Free Speech Isn’t Dangerous, but Minimizing It Is

A pro-Trump demonstrator (right) argues with an anti-Trump demonstrator outside the University Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, where President Donald Trump holds a meeting with first responders in the wake of the mass shootings at a Walmart store, August 7, 2019. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
The greatest risk in giving our government any power to control our speech is that it would then have a vehicle to prohibit speech that was critical of it

A piece published late last week in the New York Times argues that our free-speech rights are literally endangering us — but the truth is, they keep us safe.

In a piece titled “Free Speech Is Killing Us,” Andrew Marantz argues that “noxious speech is causing tangible harm,” using tragedies such as Heather Heyer’s murder in Charlottesville, the massacre at the Walmart in El Paso, and the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, as evidence of this. Marantz then declares that, in order to stay safe, we have no choice but to start treating the First Amendment the way that our government currently treats the Second — by watering it down with regulations rather than treating it as an absolute.

In fact, throughout the piece, Marantz states that, although he may have aligned with the views of free-speech absolutists in the past, he now disagrees, considering the “free speech” argument to be “intellectually dishonest” and “morally bankrupt.”

Guess what? I also used to be a free-speech absolutist. Guess what else? I still am. Completely, totally, and without exception. Does that make me, as Marantz suggests, “morally bankrupt”?

Nope. See, believe it or not, I actually support complete free speech not because I don’t care about the welfare of the American people. I support it because I do.

See, Marantz repeatedly reminded the reader that what he had an issue with was “hate speech” specifically. In fact, he even summarized a comment from University of California law professor John A. Powell, which was that someday the “blanket protections of hate speech” seen in our current laws will eventually be viewed as “ridiculous in retrospect.”

Here’s the thing, though: As concerned as Marantz may be about “hate speech,” at no place in his entire piece did he even attempt to define what it actually is.

It’s not that I don’t understand why he didn’t do so. In fact, I think I can guess: The phrase can be difficult, if not impossible, to define — because it so often means quite different things to different people.

It’s true: What one person might consider “hate speech,” another might consider to be harmless, or even funny. In recent years, I have noticed that there are many people, particularly in liberal circles and on college campuses, who have a very different view of what is and is not acceptable speech than I, or I’d argue even most, do. In the years I’ve spent covering political correctness for National Review, I have been straight-up floored by some of the speech people have claimed to be “offensive” or otherwise unacceptable. I am not kidding: The phrase “long time no see,” the conjunction “but,” and the word “cyclist” are among the many examples of things that some have declared problematic.

Let me be clear: It’s not that I like hate speech. No — I absolutely detest what I consider to be “hate speech,” but with that qualifier comes the problem: It is totally subjective. Do we really want to give the government the power to define the undefinable, and risk living in a time where telling someone “Long time no see!” could result in criminal prosecution?

The worst part about it, though, is that that risk isn’t even the most serious one. The greatest risk in giving our government any power to control our speech is that it would then have a vehicle to prohibit speech that was critical of it.

See, one of the greatest things about living in the United States is that we have the absolute freedom to say whatever we want about our government, while being protected against government retaliation. This is very important — not only for the emotional relief that can come with free expression, but also as a legitimate, impactful check on government corruption. In other countries, it’s not like that. In other countries, you can be killed for the exact same kinds of things that you’re completely allowed to say here.

I’m not, of course, suggesting that implementing Marantz’s ideas would result in our government murdering us over speech. What I am saying, though, is that it would unquestionably open the door for it to be able to take away a very sacred freedom: The freedom to speak out against public injustices. In an environment like that, without that check on government power, it would be far easier for injustice to prevail. That is what would present a real danger to us — one far greater than that of any speech itself.

But what about that huge violence problem that Marantz describes free speech as causing, you might ask? What about how we are all going to be massacred and killed, Timpf? Well, a look at the actual facts might suggest that his correlation between speech and violent death may be more rooted in hysteria and a media-perpetuated narrative than in truth. In fact, as Reason’s Robby Soave notes:

Today the U.S. has greater protections for free speech and less violence. The Supreme Court has recognized increasingly fewer exceptions to the First Amendment over the last several decades. The result has not been an increase in violence: The violent crime rate has plummeted since the early 1990s.

It is, of course, true that speech has motivated some awful people to do some awful things — recently, particularly in the form of white nationalism. The truth is, though, we already have a way to fight speech that we don’t like in this country: Countering it with our own.


The Latest

The Great Elucidator

The Great Elucidator

An inspiring one-hour documentary about the conservative public intellectual Thomas Sowell serves as a superb intro to his thinking.