Freedom of expression makes people free. We must defend all unapologetic speech
It was just a sticker. It was written: “China Kinda Sus.
It was the entire message that led William P. Gilligan, president of Emerson College in Boston, to write a letter to the entire college community accusing the conservative student group that distributed the sticker of ‘bigotry and hate anti-Asian”.
It didn’t matter that the message was a criticism of the Chinese government, not Asians. Nor does it matter that one of the students handing out the stickers, KJ Lynum, is Asian herself (in fact, one-third of the group members were Asian). The college suspended the group and found them guilty of violating the school’s policy on “bias-related behavior”.
Later, discouraged by the experience, KJ dropped out of school.
On campus and increasingly beyond, labeling speech “hate” makes authorities feel like they can silence it. It is therefore not surprising that the label is sometimes used in a frivolous way to emotionally manipulate people into accepting unwarranted exercises of power, including punishment for expressing ideas.
Off-campus activists have used the label in an attempt to pressure Netflix to remove recent comedy specials featuring Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais, while some Republican legislatures use it to justify banning teaching critical race theory. When Elon Musk announced his intention to buy Twitter to promote free speech, some of America’s most enthusiastic censors lamented an “uncontrolled” internet where some people can be free to express opinions that others aren’t. dislike or find it in poor taste.
If you ask Americans, most will say they strongly support free speech protections. However, label the speech “hateful” and that support plummets, especially among Democrats.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Hate speech is not free speech.” There’s just one problem with that mantra: it’s not legally true, at least in America. The First Amendment protections for free speech do not include a “hate speech” exception. This is due, in large part, to the problem of subjectivity: who decides what is hateful and by what standard? Donald Trump? Joe Biden? Should we ask Emerson President Gilligan? Eighty-two percent of Americans say we can’t agree on a definition of hate speech, even though 40% say the government should ban it.
In the UK and Europe, where hate speech laws are common, they are used to punish everything from YouTube jokes to criticism of religious figures.
After failing for 40 years in America, the hate-speech-inspired conception of free speech popularized by Critical Race Theory co-founder Richard Delgado in the 1980s may now move beyond the approach.” sticks and stones” – at least on campus and on social media. In Delgado’s conception, words can function as a form of violence: “They can assault; they can hurt,” says the description of his 1993 book on the subject which he co-authored with other founders of the CRT.
For most Americans of the 80s and 90s, especially free speech advocates, the confusion of words with violence was seen as a direct challenge to our liberal democratic order. Sigmund Freud once said that “the man who first threw a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilization”. Associate words with violence and soon people will feel justified in using violence instead of words to settle their disagreements. Democracy, in which differences are resolved not by violence but by debate, discussion and voting, cannot survive the collapse of this critical distinction.
The notion of “words that hurt” speech inspired a movement for restrictive speech codes on college campuses. It has been regularly thrown out in court, but a growing number of students and college administrators still cling to this vision of enlightened censorship. “Hateful rhetoric is violent, and it is unacceptable,” the editorial board of the University of Virginia student newspaper wrote earlier this year demanding that the school not allow former vice president Mike Pence to speak on campus.
Ironically, the growing support for censorship may be due, in part, to the victory of free speech advocates in the courts. While First Amendment protections have grown stronger over the past half-century, the remaining court cases often involve less sympathetic discourse at the fringes, like that of the Westboro Baptist Church and white nationalists in Charlottesville. Younger generations of Americans who see the First Amendment protecting hugely unpopular speech can easily forget – or perhaps have never been taught – how the First Amendment gave birth to everything from the civil rights movement to the gay rights movement. .
But how long will the legal bulwark against further exceptions to free speech hold? As Judge Learned Hand said in a 1944 speech, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much for help.”
In short, if we don’t defend and promote a culture of free speech, we risk losing the culture and our legal protections.
What America needs more than ever are vocal, nonpartisan free speech advocates to remind Americans why we stand for free speech in the first place. We need lawyers who won’t just fall back on the circular argument “because the First Amendment protects it.” We need defenders who are willing to shamelessly defend the right to express even the thoughts we hate.
We say “shameless” because too often even free speech advocates come across as apologizing for the offense the speech might cause, genuflecting to other values and not defending never to full throat our rights of expression. While such apologies may have their place, they risk distracting free speech advocates from the fact that free speech is a fundamental human right for which we do not have to apologize.
This is why our organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, stubbornly refuses to take a position on the content of the speech we stand for, beyond saying it is protected. Why say more? As Mark R. Hamilton, the courageous former president of the University of Alaska, wrote in a memo to his colleagues: “Attempts to assuage anger or show concern by qualifying our support for freedom of expression serve to obscure what should be a clear message. “
Freedom of expression allows us to authentically express our individuality, to discover our world and to live in peace in a democratic society. Freedom of expression is an essential ingredient of scientific progress, social justice and artistic expression. Put simply, freedom of expression allows us to know what our fellow citizens really think and why.
Freedom of expression makes people free. We must not give up the fight to preserve it.
Greg Lukianoff is President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), co-author of the bestselling book “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure”. Nico Perrino is Vice President of Communications at FIRE and host of So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.