First Amendment, Best Amendment

I’ve been trying to write this column for weeks, and now I’m just going to say it: The left has a free speech problem. I don’t think we’re snowflakes-- I don’t think political correctness is a sign of weakness, I don’t think that careful word choice makes you delicate or less intelligent. I don’t think that trying to elevate the rhetoric of our debates does any damage to their integrity.

All that established, the left has a free speech problem. We have fundamentally mangled the First Amendment past recognition, and we should be ashamed of ourselves.

A short civics lesson: The Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments to the Constitution, establish “negative rights,” meaning rights that prohibit the government from taking some action against its citizens. That is to say, I have a negative right to free speech because the government is barred from illegalizing or issuing punishments for my expressions of opinion.

A right to free speech does not mean that you can say whatever you want without consequences, it just means you can say whatever you want (short of libel, slander, threats of violence, or treason) without fearing a government response. (You can’t be thrown in jail, for instance, for saying Donald Trump is a sham of a President. Thank goodness.)

Furthermore, the state (i.e. law enforcement agencies, which are staffed with civil servants), has to protect all speech equally. However reprehensible I may find a KKK rally, or a pro-life march, or an NRA demonstration, the people attending those events have an equal right to public permits and police protection as my friends from the Women’s March, or the peaceful protesters at Standing Rock.  The political left is no more entitled to being the arbiter of speech than the right-- what is “offensive” or problematic is too subjective for anyone to try to regulate speech. The First Amendment does not protect “only that speech with which you, in particular, tend to agree.”

Here’s the thing: the First Amendment does not guarantee you the right to speech without consequences-- we allow for social retribution. If you post something sexist on Facebook, you won’t face legal consequences-- but you run the risk of losing a few friends.

I accept all of this. Just as your right to free speech allows you to be publicly bigoted, my rights enable me to challenge you, to push back on your problematic contentions.

But in the name of eliminating bigotry and oppression, liberals have resorted to a counter-productive tactic: public shaming, and worse yet, doxxing.

It seems nearly a daily occurrence that I see a compilation of screenshots on Facebook or Twitter-- a receptionist in Michigan who referred to Black people using denigrating language, or an IT guy in New York who said women should make sandwiches and be quiet. This compilation will be shared by dozens of my “liberal” friends, encouraging their peers to find this person and make them own up to what they’ve said.

Depending on the severity of the offense, the post may gain media attention, and the person may be fired from their job or expelled from their community.

Here’s the thing: being racist is repugnant, but it’s not illegal. I don’t think people’s lives should be destroyed because they espouse views with which I disagree. Especially when those views have no direct relevance to their line of work.

The same First Amendment that protects them, protects me. 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. If I stop witnessing public displays of racism because people are too scared to be racist out in the open, I may start thinking that racism is “fixed.” I may begin to operate under the delusion that everyone I encounter thinks the same way I do-- that everyone agrees with me, that I cannot be wrong. And I think that’s a dangerous paradigm.