A Free Speech Problem

In her recent column “First Amendment, Best Amendment,” Ashley Spinks wrote that the left has a “free speech problem.”  I tend to agree.  She also said that progressives have “mangled the First Amendment.”  I tend to agree with that too.  She contends further that the first amendment is the most important amendment.  I tend to agree with that as well.  But what she failed to include, and what is essential to her argument, is just why the first amendment, and freedom of speech in particular, is so important.

Ashley states that:

“Not only is it illiberal and illogical to punish people for public speech-- it also irreparably damages the discourse in this country, and allows us to ignore or forget our stark differences.”

This is all true, but she only tiptoes around freedom of speech without getting to why it’s really important.

It’s fairly commonly accepted that our constitution and the government it organized were immensely flawed from the beginning.  The founding fathers wrote into the Constitution a three-fifths compromise that dehumanized African slaves and legitimized their bondage.  It took decades of civil conflict and four years of open civil war with hundreds of thousands of battle casualties to rid the country of that flaw and its impact reverberates a hundred and fifty years later.

The brilliance of the founding fathers, however, was not in the government they set up, but in their acknowledgement that their project was almost certainly imperfect.  Democratic processes and the means to interpret and amend the Constitution are the manifestation of that small, though important, strain of humility.  Those processes are hijacked and perverted when citizens are unable to air their grievances, make their arguments, and speak freely about their ideas and about their leaders and government.  Hence the inclusion of freedoms of assembly, petition, and speech in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

That the government set up by the framers was imperfect is implicit in their inclusion of slavery in its Constitution.  For that reason, any right or norm that we feel is important we should be ready to defend on its merits, not simply by its place in the Constitution or Bill of Rights.  Some of those are self explanatory.  No one should be required to quarter soldiers.  Others are straightforward even when they’re tough in practice.  The rights of the accused protect, not criminals, but everyone from punitive investigation, vindictive pursuit, or unjust prosecution by the government.  Criminals are part of everyone.

Speech is harder.

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that it is inherently important for everyone to be able to say whatever they want; nor does it mean that all ideas have value.  It doesn’t mean that everyone’s opinion is valid in its own way or that speech can’t be dangerous.  It doesn’t even mean that all ideas should, or even can, have a place in public discourse.  

Freedom of speech is important because the backbone of democracy is the constant vying of ideas against each other, and the antithesis of democracy is force.  Ideas should be challenged on their merits.  Some ideas have none, and others do.  All should be challenged.  Dangerous ideas should be aired, not because we should live and let live but because they should be destroyed publicly, stripped of their mystery, and shown for what they are.  

Dangerous ideas, however, are just that, and freedom of speech requires that everyone exercise it.  If we want to allow speech to be suppressed we should be prepared to have ours suppressed in turn.  But the opposite is equally true.  If we believe that everyone - even those who hate or dehumanize - should have the right to air their opinions, we have to be prepared to meet them with our own.  The alternative to confronting dangerous ideas is to either ignore them and allow them to fester unchallenged or suppress them entirely.  The alternative to argument is either apathy or coercion.  Democracy can survive neither.