Is Free Speech in the US Doomed?

Crowds of students gathered at the University of California-Berkeley in September armed with protest signs and chanting, “Speech is violence! We will not be silent!” Who were these students so passionately protesting against? Surely it would have to be someone as vile as neo-Nazi Richard Spencer or at least as controversial as alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos.

Who decides what speech constitutes violence?

In reality, it was conservative commentator Ben Shapiro – a far cry from a literal neo-Nazi – who inspired protesters to gather on campus with a rallying cry that equates speech with violence. That sentiment is a dangerous one and it is quickly gaining popularity.

When You Call Speech Violence

The problem with conflating “hate” speech with violence is manifold. For one, hate speech is subjective. Who decides what speech constitutes violence? If the answer is the government, then civil liberties will be in immediate danger, as it stands to reason that the government will crackdown on any speech is deems violent or dangerous. Consider how the government responded to the civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“If utterances of speech are truly violence, then government can ban them as criminal conduct, just as we prohibit other forms of private violence,” Josh Craddock, the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy argued in an August op-ed for the National Review.

Another problem with equating words with violence is that it inspires physical violence to counteract it. Force is often justified when the threat of physical harm is imminent, so it stands to reason that force can be used to prevent hateful speech in a world where violence and speech are one and the same.

Speech is just speech.

Protesters have already taken this approach, as was the case in March when Charles Murray, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, attempted to speak at Middlebury College. Allison Stranger, a professor of politics and economics and a moderator for the event, was seriously hurt when protesters tried to prevent the event from moving to a new venue after earlier protests successfully disrupted it.

Protesters may have truly believed that Murray’s views on race equated to violence on marginalized communities and, therefore, justified using violent actions to stop him from sharing his views.

Murray’s opinions are not violence, and neither are the demonstrably more vile views espoused by Richard Spencer. Speech is just speech. Although it can inspire a call to arms, it cannot inflict wounds like a knife or a fist. Using violence to stop or punish a speaker from sharing their “hateful” opinions is not a measured response.

How the Best Ideas Triumph

English philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill’s argument that freedom of speech applies to all speech, no matter how extreme it is, is as timely as ever.

Mills argued in his 1869 essay, On Liberty:

Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free speech but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme,’ not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.”

Being able to openly debate ideas, even those deemed hateful by most, is a crucial factor for ensuring individual liberty can flourish. Doing so allows for the best ideas to triumph over other less appealing ones.

While it may seem intuitive to prohibit any speech that is arguably hateful in nature, it is actually in society’s best interest to let those ideas be heard. John Milton, famed 17th-century English writer, gave a strong defense of free expression in a speech on unlicensed printing called Areopagitica.

To understand why an idea should be rejected first requires that the idea be understood. “As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear without the knowledge of evil?” Milton questioned.

How can anyone sincerely choose which ideas deserve support when censorship prevents certain ideas from ever being heard in the first place? To understand why an idea should be rejected first requires that the idea be understood.

“How can we more safely, and with less danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity then by reading all manner of tractates, and hearing all manner of reason?” Milton asked.

Nowhere is the practice of engaging with a diversity of ideas more important than at universities, but the growing trend of conflating speech with violence spells certain doom for the future of political discourse. If this trend continues to gain prominence then expect more political differences to come to blows, not fewer.