Free Speech Has No Limits

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo magazine attacks, I read an op-ed piece by David Brooks (“I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” Jan. 8, 2015) of the New York Times containing something that really made me think. Mr. Brooks opens his article with “The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: if they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds.” This statement terrified me – because it was right in front of my face and I didn’t notice it until reading that article.

Colleges have devolved from bastions of free thought which encourage the challenging social norms to citadels of groupthink and arbiters of what is culturally acceptable. Multiple articles (one example appearing in the Wall Street Journal on May 12, 2014 – “IMF’s Lagarde Won’t Speak at Smith, Part of a Growing List; Douglas Belkin) have been published recently about colleges disinviting speakers upon pressure from students or faculty. These speakers had been invited by a group of students who wanted to hear from them, but in some cases, these speakers were disinvited because they had said some truly reprehensible things. That does not, however, mean that they should be inhibited from speaking in front of a group that wants to hear them. To allow someone to say repulsive things does not constitute endorsement of their position. To attempt to inhibit (legally or socially) their ability to present their message does constitute censorship of an even more insidious kind than what the state could ever pull off.

The most common attempted rebuttal I have heard is that we must allow people to speak, but we do not have to give them a platform. This is true – however, we also have no right to make moves to take away their platform. This is capitalism at its most basic: the marketplace of ideas. If there are people who want to hear the idea, no matter how reprehensible it is, to intervene and attempt to remove that individual’s platform is a fundamental wrong. By all means, set up a neighboring platform to debate the idea you hate. Hold a rally excoriating everything that was just said by the individual you disagree with. Do not, however, attempt to stop that individual from saying what they want to.

Fascists everywhere would be heartened to learn that the modern college has finally mastered censorship – we just traded the infallibility of the state for the sanctity of feelings. One can rarely have a serious discussion without offending someone, and if we, as a culture, declare topics or positions to be taboo because they might cause offense, democracy is dead. Censorship is the genie you can never put back into the bottle. Once society gives its stamp of approval to any technique designed to limit dissent, it will balloon out of control – and that’s what pushing for platform removal is. This is not my opinion, this is a fact borne out by thousands of years of history. There is not a single instance in recorded history of a society that made dissent unacceptable and then did not spiral into a dictatorship.

The problem is not with what is currently the main target of censorship: Neo-Nazis in Europe, firebrand American pastors, vaguely racist cartoons of holy religious figures. However, it is imperative that we protect the rights to speech of the worst society has to offer. If Rush Limbaugh cannot go on the radio and froth at the mouth about abortion, if Bill Maher cannot rant against Islam, democracy is dead. Without protection for that which is most vile, no one has protection. Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in Friends of Voltaire, wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This attitude, which has largely died in recent years in favor of “Sure, I guess you’re allowed to say that…,” needs to make a comeback. While we are hopefully past the days of fights to the death to defend free speech, we must go back to celebrating dissent – not agreeing with, not necessarily even giving full consideration to – but hearing, and most importantly, defending this right against all enemies, governmental and cultural.

I am not advocating here celebration of that which is said with no purpose except to offend. There are, quite rightly, provisions to limit hate speech or speech which actively incites violence. The crucial distinction we must be willing to draw here is that most offensive speech is not hate speech. There is a time and a place for all tones – both a well-argued point and a position wrapped in a heavy layer of vitriol. I am an unapologetic free speech absolutist. There is no such thing as a position so extreme or offensive that it does not merit at least being heard.

We must defend and celebrate speech of all types because none of us ever know when our most deeply held position will be the unpopular or offensive one. Anyone who supports either form of censorship (cultural or legal) is taking a remarkably shortsighted view. This is Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for the Socialists…” for the modern age. Much of what is currently being censored by society is vile, horrible, and should never be put into action. However, if we allow any censorship at all, it will not be long until censorship grows like cancer and makes dissent, and therefore democracy, impossible. None of the American civil liberties movements (ending segregation, the fight for marriage equality, women’s suffrage) started as majority opinions. We must therefore always protect and advocate for free speech as if we were the minority opinion holder – or you may find that right strangely absent when you next need it.