« What's Wrong With Trump's Immigration and Travel Ban? | Main | Picking Our Fights »

Freedom of Speech Applies to All Speech

Once again Milo Yiannopoulos has been prevented from speaking on a public university campus. The University of California, Berkeley, did its best to allow Yiannopoulos to speak, bringing on extra security, but when the protests became violent and windows were broken, fires set and rocks thrown at the police, they called off the talk. Many of the protesters who engaged in violence were not UC students and belonged to a group known for its extreme tactics, but many besides them celebrated the defeat of “hate speech” being allowed on the campus.

We all know that the Supreme Court has ruled that hate speech that does not incite imminent violence, is protected by the first amendment of the U.S. constitution. That fact does not seem to matter to those who regard racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-religious speech as an evil that needs to be prevented in order to preserve our society. The value of free speech, as an important, if not crucial, consideration in determining whether someone should be allowed to voice his or her ideas, is dismissed by those who feel that it pales in relation to other values. For many, the prohibition on the use of violence to enforce one’s view is not one of those values that is considered crucial for insuring that America remain free.

Whether hate speech has a causal relationship to the generation of hateful behavior, or is persuasive enough to cause people to engage in hate crimes or discriminatory behavior toward their fellow citizens is an empirical question, which might be relevant to future Supreme Court decisions that reexamine the concept of inciting “imminent” violence. But for now, this question is not considered in the legal definition of unprotected speech. The traditions of Western civilization, dating back to ancient Greece, are that ideas are disputed by alternative ideas, not by suppression, which is something associated with dictatorships, the Inquisition, and totalitarianism. The role of free speech in democracy is based upon this tradition.

Those who oppose allowing hate speech claim that it violates the values of our society and, in cases such as on university campuses, the values of the institutions where such speech occurs. The message does, indeed, violate such values, although there are obviously members of our society and of our institutions who hold different values, they are just in the minority. But what about the value of freedom of speech itself? Freedom of speech is a value for several reasons. In our individualistic Western tradition, the individual’s ideas and his or her right to express them, even when they differ from those of the majority, are considered central to our concept of individual freedom. In particular, for historical as much as philosophical reasons, the government is restricted from curtailing the rights of individuals to express themselves unless such expression directly affects public safety. While speech is the typical means of expressing one’s ideas, the concept of freedom of expression extends to art, performances, writing,  and even nonverbal interpersonal behavior. Historically, Americans have been willing to stand up for such freedoms, even when standing up has required protest, risk or sacrifice.

The United States has the most wide-ranging laws regarding free speech of any country in the world. Many countries, including some democracies, prohibit “blasphemy.” This includes some Christian as well as Islamic countries. Many European countries prohibit holocaust denial. A number of countries prohibit slander, without requiring it to be proven to be false. Americans have historically been proud of their less restricted definition of free speech.

Philosophically and empirically, there are arguments for allowing a multitude of ideas to be expressed in a society and of making restriction of expression of ideas to a minimum. The richness of the intellectual and social life of a society is directly related to the range of ideas and expression of them that occurs within that society. We can laugh at SNL making fun of our president. We can have a multiracial musical cast play the White characters who framed our constitution. We can absorb the human story in a film about a young Black man with a drug addicted mother, struggling with his sexual identity while being saved from the ravages of the society around him by an adult drug dealer. We can engage in protests against the economic system that characterizes our society and denounce the privileges it affords 1% of the population while putting burdens on the other 99%. Anyone, even a radical transgender woman or a bigoted White, man can run for office in our country.

During the Korean War, Allied troops were subjected to what was referred to as “brainwashing” by their North Korean captors. While there have been many myths about the techniques of brainwashing, two things have been shown to be true: first prisoners were  isolated from their leaders so they didn’t have role models for maintaining discipline in conforming to the prescriptions to be followed when taken prisoner. Second, prisoners were presented with information that ran counter to what they had learned at home and when they had never heard such counter information or counter arguments, they were more vulnerable to having their minds changed. A theory emerged that, in order to resist being persuaded by an idea, it is useful to have been exposed to that idea in the past and have had an opportunity to generate counter arguments—so-called “inoculation  theory.” Only hearing one side of an argument or one set of information makes a person susceptible to having his or her mind changed when faced with new information or arguments contrary to what he or she had heard in the past.

The place where the most open discussions, examining the widest ranges of views, with virtually no limits on freedom of ideas or expression occurs, has traditionally been at our universities. Professors have “academic freedom” to discuss whatever they wish to discuss in class without interference from university administrations. Students are presented with a variety of issues and all sides of most issues and are better able to make reasoned decisions in forming their beliefs.

But now, students and faculty and the public at large are wanting to restrict what is said on our university campuses. It is now thought to be harmful to allow students to be exposed to ideas that the majority find distasteful or dangerous. Universities claim to have social “values” that are endemic to their identity as institutions, and speech that disagrees with or attacks those values is said to have no place on a university campus. So far, most public universities have included freedom of speech in the values that characterize them and have allowed speakers of all stripes to come to their campuses. But students and faculty and members of the surrounding community have disagreed with the university administrators and encouraged “disinviting’” or “shutting down” speech of which they disapprove. When violent protests have succeeded in preventing speeches from occurring, many students, faculty, community leaders and political pundits have excused the violence because they didn’t feel the speakers had a right to be heard. Comments are made such as, “I agree with free speech, but I cannot allow hate speech to occur on our campuses.” Those who say this don’t feel it expresses a contradiction.

Protesting a speaker or arguing against his or her ideas is an expression of free speech. Stopping someone from speaking is not.

The essential characteristic of free speech in America, is that it applies to all speech. Those who oppose people such as Milo Yiannapolous speaking on campuses have short memories. There were times when books with explicit sexual content were not allowed, both on campus and in our bookstores. There were times when openly gay professors were not allowed to teach on our campuses. There were times when only certain races were even allowed to attend some public universities. There were times when faculty were required to take loyalty oaths to prove they weren’t Communists. There were times when leaders of the anti-Vietnam War or the civil rights  movements weren’t allowed to speak on some campuses. The majority of society supported all of these prohibitions when they occurred, because they upheld the “values” of the majority. The fight for free speech has been a long and difficult one. It never involves having the right to say what everyone agrees with. If we prohibit speech that does not conform to our society's value system, we become a less free society. And in the long run, we will find that we are a lesser society in many other ways, with narrow viewpoints enforced by majority rule, using mob tactics as well as the tools of a repressive government to restrict what we say and think to a narrow range of approved ideas.

Reader Comments (3)

I agree with principle of free speech, Casey, so long as the speaker is not paid from public funds. The story, as reported in The Boston Globe today, has it that Ninja-costumed people heavily laden with Molotov cocktails and other devices appeared in the crowd. I don't want to fall prey to conspiracy garbage, but it's very likely that these were right wingers lighting the fires. I'd like to see what the investigation brings before we assume that it was the people of Berkeley who were responsible for the violence.

February 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

You highlight some key points in the free speech debate here. There are obviously some grey areas in certain situations, but it's usually clear whether or not a public expression is endangering people's safety. Hopefully those participating in protests, demonstrations, and political events will stay within responsible boundaries.

February 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRobert L.

I guess I can agree with you about freedom of speech. But you move right into "hate speech" intermingingly Milo's talk and hate speech. He is an English, Gay, libertarian entertainer with political topics. He does what Jon Stewart did...if I am going to compare. Not 'hate speech' by any means. The narrative is quite deceiving ...and another way the media has been promoting hate and discourse. I want to get something straight. Berkeley did allow Milo to speak. But did not "supply" extra security. They only allowed Milo to speak, and speakers of conservative views, if they provide their own security costs. Which comes at a price tag of $5000-6000. Knowing most students cannot afford this, it is their way of blocking diverse conservative speakers. But...in this case, a private donor did pay the fee. Another misrepresentation narrative about Berkeley. And to the comment above, your conspiracy theory if right-wing rioters is just that. It has been quite apparent that these rioters are probably paid instigators, for they have appeared all over the country and consistent at every event...in the same style dress. There is discourse in this country, but I am ashamed that the media and liberals alike are promoting it, condoning it, and are fueling it. If anyone is fueling hate speech it is them, and not the vast American people. This President and time in our history us no different, nor more dangerous than the next. But a huge, powerful force is instigating this "so-called" 'destruction of democracy.' It is they who are bullying the opposite viewpoints..squashing freedom of speech. They tried this once...and lost the last election. Turning up the heat is only going to produce more opposition through more lost elections because Free Americans really don't put up with people telling them what to do.

February 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Torphy

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>