Magann: Speech of the Free

Free expression is the best way to combat bigotry. ​

by Matthew Magann | 11/9/17 12:15am

People often think of free expression as a tradeoff, with hateful speech an unfortunate corollary to the predominant good of free speech. The implicit assertion is that, were freedom of expression curtailed and offensive groups banned, levels of hate would go down. Some on both the far left and the far right argue for just that: They demand censorship of speakers, groups and ideas that they deem offensive or unacceptable. These beliefs are critically flawed. While some may follow the kneejerk reaction that if an idea is dangerous, we should ban it, a rigorously-defended right to free expression is actually the most effective means of preventing bigotry.

You can’t truly ban an idea. You can censor it, push it underground or make its publication illegal, but you can’t legislate the underlying beliefs out of existence. Censorship, as with any threat, doesn’t change minds. The main problem with intolerant speech is not the offensiveness of the speech itself, but the bigotry that motivates that speech. Banning, say, racist speech will do nothing to combat racist beliefs. With racist speech censored, toxic ideas could still spread in private conversation, free from the harsh criticism they would have received had they been freely voiced in public. Censorship serves as a kind of denial. Instead of taking up the difficult work of tackling a societal problem, censors effectively ban the view they dislike and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, the bigotry behind hateful speech continues to spread in private, unchecked by criticism. A society that fails to protect the freedom of expression will thus find itself more vulnerable to the very ideas it bans.

But disregard that for a moment and imagine that censorship could counter hateful ideas, that outlawing supposedly unacceptable speech would cause the ideas behind that speech to vanish. I would still argue vehemently against the imposition of censorship, and not just on principle. The notion of free expression, like skepticism, empiricism and rationality, rests on the idea that no one entity can monopolize the truth. Contrary to some previous societies, where a king or religious leader declared one absolute, inviolable truth, modern liberal values hinge on constant questioning. This process minimizes superstition and personal bias, allowing ideas to win out on their own merits. Handing the mantle of truth to an authority is not just intellectually stifling — it endangers the very people that censorship supposedly protects. We may agree with an administration when it bans speech we see as unacceptable — but what can we do when a new administration bans speech we consider important? Calls from the far left for bans on “hate speech” may work out for them under a sympathetic administration, but imagine what the current administration might define as hateful. At one time or another, Donald Trump’s administration has advocated for the revocation of broadcasting licenses, criminal penalties for flag burning and dangerously-expanded libel laws. In doing so, it has defined anti-Trump, anti-nationalistic speech as unacceptable. Had hate speech laws been enacted, might Trump use them to target those who disagree with him? When we ban any form of speech, we undercut the foundation of free expression. Considering the frequency with which power changes hands, even if censorship were effective, surrendering the mantle of truth to those in power is a short-sighted and dangerous proposition for all.

Liberal values are radically democratic. They assert that people can govern themselves, determine for themselves what is true and challenge what they believe is not. By any standard, these values have been a tremendous success, countering irrational superstition and oppression to create modern society.

Calls to censor offensive speech fly in the face of liberalism. Restricting free expression might shield people from views with which they disagree, but it will do nothing to oppose or change those views. And even if censorship could eliminate an idea, we should never empower a select few to determine right and wrong. History shows that many authorities have actually promoted hate. Without the First Amendment, might the segregated South have banned the Civil Rights Movement as unacceptable speech, a threat to the public order?

Censorship may be the instinctual reaction to offensive speech. Upon closer examination, though, it proves both ethically unjustifiable and grossly ineffective at combatting intolerance.