This past year has got me thinking a lot about the freedom of speech and expression. During this time, there have been protests against conservative and Alt Right figures speaking in college campuses. President Trump has attacked the right of football players to protest police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has lashed out at his critics and at journalists in a similar fashion that American President Trump has lashed out at his various critics. It seems like the free speech rights of people are being attacked from many sides.
I personally support the right of Colin Kaepernick and any athlete to engage in acts of protest for what they believe in. In the same way I support the freedom of expression of athletes like Colin Kaepernick, I support the right of right wing figures to speak in college campuses like Berkeley if they are invited by conservative student groups from that campus. Both cases are examples of free speech that I think need to be protected. I strongly agree with the conversations on racial injustice that the football players are trying to provoke from their protests. I deeply disagree with the opinions of Charles Murray, Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannoupolis. It doesn’t matter though, whether I agree or disagree with their message. We should protect the freedom of speech of those we deeply disagree with just as vigorously as we protect the freedom of speech of those we agree with.
I think it is very important to protect the freedom of speech of those who hold deeply unpopular opinions. It often means defending the rights of people we despise, like racists or white supremacists. But by defending the rights of unpopular speech by right wing groups, we also protect the unpopular stances of progressive groups trying to persuade communities to make difficult changes. At one time, the abolition of slavery, the right of women to vote, the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain for better work conditions, the right of LGBTQ people to marry and live openly, all at one time were deeply unpopular opinions. In the 1820s, abolitionist speakers were attacked by crowds who didn’t like their criticisms of the institution of slavery. In the late 19th and the early 20th century, women suffragists were harassed and jailed for demonstrating for the right of women to speak. During that same period, factories often hired thugs to beat up labor organizers who were trying to persuade workers to organize into unions. Southern segregationists tried to stop civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr from speaking in their communities by using the argument that these civil rights leaders were expressing opinions that went against the community’s values and their criticisms of segregation would incite violence.
By protecting the right of an Ann Coulter or a Charles Murray to speak in a liberal college or university, we also protect the right of a progressive activist to speak in a deeply hostile conservative community. The freedom of speech protects the right of a labor organizer to speak to workers in spite of a hostile management. The freedom of speech protects the right of an LGBT activist or a Muslim activist to speak in a conservative Christian community. The freedom of speech protects the right of women to speak out for women’s rights in a misogynistic workplace. And the freedom of speech protects the rights of Colin Kaepernick and any athlete to protest and express their beliefs on the athletic field.
I would offer a caveat towards protecting the freedom of speech of an Alt Right figure like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak in Berkeley. I would allow him to speak if he was invited by a conservative group, but I would not want an audience to be forced to passively listen if Yiannopoulos targets a vulnerable minority group or espouses a bigoted view. I would allow a controversial speaker to express their views on campus if the platform was a debate format or if there is a question-and-answer session where the speakers’ views can be challenged. One of the things that a college or university should be teaching is how to debate differing views, defend your own beliefs and point out the errors of bigoted views. I think that is a better way to fight hate speech rather than censorship.
David Cole wrote an article for the New York Review of Books titled Why Free Speech Is Not Enough where he defends the widest possible interpretation of free speech as a protection for minorities and others who are oppressed. He wrote:
Where the ACLU had initially promoted the rights of workers, it was now defending a more universal conception of rights, available to the strong as well as the weak. But one might more accurately characterize it as reflecting a growing recognition of the importance of protecting speech of all perspectives. If it is to gain widespread adherence, the principle of free speech must be available to all. It’s no coincidence that the ACLU began to succeed and grow as it adopted a more universal conception of civil liberties.
More fundamentally, a conception of speech rights that turns on assessments of which views advance the interests of the weak over the strong, or of whether the marketplace of ideas is skewed by inequality, risks giving state officials the power to censor views they disfavor. The protection of free speech need not rest on a blind faith that free exchange will lead us to truth. It can and should rest on the much stronger corollary proposition, namely that empowering the state to correct perceived deficiencies in the marketplace of ideas is a cure that is worse than the disease. Why would we trust state officials, elected by majorities and generally supported by society’s powerful interests, to make fair decisions about how the marketplace is skewed and which views need to be suppressed or promoted? The best argument for protecting speech is not that the free marketplace of ideas will lead us to truth, but that it is superior to all the alternatives.
Moreover, while it is true that a right to universal free speech can be invoked by the powerful as well as the weak, by business as well as labor, the right is nonetheless more valuable for the weak. By definition, the powerful are able to achieve their interests through the political process. As a result, they are less likely to need constitutional protections. For the weak, however, constitutional protections may be all they have. While “civil liberties” in their liberal form are universal, they are designed to protect those whose interests are not served by the political process. And that gives them radical potential, even if they are available to all.
David Cole wrote another article on free speech for the New York Review of Books titled Why We Must Still Defend Free Speech where he writes:
And even if we could somehow answer that question, how would we define what speech to suppress? Should the government be able to silence all arguments against affirmative action or about genetic differences between men and women, or just uneducated racist and sexist rants? It is easy to recognize inequality; it is virtually impossible to articulate a standard for suppression of speech that would not afford government officials dangerously broad discretion and invite discrimination against particular viewpoints…
…Here is the ultimate contradiction in the argument for state suppression of speech in the name of equality: it demands protection of disadvantaged minorities’ interests, but in a democracy, the state acts in the name of the majority, not the minority. Why would disadvantaged minorities trust representatives of the majority to decide whose speech should be censored? At one time, most Americans embraced ‘separate but equal’ for the races and separate spheres for the sexes as defining equality. It was the freedom to contest those views, safeguarded by the principle of free speech, that allowed us to reject them.
As Frederick Douglass reminded us, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Throughout our history, disadvantaged minority groups have effectively used the First Amendment to speak, associate, and assemble for the purpose of demanding their rights—and the ACLU has defended their right to do so. Where would the movements for racial justice, women’s rights, and LGBT equality be without a muscular First Amendment?
In some limited but important settings, equality norms do trump free speech. At schools and in the workplace, for example, antidiscrimination law forbids harassment and hostile working conditions based on race or sex, and those rules limit what people can say there. The courts have recognized that in situations involving formal hierarchy and captive audiences, speech can be limited to ensure equal access and treatment. But those exceptions do not extend to the public sphere, where ideas must be open to full and free contestation, and those who disagree can turn away or talk back…
…When white supremacists called a rally the following week in Boston, they mustered only a handful of supporters. They were vastly outnumbered by tens of thousands of counterprotesters who peacefully marched through the streets to condemn white supremacy, racism, and hate. Boston proved yet again that the most powerful response to speech that we hate is not suppression but more speech.”
The issue of free speech is especially important to me, both as a liberal Democrat and as a political cartoonist. If you look at this country’s history, it has generally been those on the Left and not the Right who have been the target of government and local community efforts to suppress the freedom of speech and expression. You can see it in the suppression and harassment of civil rights speakers in the Jim Crow South, the harassment of Leftists during the Palmer Raids of the early 1920s and the McCarthy era of the early 1950s. Nixon’s enemies list mostly consisted of liberals and radicals who opposed the policies of the Nixon administration. An example of this is an article title When Dissent Became Treason by Adam Hochschild for The New York Review of Books, that describes the censorship during World War I.
When Woodrow Wilson went before Congress on April 2, 1917, and asked it to declare war against Germany, the country, as it is today, was riven by discord. Even though millions of people from the perennially bellicose Theodore Roosevelt on down were eager for war, President Wilson was not sure he could count on the loyalty of some nine million German-Americans, or of the 4.5 million Irish-Americans who might be reluctant to fight as allies of Britain. Also, hundreds of officials elected to state and local office belonged to the Socialist Party, which strongly opposed American participation in this or any other war. And tens of thousands of Americans were ‘Wobblies,’ members of the militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the only battle they wanted to fight was that of labor against capital.
The moment the United States entered the war in Europe, a second, less noticed war began at home. Staffed by federal agents, local police, and civilian vigilantes, it had three main targets: anyone who might be a German sympathizer, left-wing newspapers and magazines, and labor activists. The war against the last two groups would continue for a year and a half after World War I ended…
…A more somber insight offered by the events of 1917–1920 is that when powerful social tensions roil the country and hysteria fills the air, rights and values we take for granted can easily be eroded: the freedom to publish and speak, protection from vigilante justice, even confidence that election results will be honored. When, for instance, in 1918 and again in a special election the next year, Wisconsin voters elected a Socialist to Congress, and a fairly moderate one at that, the House of Representatives, by a vote of 330 to 6, simply refused to seat him. The same thing happened to five members of the party elected to the New York state legislature.
Emily Deruy wrote an article for the San Jose Mercury News titled U.C. Berkelely Tries To Reclaim Its Free Speech Legacy where she states:
“During the McCarthy era in the 1950s, while schools were cracking down on political advocacy, thousands of Americans were accused of and investigated for being communists by some on the right. In essence, Aptheker said, it was the right trying to suppress freedom of speech.
Now, she said, ‘you have the ascendancy of the right again and a kind of hijacking of the free speech issue in a way that makes it seem like the left is trying to suppress freedom of speech — which is not true.’
Broadly speaking, the argument of Christ and other UC Berkeley leaders is that hate speech is best countered with more measured, thoughtful speech. That may be something Dirks believed but he didn’t step forward like Christ to model the idea. Her approach appears to be resonating with professors and free speech scholars.
‘You’ve got to protect the greatest possible range of speech,’ said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. ‘The answer to really idiotic racist speech is speech explaining why it’s idiotic and racist.’”
I recently had a conversation with some friends about the freedom of speech and one of them noted that I was taking a position that many right wingers are taking on free speech. There are some progressives, most notably Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have defended the free speech rights of conservatives like Ann Coulter to speak in Berkeley. But my friend is correct that the Right Wing is being the most vocal right now in arguing for free speech. Though I disagree with the Right on most issues, when it comes to the freedom of speech, I have to agree with their position on the widest latitude for free speech. I do think it’s hypocritical for conservatives to defend the right of white supremacists to speak in liberal colleges while denouncing the right of Colin Kaepernick to protest racial inequality during the national anthem. But I do think we need to protect the right to disagree with the popular consensus.
I end this blog with a quote from conservative columnist Bret Stephen’s article The Dying Art of Disagreement that he wrote for the New York Times.
But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree…
…To listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind — this is what I was encouraged to do by my teachers at the University of Chicago.
It’s what used to be called a liberal education…
…In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.
Here is a VICE video of the similarity between NFL players protesting police brutality during the national anthem and the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley during the 1960s..
The battle over free speech in the NFL may be new. But it has uncanny echoes of a 1960s fight at UC-Berkeley waged by a coalition of students from across the political spectrum known as the Free Speech Movement. The F.S.M. started in the fall of 1964 after the Berkeley administration banned all political activity on campus. The F.S.M.’s goal was a complete repeal of the ban. But the energy that drove the movement came from deeper grievances.
VICE News looks at the root of the movement and how it connects to today’s free speech battles.
Dave Rubin, Bret Weinstein, and Steve Simpson join Harvard University to discuss the current state of free speech in America and American universities, followed by an open Q&A.
Here is a 2006 debate between Christopher Hitchens, Philip Gourevitch and Signe Wilkinson on one side and Daisy Khan, David Cesarani and Mari Matsuda on the other side. They were debating whether the freedom of speech must include the right to offend
Sen. Elizabeth Warren weighed in on the Ann Coulter controversy on Berkeley’s campus, saying Coulter has the right to speak — if you don’t like her, don’t show up
Here is a January 8, 2015 PBS NewsHour video of Ted Rall and Tom Toles speaking on the topic of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and the freedom of speech
Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, talked about whether society should draw the line where permitted speech is on one side, and forbidden speech is on the other
J.K. Rowling defended the freedom of speech of then candidate Donald Trump in May 2016 at the PEN America Literary Gala, where she received the 2016 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award. By defending Trump’s free speech rights, it also defends Rowling’s right to call Trump a bigot