The Reason for Free Speech
Walter Lippmann began writing The Public Philosophy in 1938 and completed it in 1955. His words have particular relevance today when the Obama administration tries to "discredit stories and sources and reporters that the powers-that-be don't like."
In Chapter IX, Section 3, Lippmann explains why freedom of speech is a necessary component in a society. It is "a principal method of attaining truth" because of "the ability to raise searching difficulties on both sides of a subject [that] will make us detect more easily the truth and error about the several points that arise." Thus, freedom of speech is not merely the "pleasure of [an] utterance" by an individual; it is more essential than that. Freedom of speech is the" ability to confront ideas with opposing ideas in order that the pro and the con of the dispute will lead to true ideas. But the dispute must not be treated as a trial of strength. It must be a means of elucidation."
And it is this "means of elucidation" that infuriates the left as well as spokesmen for terrorist groups. They will harangue, scream, berate, shout, bellow, and yell – in an effort to drown out any meaningful discussion. And too often, in a gesture of being polite, one side quietly waits until the screaming is completed, but by then, time is up for a genuine interaction of ideas. Rather than having the "disputants argue cooperatively in order to acquire more wisdom than either of them had when [they] began," censorship rears its ugly head.
In today's world we see "silliness, baseness and deception" so much so that it "submerges the kernels of truth." As a result, freedom of speech "is no longer respected as a procedure of the truth and [instead] becomes the unrestricted right to exploit the ignorance, and to incite the passions, of the people." Consequently, how is it possible that the Ninth Circuit Court ruling that students can't wear American flag T-shirts because they may offend Mexican students celebrating Cinco de Mayo is upheld? How is it conceivable that no matter the facts of the Ferguson situation, Obama, Holder, and Sharpton continue the false assertions that result in violence, destruction, and fear? Moreover, Obamacare lies are getting as high as the original stack of pages that constituted the law, while any credible debate about aspects of the law are ignored. Anyone exposing the underbelly of the law is demeaned and humiliated. Heck, we were too stupid to comprehend the scam, according to Gruber!
Thus, as Lippmann explains, freedom of speech ultimately becomes "such a hullabaloo of sophistry, propaganda, special pleading, lobbying, and salesmanship that it is difficult to remember why freedom of speech is worth the pain and trouble of defending it."
Therein lies the crux of the matter. As the government whittles away freedoms, the people become exhausted and dejected and eventually surrender because it is just easier than speaking up.
To wit, at a college where I teach, the internet security policy has now restricted access to the site "Religion of Peace." Under the category of "Hate/Racism," "access to this site is blocked according to the organization's security policy." But the Religion of Peace site includes "direct reference to the Qur'an, Hadith and Sira – the sacred texts that objectively define [Islam]." The site is "not a political site and [they] do not promote any particular religion." In essence, the site is a valuable resource of articles from national and international sources (including American Thinker) that covers a wealth of information on Islam. The creators of this site ask if it is "possible to reform Islam into a 21st century religion, or is the dysfunctional and hate simply too deeply rooted within the teachings and history of the faith?" Though "pessimistic about reform," they accept that "there are intelligent and compassionate members of the Muslim community who disagree[.]" Thus, the site is a forum that seeks the free expression of ideas. Nonetheless, a school of higher learning will not permit its students or faculty access to it.
Then there is the University of Minnesota library, which has put together a freely available online video collection that includes Al Jazeera Video Creative Commons Repository, containing broadcast footage that Al Jazeera has released under various Creative Commons licenses. Yet Al Jazeera's "newscasts and on-air discussions are staged to show its mostly-Muslim viewers a relentlessly visceral, emotion-charged drama in which Jews, Israel, and Americans are almost always cast as villains, infidels, and evil-doers."
Without the "willingness to debate," a society cannot "achieve moral and political truth." In fact, in 1927, Louis D. Brandeis maintained that “[i]f there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."
For example, as much as I detest the actions of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), well-known for their anti-Israel demonstrations and political theater, I accept that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has defended SJP's right to speak. But there should be an equally vocal explanation of the prevarications and misinformation expounded by SJP, because, as Lippmann writes, "when genuine debate is lacking, freedom of speech does not work as it is meant to work. It has lost the principle which regulates it and justifies it – that is to say, dialectic conducted according to logic and the rules of evidence."
FIRE maintains that interruptions such as the 2010 lecture when Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, was repeatedly forced to stop his talk do not equate to free speech. Thus, "if a precedent is set on this issue" that it’s OK to shout during a campus talk, "then any group that opposes any speaker can literally stop discussion and debate from taking place" by repeatedly interrupting. FIRE asserts that "[f]ailing to punish offenders appropriately is likely to threaten the free speech of future speakers by effectively condoning a ‘heckler’s veto’ through disruptive actions. That would make a mockery of the First Amendment." In the end, according to Lippmann, "what men will most ardently desire is to suppress those who disagree with them and, therefore, stand in the way of the realization of their desires. Thus, once confrontation in debate is no longer necessary, the toleration of all opinions leads to intolerance. Freedom of speech, separated from its essential principle, leads through a short transitional chaos to the destruction of freedom of speech."
Thus, Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, in the Encounter Broadside publication entitled Freedom From Speech, explains that "unfortunately, far from teaching the intellectual discipline that welcomes a free and robust exchange of ideas, campuses are actively accelerating the push for freedom from speech." Often a desire to avoid "intellectual discomfort" rather than a pledge that one must tackle hard issues that entail allegedly "hurtful" "inconsiderate" or "offensive" speech is making the duty regarding free speech less compelling. This is a dangerous trajectory for a free people.
Which is why it is heartening to learn that the William F. Buckley Program at Yale University "refused to be bullied by the Muslim Students Association" and did not "rescind an invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak on campus." This stands in stark contrast to Brandeis University, which capitulated to the demands that Ms. Ali not be permitted to speak.
The truth can be found only "when the human mind is capable of receiving it." Yet far too many Americans have been inundated with pseudo-empathy lessons. Furthermore, many students are historically illiterate and cannot comprehend that "[w]e live in a world in which people are censured, demoted, imprisoned, beheaded, simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough [s***]. That's the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we're in one" (attributed to Daniel Gilbert).
One need only look to the "tyranny of silence" now enveloping Europe, where courageous Flemming Rose is calling for the "equivalent of a worldwide First Amendment."
European laws balance freedom of expression against other rights such as the right to privacy and the right not to be offended. Therefore, European countries have various laws prohibiting hate speech, religious denigration, and racism. However, 'almost absolute' freedom of speech, with exceptions for incitement to violence and defamation of individuals, 'makes America unique.' Free speech is 'not a balancing test' against the so-called right not to be offended. Offensive speech is constitutionally protected if it’s true or mere opinion.
And yet, in America we have a burgeoning Fourth Estate abdication of its obligation to promote the freedom to speak and think. In an interview in the December 2014 Limbaugh Letter, investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson relates how news stories were massaged at CBS. "[I]f reporters and producers ... found facts that differed with [their] managers' preconceived notions, they often either wouldn't air the story, or sometimes they would try to make [reporters] shape the facts of the story to fit their [managers'] version of reality." In addition, as recounted in her book Stonewalled, Attkisson describes how the government actually hacked her computer and phone lines. "It was only through multiple forensics exams that the sophisticated monitoring and surveillance was discovered."
Furthermore, the administration continues to "controversialize" an individual or an issue. That is, "instead of having to address the facts of Benghazi, they do opposition research on Sharyl Attkisson[.]" Facts, credible evidence, research, photographs are all but ignored, and the media aids and abets this. At The Guardian, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen write about how "across the globe, governments are monitoring and censoring access to the web." And the issue of net neutrality brings us much closer to the possibility that "a quarter century of online liberty in the self-styled ‘land of the free’ will crash and burn."
Walter Lippmann explains that "when genuine debate is lacking, freedom of speech does not work as it is meant to work" and "an unrestricted and unregulated right to speech cannot be maintained. It will be curtailed for all manner of reasons and pretexts and to serve all kinds of good, foolish, or sinister ends."
Without "honest reflection" via freedom of speech, we all suffer.
Eileen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.