Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason…There can be no right of speech where any man…[is] compelled to suppress his honest sentiments. Equally clear is the right to hear. To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”
– Frederick Douglass
A recent survey conducted by the Brookings Institution adds to my already festering concerns about American attitudes when it comes to our most precious civil liberty. Free speech.
Let’s start out by highlighting some of what we learned. First, via an opinion piece in The Washington Post:
Here’s the problem with suggesting that upsetting speech warrants “safe spaces,” or otherwise conflating mere words with physical assault: If speech is violence, then violence becomes a justifiable response to speech.
Just ask college students. A fifth of undergrads now say it’s acceptable to use physical force to silence a speaker who makes “offensive and hurtful statements.”
That’s one finding from a disturbing new survey of students conducted by John Villasenor, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and University of California at Los Angeles professor.
When students were asked whether the First Amendment protects “hate speech,” 4 in 10 said no. This is, of course, incorrect. Speech promoting hatred — or at least, speech perceived as promoting hatred — may be abhorrent, but it is nonetheless constitutionally protected.
Students were asked whether the First Amendment requires that an offensive speaker at a public university be matched with one with an opposing view. Here, 6 in 10 (mistakenly) said that, yes, the First Amendment requires balance.
The most chilling findings, however, involved how students think repugnant speech should be dealt with.
Let’s say a public university hosts a “very controversial speaker,” one “known for making offensive and hurtful statements.” Would it be acceptable for a student group to disrupt the speech “by loudly and repeatedly shouting so that the audience cannot hear the speaker”?
It gets even worse.
Respondents were also asked if it would be acceptable for a student group to use violence to prevent that same controversial speaker from talking. Here, 19 percent said yes.
What’s more, colleges alone are not to blame for these findings. Other data suggest that freshmen are arriving on campus with more intolerant attitudes toward free speech than their predecessors did, and that Americans of all ages have become strikingly hostile toward basic civil and political liberties.
Here’s some of how Reason covered the same story:
A new study conducted by the Brookings Institution’s John Villasenor, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, asked 1,500 students at four-year universities about their views on the free speech, and the results are unsettling.
The greatest number, 44 percent answered “no” when asked if the First Amendment protects hate speech. Just 39 percent of students answered correctly and 16 percent answered “don’t know.”
Men were more likely than women to say hate speech was protected (51 percent vs. 31 percent.) And while conservative students are often thought to be more in favor of free speech than their liberal counterparts—at least in the present campus censorship wars—the study suggests this reputation is undeserved. Just 44 percent of self-identified Republicans said that hate speech was protected by the First Amendment, compared with 39 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of independents.
“Across most categories, and in the aggregate, the majority of students appear to prefer an environment in which their institution is expected to create an environment that shelters them from offensive views,” wrote Villasenor.
Teenagers are somehow making it through 12 years of primary education without absorbing the most basic civics lesson: The founding documents of the United States of America zealously protect people who make offensive statements from censorship at the hands of government officials or violent mobs.
Free speech defenders such as myself tend to focus most heavily on the idea that if we allow free speech to be whittled away, before long, government will be able to stifle dissent by placing increasingly expansive swaths of speech into the banned category. As such, the more narrowly we define the First Amendment, the more susceptible our society becomes to a totalitarian state down the road. While I completely agree with this argument and think it’s central to why free speech is so important, there’s another less discussed threat. Specifically, I believing banning certain types of speech will actually make them more powerful and subversive. Hateful thought which is pushed underground can fester and strengthen without the light of day and public debate exposing it for the demented ideology it is.
In the post, Nazi Fears and ‘Hate Speech’ Hysteria are Being Amplified to Attack Civil Liberties, I described my attitude toward neo-Nazis as follows:
The general proclivity to obsess about how one’s group, whether it be a nation, political tribe, or race/religion is superior to all others represents such an immature and unconscious way of seeing the world, it’s really hard for me to believe so many people still see reality through such a lens. This type of thinking tends to attract very insecure people. People who cannot look at themselves individually and be proud of the person they see. As such, they scurry around looking for a group with an established superiority myth which they can then latch themselves onto in order to feel better about themselves.
The good news when it comes to Nazism/white supremacy, at least here in the U.S., is that most people appear to be at least conscious enough not to fall for the most basic and primal type of tribalism — i.e., finding a race-based superiority cult attractive. In contrast, the more nuanced superiority cults, such as those based on mindless nationalism or political identity, are far more entrenched here at home, and present a much greater danger to our future.
I’d say somewhere around 90% of Americans see things similarly to me when it comes to bigotry based on race, religion, etc. That said, the moment “hate speech” becomes illegal is the moment it transforms from grotesque and pathetic to rebellious and subversive. It’s far more productive to keep unconscious views legal but socially unacceptable (as opposed to banning them), or you’ll drive people toward a bigoted position just to flip the bird to the state. In other words, we could see a very similar phenomenon to how Donald Trump got elected. By denying the public a real choice in forcing Hillary Clinton down our throats, enough people either voted for Trump or stayed home simply out of spite. The exact same thing can happen with bad ideas.
Whereas being a Nazi is the antithesis of cool or cutting edge right now, it could rapidly become anti-establishment and subversive to be one in the face of an official ban. This is particularly likely to occur in a society where institutions have lost almost all credibility amongst the public, which perfectly describes America today.
To summarize, any speech deemed illegal by a state that has lost virtually all credibility amongst the public will invariably become more popular simply because it will be seen as an another means to express dissent against a despised governing status quo. This is another dangerous blowback I foresee from any deranged push to narrow the definition of free speech in America. It will help transform what is currently clownish, grotesque speech into something rebellious and popular.
The best thing we can do to fight back against terrible, unconscious ideas is to allow them to be expressed and debated out of existence in public. You can’t legislate consciousness, and banning ideas will not make them to go away. Rather, in the context of the America we have in 2017, it is likely to make them far more popular. Let’s not be stupid and shoot ourselves in the foot yet again, as we’ve done so many times as a culture over the past two decades.