What are the defenders of free speech to do?
The sad fact is that this fundamental freedom is on its heels across America. Politicians of both parties want to use the power of government to silence their foes. Some in the university community seek to drive it from their campuses. And an entire generation of Americans is being taught that free speech should be curtailed as soon as it makes someone else feel uncomfortable. On the current trajectory, our nation’s dynamic marketplace of ideas will soon be replaced by either disengaged intellectual silos or even a stagnant ideological conformity.
Few things would be so disastrous for our nation and the well-being of our citizenry. As a society, we seem to have forgotten that free speech is central to our dignity as human beings as well as to intellectual and material progress. It fosters a culture of vibrant debate and discussion in which people can challenge the status quo, fight injustice, and pursue happiness as they see fit. America today is undeniably better because previous generations availed themselves of this freedom and used it to transform society.
But continued progress is far from assured, not when free speech is under such assault. So I return to my initial question: What are the defenders of free speech to do?
The answer is that we must vigorously re-make the case for free speech. We must recur to its great defenders from ages past and reintroduce their ideas to our fellow Americans. The wisdom of John Milton, John Locke and John Stuart Mill—not to mention that of Americans like George Mason and Justice Louis Brandeis—is as true today as it was in their times. We just have to remember it.
At its most fundamental level, free speech is our natural right to express ourselves, consistent with the equal rights of others to do so. Protecting this right respects the moral dignity of individuals as reasoning, autonomous beings with their own ideas, beliefs and values. This means that speech should not be restricted, even when we think it is wrong or dangerous. When we vociferously disagree with someone and willingly engage them in a dialogue, we actually reveal our deepest respect for their dignity as reasoning beings.
On a more practical level, positive social change—as well as moral and scientific progress—is more difficult without the free flow of ideas that free speech allows. Repressive societies, by squelching speech, impair people’s ability to improve those societies. Even the Soviet Union recognized this and belatedly initiated a policy of glasnost (“openness”) shortly before its collapse. Here at home, Americans’ ability to confront the evil of slavery was set back in the 1830s and ’40s Congress by its “gag rule” on debate of anti-slavery petitions. Conversely, freer speech in the 1950s and ’60s helped civil rights advocates bring down Jim Crow.
And at a material level, the great progress of the last 200 years has been a fruit of unconstrained intellectual exchange and openness to experimentation with a variety of theories, ideas and modes of living. For example, the number of leading universities (frequently the seedbeds of innovation), major inventions and patents enjoyed by societies where commerce in ideas is free is monumental compared to what exists in restrictive regimes.
This progress—both social and material—occurred in part because free speech allowed people to confront errors and posit new ideas. Free speech provides a discovery process to correct for our individual and societal mistakes. Thus, it allows us to trade error for truth—in what Supreme Court Justice William Douglas (following Milton, Mill and Holmes) called the “market place of ideas.”
This marketplace, to be sure, can be an uncomfortable place. Yet even “bad,” “wrong” or “hate” speech has value. As Mill wisely noted, limiting speech harms the very people who are doing the stifling, because even if their opponents are wrong, “they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Moreover, free speech unmasks and allows us to beware the truly bigoted in our midst.
Favoring free speech also shows appropriate humility about the extent of our individual knowledge. We know that our understanding of the full truth is always limited. As philosopher of science Karl Popper sagely reminded us: “Our arguments are never conclusive and free of gaps.” So while proper humility about our power to grasp the truth should not yield to the intellectual nihilism of relativism, true liberals should want a speech—and idea—rich environment to make up for our human limitations.
Restrictions on free speech imperil our democratic system, as well. When the government can restrict speech it finds offensive or dangerous, officials can easily use that power to serve their own partisan purposes. An example of this occurred right at the beginning of our country’s history, when the John Adams administration and other Federalists used the Sedition Act of 1798 to threaten and punish their political opponents. Because of this act, Democratic-Republican newspaper editors—and even Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont—were arrested and imprisoned merely for having the audacity to speak out against the president and his actions.
As an alumnus of Brandeis University, I’m reminded of Justice Brandeis’ famous stand for free speech in Whitney v. California (1927): “Freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth.” He also wisely cautioned us against restricting speech out of fear: “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears. . . . Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty.”
Sadly, such great wisdom and courage has been largely ignored, or forgotten, in today’s America. We can—we must—change that. It will not be easy, but we must transmit an understanding of the value of free speech to today’s Americans in order to ensure that it is protected for future generations. And perhaps even more importantly, we need to demonstrate a vigorous commitment to free speech. America’s success depends on whether we continue to embrace this fundamental freedom.