Free speech?

The extremes of free speech on both the left and the right, as exemplified by Middlebury and Berkeley and then Charlottesville, bring home a point that no one in the United States seems comfortable to discuss.

In a working society there can be NO absolute freedoms. Particularly with regard to “free speech,” this seems to be an issue that has come up time and time again, its lessons only to be forgotten for a generation or two, until some extremist, or extremists, push the limits of “freedom” beyond what a working free society can permit.

Sometimes, society overreacts, as in the Schenck case in 1919, when the Court disallowed the use of the First Amendment as a defense for a socialist peacefully opposing the draft in the First World War, and sometimes, as in 1969, it reacts in a more moderate fashion, when the Supreme Court’s decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio effectively overturned Schenck by holding that inflammatory speech – and even speech advocating violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan – is protected under the First Amendment, unless the speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

One could certainly argue that the neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, who not only chanted vile and racist slogans, but many of whom also carried weapons, were using speech and those weapons to incite lawless action. By the same token, armed protesters opposing the BLM at the Bundy ranch weren’t just relying on words but weapons. But what about the numerous speakers on college campuses who have been shouted down or who have had their appearances canceled because the protesters didn’t like what they might have said?

The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

It seems to me that the neo-Nazis, the Bundys, and all too many of the campus protesters weren’t exactly in accord with the right “peaceably to assemble.”

Back in 1945, the political philosopher Karl Popper published The Open Society and Its Enemies, in which he laid out what he called “the paradox of tolerance.” Popper argued that unlimited tolerance carries the seeds of its own destruction and that if even a tolerant society isn’t prepared to defend itself against intolerant groups, that society will be destroyed – and tolerance with it.

Extremist groups, by both definition and by their very nature, are intolerant. The real question for any society is to what degree their intolerance can be tolerated and at what point must it be limited. The simplest bottom line might well be what the Supreme Court laid down in the Brandenburg decision – that speech directed at inciting lawless or violent action is not permissible, and that includes the violence of protesters which denies those they oppose the right to speak… provided, of course, that the speakers aren’t inciting lawless or violent action.

2 thoughts on “Free speech?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Charlotte was in my opinion due to both sides, and due to the police and/or city government taking no interest in preventing trouble by keeping them at a reasonable distance from one another, almost as if unrest served a political interest, even to the detriment of public safety. That’s true even if one presumes that only one side’s stance on the issues was objectionable. One crazy used lethal force, but both sides used some degree of physical force beyond mere self-defense.

  2. Joe says:

    John Stuart Mill said “Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is doing a public service. We should be grateful to him for attacking most unsparingly our most cherished opinions.”

    Speech is how humans learn. It is how they discover the faults in their ideas. Prohibiting it is an exercise of power, but it always backfires. The US hasn’t gotten over slavery because no one wants to discuss it honestly. So the US still treats its black minority terribly, and remains the most violent country in the West.

    There is something terribly ironic about the current Zeitgeist that wishes to limit free speech. The 20th century is full of examples of people trying this idea. It never worked out. What did, was growing a modicum of thicker skin and engaging in the debate: helping others to understand one’s own viewpoint.

    Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
    (And those who do learn from the past, are doomed to watch everyone else repeat it).

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