Free Speech and Its Discontents

Free Speech and Its Discontents
AP Photo/Lisa Rathke

Dear Reader — 

One of the most divisive issues to emerge from our tumultuous political times is that of free expression. Controversies over “hate speech” and whether to permit or prohibit controversial figures from speaking on college campuses have become regular fixtures of the daily news cycle.

The United States has some of the most liberal free-speech laws in the world. Other countries in Europe, for instance, value freedom of expression but strike a different balance between that right and others, such as the right to be protected from injurious speech in the public sphere. Of course, we have restrictions on speech, too — you can’t shout “Fire!” in a movie theater just for the fun of it — but our constitutional system places an unusually high premium on freedom of expression, ranking it among our fundamental liberties. Beyond our laws, we also have what might be called a culture of free speech, understood as a natural expression of individual liberty and a key ingredient to our democratic republic.

This is highly unusual, historically speaking. Plato famously advocated censorship in his ideal republic for the sake or forming moral citizens. And political censorship was standard fare in many countries up through the early modern period traditionally associated with the Enlightenment. Key modern thinkers in the liberal tradition, such as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, even advocated restricting speech for the sake of political concord. In fact, political theorist Teresa M. Bejan has argued that it is in the schismatic context of post-Reformation Europe — the violent cradle of western modernity — that the restriction of speech came to be thought of as a means to effectuate civility in a volatile political environment. In this context, American views about free speech seem all the more idiosyncratic, even within the tradition of political liberalism.

The inclination to ban "hate speech" from the public arena today harkens back to those early moderns who sought to repair the bonds of civility once guaranteed by a common, religious way of life by controlling what can and cannot be said. (Although our own schisms are first and foremost cultural, not religious.) What is often at issue in these debates is our culture of free speech, not the First Amendment per se. The latter concerns what government cannot do vis-à-vis its citizens. But private organizations, such as many colleges and universities, have a fair amount of leeway here. Students who would restrict speech to create “safe spaces” on college campuses do not challenge a constitutional system so much as a cultural tradition. 

History suggests that this tradition is a precarious achievement. If it is to be preserved, the principle of free speech must be continually articulated and defended, not simply appealed to as a given.

These are some of the many issues taken up at RealClearPolicy over the past week. Below you will find just a few highlights.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy


Charles Murray’s “Provocative” Talk. In The New York Times, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci assess whether Murray’s controversial talk at Middlebury College really was offensive.

The War on Regulation. For The American Prospect, Rena Steinzor contends President Trump’s push for deregulation will harm many of those who voted for him.

The Republican Party Has Defeated Donald Trump. The New Republic’s Graham Vyse argues that despite having “won the Republican nomination by bucking conservative orthodoxy,” President Trump is “proving the pull of the GOP is as strong as ever." 

The Democratic Party Must Finally Abandon Centrism. John Nichols makes the case in The Nation.

The Robot Scabs Are Coming to Take Your Jobs. For CNN, Don Howard considers the evidence for and potentials effects of technological unemployment.

There’s No Such Thing as Hate Speech. The Federalist’s John Daniel Davidson maintains that the concept of hate speech is incompatible with America’s constitutional system.

Protect Data Privacy at the Border. In our own pages, Dan King urges Congress to pass a new bill protecting American citizens from mobile device searches by homeland security agents.

A Chance to Improve the FCC. Also in our pages, Ryan Radia outlines what the agency’s new head could do to reform Internet regulations. 

“Hire American, Buy American” Is Economic Redistribution. In National Review, Ben Shapiro criticizes President Trump’s “economic nationalism” as left-wing economics by another name. 

Want Manufacturing Jobs? Try the Ryan-Brady Tax Plan. Also in RealClearPolicy, Thomas J. Duesterberg contends the proposal could help Trump deliver on his promise to bring back manufacturing jobs without igniting a trade war. 

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