The Corner

Dartmouth Student: I Should Be Able to Regulate Your Speech

If you don’t mind too much, a student at Dartmouth would very much like to regulate your speech. In The Dartmouth, Zach Traynor laments that:

Free speech is often cited as a cornerstone of American democracy. Individuals or a group have the right to express themselves and say whatever they want with fairly few restrictions. As long as the speech does not imminently incite violence, constitute slander or libel, or have excessively objectionable content, the speech is allowed.

There are some benefits to this arrangement, Traynor concedes — among them that the system:

protects crucial kinds of free expression, like criticisms of the government or U.S. policy, the publication of potentially risqué or provocative works and the ability to mock others for comedic effect. It allows for dissenting but respectful viewpoints critical to our system of democracy: people can be heard even if they have an unpopular opinion, and they have the opportunity to convince people of the virtue of their point of view.

But, nice as this is, that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be afforded an opportunity to decide what you should be prosecuted for saying:

 That said, this country has gone too far in allowing people to say whatever they want, and should curtail speech that is obviously harmful to society, such as hate speech.

Ah, of course: “hate speech” — yet another lovely example of the illiberal Left’s tendency to destroy useful concepts by appending other words to them. (For a solid illustration of this in practice, take a look at the progressive movement’s penchant for gluing buzzwords to “justice.”) I especially like the implication that in a country with this much intellectual diversity there is such a thing as “obviously harmful” expression.

The peculiar thing about Traynor’s post is that he appears to be well aware of the case against punishing people for moving their mouths in a manner that upsets him. ”What,” he asks smartly, “is stopping the government from moving past sensible restrictions on free speech, once they are in place, to something more Orwellian, as in China or other authoritarian regimes”? And yet, he’s ultimately not too worried by the prospect of the state introducing a “small but significant change to the freedom of speech in this country: namely, the prohibition of unambiguously destructive, hateful speech.” And why not? Well, because “given America’s deeply-held cultural norms and the power of the Internet and social media,” abuse is unlikely. Later, he spells out this position: “This country,” he says, “is supposedly built on freedom and equality, not on the right to say whatever you want without significant consequences.”

I’m always amused by this argument, because it boils down to the question, “why should we worry about destroying our basic liberties and traditions when we have our basic liberties and traditions there as a backstop?” In this country, the right to “say whatever you want without significant consequences” is not separate from “America’s deeply-held cultural norms” or its “freedom and equality,” it is an exposition of those things. That’s what “freedom and equality” means. “How does America benefit from allowing speech that many other developed and democratic countries have wisely deemed to be against their modern values?” Traynor asks in conclusion. That he was allowed without consequence to publish a treatise agitating against the foundational values of the country should help him to answer his own question.

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