Speech Is Not Free

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In Russia is freedom of speech. In America is also freedom after speech.
–Yakov Smirnoff

I can’t tell which speech is supposed to be free nowadays. “Free speech” rallies are confronted for promoting hate speech; hate speech claims to be free. Liberal campuses reject unacceptable speakers and provoke riots, while Nazis and neo-Confederates complain that their right to say that others should be expelled from their “pure nation” are infringed. The coarseness of our dialogue and the personal invective accompanying its delivery overshadow whatever content we may intend to convey.

In other words, free speech has a cost -- not a legal one, perhaps, but a social one. With every word that one chooses, a response is provoked in listeners and readers, which adds to their cumulative assessment of the value of the speaker. Whether you call it credibility, or trust, or respect, or use any other term: your speech adds to the opinions others have, and in that way, your speech has a cost.

What free speech means legally is often confused. It means that the government cannot in most circumstances prevent you from speaking, nor can it punish you for doing so. There are limits, of course: John Mill’s ideas of “harmful” speech are embodied in laws preventing incitement to riot or promoting violence. But beyond that, the legal right to free speech is very broad -- as far as it goes. It does not mean that you have a right to be heard, or can speak at any time, or from any place. It doesn’t mean that you can say anything without retribution from other citizens or private businesses. It doesn’t mean you can speak on private property, even when that property (such as a university)  receives public funding. It doesn’t mean you can’t be fired or lose business. It doesn’t mean that others cannot try to drown you out.

Right wing activists often complain that their rights to speech are unfairly infringed because of “hate speech laws” or lack of official cooperation. That may sometimes be true, but more often, governments try to limit speakers who expressly advocate violence. It was rich irony this past week to see Chris Cantwell, a well-known neo-Nazi, be filmed dropping three concealed weapons on his hotel bed after the Charlottesville march while saying  “these people want violence and the right is just meeting market demand,” only a day or two later to weep into his cell phone camera about persecution from his opponents.

Yet right wingers sometimes have a point. Speech suppression as practiced today isn’t always because it promotes violence. Campuses have made it difficult, if not impossible, for students and guests to speak publicly about discrimination, racism, religion, or other “untouchable” subjects because of concerns about the reactions of students. Note that this isn’t about violent speech -- it may not even be about hateful speech. Bill Maher found resistance to appearing at Berkeley because of his belief that anti-Western violence is broadly supported in the worldwide Muslim community; in other words, he wanted to speak about hate and violence in other groups, but was accused of being “a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for” in a student petition. Such leftist intolerance completely undermines the notion of liberalism, but that in fact may be the point of it: many on the far and radicalized left believe that liberalism, by allowing for disagreeable and even hateful points of view, should be discarded in favor of a stricter society in which Maher’s “offensive and his dangerous rhetoric” won’t be heard.

Yet isn’t that what freedom of speech means? Isn’t the right to say offensive things, even dangerous things, the entire point of freedom of speech? Would America even exist if the lack of such speech had prevented citizens from publishing pamphlets and reading the opinions of others? Who’s to set limits if limits are allowed?

There has been a move in the tech world this week, following the Charlottesville march and Heather Heyer’s death, to scrub neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate websites from the internet by blocking their ability to be found (the technical means is to remove their DNS and domain registrations). But this simply empowers technical bureaucrats to preempt free speech by making it unavailable. It’s true that you don’t have a right to be heard. But which person will make the judgement? What if Jewish websites disappeared because they oppose Hamas? Or Christian websites because they oppose Islam? Should we willfully blind ourselves to subsurface turmoil in our own society by refusing to hear its point of view? To some extent, every point of view is controversial to someone.

In the end, I think that is why free speech has a cost: because it is controversial to someone, somewhere. That cost is the consensus of judgements we collectively make of the value of speech after we have heard it. That is its value in the free marketplace of ideas. That is the reason to not be silenced, by government, or bureaucrats, or students. Without speech, we have no ideas. Without ideas, we have no free society.


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