Keeping Free Speech Free

by Nathan Bruschi | 11/5/07 12:20am

The freedom of speech is one of the most basic and integral concepts in liberal democracies. The free exchange of ideas, which forms the foundation for college and university education, could not exist without the guarantee of this freedom. But all speech is not free.

There are a number of legal limitations to free speech in America. "Indecent" material, such as profanity or pornography, may be censored on "pervasive" media like broadcast TV and radio. Child pornography is illegal to own or distribute. Companies are forbidden from making false statements in their advertising. Campaign finance may be limited. Copyrighted materials and government secrets may not be distributed. Slander and libel may be litigated for damages. And lastly, while the content of political speech may not be regulated, the time, place and manner in which it takes place can and often is (e.g. free speech zones). These may be regulated because there are convincing reasons why these instances are not actually speech but rather a form of action.

But even with these exceptions, true and absolute free speech does not really exist at Dartmouth or anywhere else in America. I say this because we as a society do not treat ideas and speech independently from their authors. When someone disagrees with something, it has become tragically common for that person to direct his or her anger and disapproval at the author and not at the ideas presented. During the "Islamo-Fascism Week," many on campus expressed outrage and accused bigotry on the part of its organizer, Robert Spencer, but failed to address the arguments he presented. This common tendency to question people's motives in saying the things they say -- as opposed to disputing their facts or reasoning--means that valid arguments are suppressed because people can simply discredit each other without having to engage in debate. Sure, people can express themselves without fear or reprisal from the government, or, in our case, the College administration, but social pressure is enough to prevent free and honest discussion, especially where it is needed most.

In addition, it is problematic that people tend to consider the context of the author in determining the validity of ideas. If calling an Italian a "wop" is wrong, it does not matter if the person who says it is Italian or not. If the N-word is a racist word it does not matter if it comes out of the mouth of 50 Cent or Dog the Bounty Hunter; it is still racist. The opinions of a freshman columnist for The Dartmouth and a tired old senior are equally as valid as the evidence they use. The fact that someone went to an Ivy League school rather than a public university does not intrinsically make their ideas any more correct.

Many argue that hate speech, specifically racist speech, should be criminalized because unlike other opinions, racism can objectively be disproven and therefore there is no valuable discussion to be had. But this government regulation of the truth can be extended to frightening proportions. I happen to believe in evolution, and while this theory may be objectively proven (in that it forms the basis for modern biology), that does not mean that I want police to arrest skeptical academics. After all, the last major state that got in the business of regulating the truth was the Soviet Union.

In many ways the free market of ideas shares the beautiful efficiency of a free market economy. When all ideas are freely presented and discussed, the ones that are most persuasive, in that they are backed up by evidence, will triumph and establish themselves as fact. If evolutionary theory is true, the facts will lead people to that conclusion without the help of the state. Government interference in this process, as in the economic realm, will largely lead to inefficiencies.

Politesse often serves as a reason to self-censor, but the fear of offending others should never factor into the decision. An Islamist who believes in the supremacy of Islamic law (sharia) may take offense at the prospect of women's suffrage, but that doesn't mean we should stop discussing gender equality. Even speech that shocks the average conscience, like that of the Westboro Baptist Church, which routinely pickets military funerals with signs reading "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" should also be protected.

The right to free speech, like a muscle, will weaken unless it is constantly and vigorously exercised. If we do not stand up and support everyone's rights, even that of the Westboro Baptist Church, then our support of free speech is merely conditional and, frankly, non-existent.

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