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The Paradox of Free Speech

Recent events in Berkeley, California and on campuses across the United States have demonstrated a growing sentiment among some young people that speech by those who espouse certain views must not be allowed. The argument is often couched in terms of preventing views embracing or sympathetic to Nazism or Fascism, from being expressed. Defenses of movements such as Antifa or Black Bloc, both of which mount vigorous and often physical opposition to speakers and marchers perceived to represent Fascism, have cited the failure of citizens in Germany to physically oppose Hitler and his followers as contributing to the rise of Nazism.

Traditional liberals and progressives have been appalled by the confrontational tactics of those who prevent others from speaking, because such actions violate what is considered perhaps the most basic American right, which is freedom of speech. Their critics accuse them of intellectual dithering, allowing dangerous opinions to be disseminated, gathering more supporters and threatening groups such as Jews, Blacks, gays and women. These critics regard it as a moral imperative to prevent such opinions from being openly expressed.

The paradox of free speech is that it allows dangerous ideas to be expressed. There is no doubt that speech can lead people to do terrible things. Goebbels’ Nazi radio broadcasts in Germany in the 1930’s were a major factor in spreading anti-Semitism. Radio Rwanda urged people to hate and attack Tutsi “cockroaches,” leading to an eventual genocide.

If hate speech can be dangerous, how can it be allowed?

What makes speech dangerous is not just what is being said, but the social situation in which it is expressed. The greatest factor making speech dangerous is the suppression of counter opinions. In both Nazi Germany and Rwanda the only voices that were allowed were those preaching racial hatred. Freedom of speech was nonexistent.

Freedom of speech cannot be delimited by the content of speech. If saying some things is not allowed, then speech is not free. If one group decides that opinion X is too dangerous to be expressed, and can suppress its expression, then we open the door to another group, in the future, deciding that opinion Y is too dangerous to be expressed. In America, our constitution and our courts have determined that the only thing we can prohibit from being expressed are “fighting words.” SCOTUS defines these as those “which by their very utterances inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace."

Justifications for suppression of speech are usually couched in terms of preventing Fascism. But mob violence or threats of it, sufficient to curtail speech or protests are today being used to prevent the expression of many opinions that only in some people’s perception could lead to Fascism. In some cases, the groups being attacked are blatantly racist or anti-Semitic, even neo-Nazi. But on campuses, speakers who have been “shut down” have included those who are pro-life who represent pro-Israel positions, who have worked in conservative administrations, as well as well-known racist trolls, such as Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos.

Using mob violence or governmental (i.e. public university) authority to suppress speech is not a defense against Fascism, it is a form of Fascism. It is exactly the technique used in Nazi Germany and Rwanda as well as Soviet Russia and Syria to limit discussion of opposing points of view. Democracy allows even ugly, dangerous views to be expressed and to decide that it is “imperative” to suppress someone else’s freedom of speech, is a step toward losing our democracy. We must not delude ourselves that this is how we preserve freedom.


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