Each year, Americans mark the third week in October as Free Speech Week: a nationwide event aiming to raise public awareness of the importance of freedom of speech and of freedom of the press. Free Speech Week is a nonpartisan, non-ideological occasion in which organizations from various parts of the political spectrum promote these fundamental rights.
This year, as always, there will be a primary focus on the first word of the phrase — free. Yet little attention comes to speech itself, or how citizens, journalists, and others should use the First Amendment rights they have been given.
The nature of free speech in America, in contrast to even other developed Anglophone countries like Canada, the U.K., and Australia, is such that the right to individual expression is nearly unlimited. For example, Canada criminalized “hate speech” in 1992, and the government is currently pushing legislation that would curtail online “hate speech” too, under the absurdly broad definition of “communication that expresses detestation or vilification of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.”
But in the United States, only the most egregious of violations — obscenity, true threats, and incitement of imminent violent action to name a few — fall outside of constitutional protections. The broad scope of free speech gives Americans a wide berth to choose what to say.
Traditionally, these choices have been moderated by social norms that have narrowed what is considered appropriate speech for the appropriate situation. But in the era of the internet, which facilitates rapid communication between everyone all at once, these norms have quickly fallen away. The ease of hitting send on a tweet or Facebook post, and the ensuing instant confirmation of one’s thoughts by likes and shares, overwhelmed the longstanding rules of conversation that live on when we meet face to face.
Without social restraints, we’ve entered an era where internet trolling is increasingly common, and the unmoderated internet is essentially unusable. The impersonal nature of the internet discourages direct and thoughtful conversations between individuals. Indeed, examples of intemperate online speech have been used to criticize free speech more broadly.
Even people who are pro-free speech often want some restraints on speech if they are the subject of pugnacious online posts. They want something to be done about obnoxious or hateful speech, whether by the social media company hosting the speech or even by the government.
Free speech advocates can head off some of this criticism — and the restrictions that often follow — by embracing virtue. Political philosopher and former National Review writer Frank Meyer put it plainly: “Free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.”
So, what virtues could help our speech problem? All of Aristotle’s 12 virtues, except maybe ambition. But specific emphasis should be placed on temperance, truthfulness, and magnanimity: temperance to encourage self-restraint, magnanimity to be generous to those you disagree with, and truthfulness to assist in furthering the discourse in our country.
For those in censorious environments like a college campus, courage becomes the most significant virtue. It is particularly important that younger Americans, those just coming to grips with the internet and their right to voice their opinions, achieve a balanced understanding of free speech, and of both the rights and responsibilities it confers. The alternative would be an even greater degradation of our civic discourse, and the possible acceptance of even more draconian restrictions in order to govern it.
Although free speech need not be virtuous to be free, Meyer also emphasized that virtue must be freely chosen to be truly virtuous. Speech codes and restrictions enforced by social media companies and university administrations are not solutions to the problem. An abrogation of liberty by the government will not miraculously make individual citizens more responsible. As Meyer said, “truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it.”
While Americans should certainly appreciate and advocate for the fundamental constitutional right to free expression, this Free Speech Week, we should all try and encourage a little virtuous speech, too.