It starts specifically with freedom of religion, belief, conscience, and thought. Then, freedom of speech is noted, giving you the right to express your conscience. Next, freedom of the press means you have a right to record your thoughts in writing or other media.
Freedom of association gives you the right to deliver your ideas to anyone willing to listen. You also have the right to get together with people peacefully, and power elites have no business listening in. If any of these rights are violated, you have the right to petition government with your grievances to fight back against that abuse of power.
This order of freedoms is instructive. But it also shows an interconnected, interdependent loop that works in both directions. What you think is really the source of what you speak. But you don’t get your thoughts in a vacuum. You have to be able to freely associate with others who speak freely in order to develop thoughts, and even to develop the ability to think on your own.
So if you have thrown in the towel on privacy being a “thing of the past,” and believe you’d be okay if the state regulated your speech, maybe you don’t understand that once your speech is regulated, then your relationships are susceptible to state control. Keep going down that road, and you end up in a state of virtual solitary confinement.
Totalitarians Always Abolish Speech First
Political philosopher Hannah Arendt noted that all totalitarian systems depend upon cultivating social isolation in people. Isolation renders people powerless. So it’s no wonder that freedom of expression is always first on the chopping block during and after authoritarian takeovers. A cursory look at communist and fascist governments in the 20th century confirms that they’re always intent on destroying the entire sphere of private life and relationships.
Consider, for example, the Cultural Revolution in China from 1966-1976. Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed millions of Red Guard youth to promote “correct” communist thought. This meant getting rid of any “old” ideas, and subjecting the then-unwoke to ritual humiliations in struggle sessions that would lead to forced and false confessions.
Likewise, the stated goal of Soviet Russia’s founders was to wipe out all private life. They promoted the ideal of the “New Soviet Man,” which meant citizens were to have no personal loyalties, only total commitment to the communist state.
Sure enough, such things led to the end of social trust, with people snitching on neighbors and family members. The same dynamics played out in a host of oppressive governments going back to the Jacobin Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. We see it writ large today in Communist China, where speech is muzzled by a social credit system that demands strict conformity with the regime in exchange for access to goods and services.
Sadly, in America we can now sense some unsettling shadows of the above. Recall governors and mayors setting up snitch hotlines to inform on neighbors not complying with COVID mandates. We see leftist speech codes invading all institutions, including the military. There’s virtual book burning on Amazon. People have to walk on eggshells to avoid being canceled.
When Twitter mobs smeared Boston Celtics star Kemba Walker for wearing a Gadsden Flag jacket, he pleaded ignorance, distancing himself from the flag as a symbol of conservatism. Actually, that flag serves as a symbol of the First Amendment, with its protection of private life. “Don’t tread on me” is a universal sentiment. I suppose our presumed overlords would prefer we all wear signs that say, “Tread on me, please!”
In the end, there are two paths. One is pro-thought and the other is anti-thought. Prince Harry and his anti-speech allies have put themselves into the anti-thought camp. That also means anti-relationship. Perhaps Harry should, while he can, ponder a point of his countryman, G. K. Chesterton: “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”