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Nov 26, 2015

The Most Liberal Value: Free Speech

Current attacks on free speech reveal progressivism as a uniquely American iteration of fascism that shares many of its historical and ideological roots.

Recent events on American college campuses have prompted a debate on where we should draw the line that divides permissible from impermissible speech. Many students argue that some kinds of speech cause real trauma and hurt, and that therefore universities ought to intervene to protect them. The essential argument is the old and illiberal one that some words and ideas are simply out of bounds, that our benevolent rulers—in their infinite wisdom—must decide which words we may say or write, which books we may read, indeed, which opinions we may hold. Nevertheless, we might excuse students, unsophisticated and new to the world of ideas, for their failure to understand true liberal values. In all of their eager, overwrought opposition to intolerance, they have become the picture of intolerance. Much less pardonable, though, are the cowardice and capitulation of scholars and university administrators, who, despite their erudition and experience, have cleared the way for an authoritarian culture of hypersensitivity that grows stronger by the day. Just as the events of September 11th cowed us into embracing the most dangerous of enemies, the national security state, so too has our irrational fear of “hate speech” (and other similarly amorphous categories) persuaded us to abandon one of our foundational liberties. As Robert Higgs recently observed, we have regrettably become “a massively entertained, hyper fearful bunch of people who will sit still for a police state.” 

Some supposed liberals now find it perfectly acceptable to violently accost or threaten people whose words offend their delicate sensibilities. They seem not to realize that the best remedy for bad ideas is to catechize them, to subject them to the crucible of debate and rational inspection. Indeed, those of us who cherish tolerance and other liberal values should be confident that our ideas will handily defeat the ideologies of hatred and bigotry. These progressives propose the impossible and internally contradictory notion that we can defeat intolerance with the violent suppression of free speech, that the remedy for bad ideas is not the free and open debates of civil society, but the Orwellian speech codes of an authoritarian dictatorship. Here, again, progressivism reveals itself as a departure from liberalism, as a uniquely American iteration of fascism that shares many of its historical and ideological roots. In the present day, libertarians are the genuine adherents of liberalism, a word to which we must append the qualifier classical to distinguish it from what now misleadingly goes by the name. And freedom of speech is arguably the most liberal of all liberal values, the bedrock of a genuinely free society. The entire process of education and free inquiry into ideas is and must be predicated on the freedom of speech and expression. Without such freedom, ideas cannot be examined and assessed in their fullness; we would live in a benighted world in which ideas are lost forever, thrown down the memory as too dangerous or offensive.

As it happens, freedom of speech has always been anathema to progressivism. The Progressive Era gave us, for example, the Sedition Act of 1918, not reluctantly but with pronounced enthusiasm, seduced by the belief that individualism and freedom were dangerous to sought after national unity. Confronted with First Amendment challenges to that law in Abrams v. United States (and other similar cases in 1919), the Supreme Court failed to protect the rights of individuals. The Abrams defendants were convicted of distributing printed materials critical of the U.S. government and President Woodrow Wilson, many of them describing themselves at trial as anarchists and revolutionists. In Abrams, the Court used but one sentence to dispose of the First Amendment issue, declaring that the free speech argument was sufficiently and “definitely negatived” in three previous cases, Schenck v. United States, Baer v. United States, and Frohwerk v. United States. Unable to accept the Court’s reasoning, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote what has been called “the most powerful dissent in American history.” The dissent is perhaps surprising given Holmes’s progressivism and his legal positivist tendency to defer to the political branches. He opined that even if Schenck, Frohwerk, and Debs were correctly decided (and indeed he believed they were), the facts at issue lacked the requisite intent to hinder the American war effort. To Holmes, therefore, the defendants’ convictions violated the First Amendment, punishing them for expressing their beliefs. He then offered one of the most famous and eloquent defenses of free speech in all of American history, “that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

Today’s college students would do well to revisit Holmes’s powerful words, as well as those of Justice Hugo Black’s dissent in American Communications Association v. Douds. At issue in that case was a section of the National Labor Relations Act that required a union member to swear “that he is not a member of the Communist Party or affiliated with such party, and that he does not believe in, and is not a member of or supports any organization that believes in or teaches, the overthrow of the United States Government by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods.” In his dissent, Black observed that “people can be, and, in less democratic countries, have been, made to suffer for their admitted or conjectured thoughts.” He contended that oaths of the kind at issue were “an abomination to the founders of this nation,” and a weapon against vulnerable minorities.

As Black’s dissent appreciates, words are the vehicle for our thoughts; attempts to proscribe certain words, either in speech or print, are quite properly understood as attempts at thought control. Indeed, as Orwell vividly illustrated in 1984, by limiting speech and controlling the terms under which it took place, the Party could actually “narrow the range of thought.” America’s rabid political correctness police, threatening those who express ideas they don’t like, are our illiberal, real-life answer to Orwell’s Thought Police. For them, the free and earnest expression of their own ideas will not suffice; they must repress—violently, if necessary—the competing ideas of others, “winning” the debate through a show of naked force rather than cogent argument. The goal, of course, is as it was in Orwell’s fictional Oceania, to eradicate not only the fact of dissent, but even the mere thought of it, to cleanse the social and political environment of the messy realities of freedom. Educated (read: indoctrinated) in state schools and raised to genuflect before the centralized power of the federal government, today’s students have embraced just the power that they ought to fear, shunned just the liberty that they ought to cherish. Political orthodoxy has triumphed, and free thought is its enemy. One needn’t accept the radical libertarian’s idea of free speech to reject this kind of authoritarian preclusion of debate, dialogue, and Holmes’s “free trade in ideas.” Even the faintest shadow of a free and open society is rendered impossible without this free trade, without the absolute right of every sovereign individual to think, speak, and write freely—that is, free from the fear of violent reprisal.

It is right, even virtuous, to hate and resist narrow-minded bigotry, to hope for its defeat, and to celebrate tolerance and diversity. But we cannot defeat narrow-mindedness by coercively narrowing the range of idea that individuals are allowed to express. A free people cannot be a mewling mob of immature, thin-skinned adult-babies, cowering before ideas they don’t like and demanding that the sources of those ideas be silenced. Freedom is built on a kind of contract, through which we agree to respect those with whom we disagree—at least enough to stop short of physically harming them. True, words sometimes hurt. But a free society accepts that it is hurt of a kind different (in an important and essential way) from instances of actual physical violence. You’re free to hold and express your opinions, as I’m free to hold and express mine. The resulting variety makes us stronger and more well-rounded, just as our country’s cultural melting pot is rightly regarded as among its greatest assets, a source of edification and understanding. A truly liberal (in the old, best sense) society needs the free flow of ideas and the ironclad assurance that this flow will not be obstructed by legal or political authority. Its defining principle being centralized power, progressivism can never fully square with this requirement of liberalism. Liberals, then, must decide, as always, whether they favor freedom or force.