The Heart of the Free Speech Debate

By Lane Noble

The past five years have brought many structural changes to the “free speech debate.” I use that language carefully and intentionally because for many years, debates over free speech and the nature of individual rights to free speech have taken many different forms.

In many cases, the debate hasn’t centered on whether or not individuals have the right to free speech, but rather to what extent free speech should be protected. We know that the Bill of Rights promises to protect our freedom of speech in the United States, but past judicial rulings have made it clear that there are exceptions to this rule.

For example, slander, or publicly ruining someone’s reputation, is not considered a protected form of speech under the Bill of Rights. There’s also the famous example of the prohibition of shouting “Fire!” in a theater just to see how people respond.

In the United States, where I live, this brings us to a common thread that we see time and time again in this experiment of ordered liberty. It’s a question that haunts all three branches of the government at both the federal and state level. The question is this: How do we weigh safety and liberty in our civilization?

It’s an important question because one of the primary responsibilities is to maintain order in civilization. Yet, we know very well from both the Bible and world history that, as Lord Acton famously stated: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

We know then that power is dangerous for any human being to possess, and of course, our Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of the U.S. government were designed with this fact in mind. The very idea of the separation of powers was born out of the idea that those who hold such power in our society need to be held accountable.

Yet we also know that in order to keep citizens safe and to even maintain this country we have to lend the government at least some power. The government needs to be able to enforce laws, such as the prohibition of murder, or the prohibition of theft, and to prosecute in instances of sexual abuse.

The fact that we even need to explicitly outlaw murder just goes to show that we need to take the issue of safety versus liberty very seriously.

In light of this, let’s take a look at what the “free speech debate” looks like now, why it is that way, and, hopefully, postulate a solution.

Where are we?

Currently, the debate over free speech is very heated, and when you look at the arguments that are made themselves, it is easy to see why it is so.

There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground when it comes to this debate. In other words, there are only two sides to it. That’s not to say that this is a partisan issue. People who have the exact same political affiliations do disagree on this issue, which, as I’ll argue later, is one of the many reasons that this debate is so interesting.

When it comes to looking at this debate, you have two central, opposing, arguments, and, as you’ll see later, none of them address the other. The two arguments are:

  1. Free speech is essential for a society to develop and grow intellectually, ethically, and economically. Therefore, we should protect free speech.
  2. Free speech does not include hate speech or speech that incities violence. Therefore, it is necessary to censor at least some speech.

Having looked at these two opposing arguments, it is easy to see now why we haven’t made any headway in this debate.

The Heart of the Debate

The key to understanding the free speech controversy and finding a potential solution to it comes not from looking at what the two arguments say, but at what they do not say.

Let’s look at the two opposing arguments once more.

  1. Free speech is essential for a society to develop and grow intellectually, ethically, and economically. Therefore, we should allow free speech.
  2. Free speech does not include hate speech or speech that incities violence. Therefore it is necessary to censor at least some speech.

Now, let’s look at what they are not saying.

Argument #1 is not saying that hate speech and speech that intentionally incites violence should not be censored.

Argument #2 is not defining exactly what they mean by hate speech and speech that incites violence.

With that in mind, we can see the heart of the issue.

The problem isn’t that we disagree on free speech. The problem is that we do not disagree on free speech.

Then one might reasonably ask, “What are we debating then if we’re not debating on free speech?”

The disagreement is over the definitions of hate speech and violence.

For example, let’s take the violence issue. For those who are not in favor of free speech, any speech that could potentially cause violence is worth censoring. Even if a speaker never intended violence to take place as a result of their speech.

The problem is that it’s almost impossible to anticipate when this will happen. While it is predictable in many cases, almost anything that is said could have some negative impact. However, in many of those cases, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Without free speech, the scientific disciplines would not be possible, and thus we wouldn’t have all of the amazing knowledge and technology that we have today. It can be easily argued that one of the reasons that the U.S. has been one of the leaders in technological innovation is because of the protection of free speech. However, does the fact that science gave us weapons outweigh the many other benefits of science? In fact, this is just a small sampling of all of the amazing benefits of science that far outweigh the negative consequences of science:

An HIV vaccine.

A COVID-19 vaccine.

A meningitis vaccine.

The ability to save the lives of cancer patients.

The ability to save the life of someone with a ruptured appendix.

The ability to provide clean water to millions upon millions of people.

Improved psychiatric treatment.

The ability to predict and prepare for dangerous weather.

The knowledge of how to protect ourselves from blood-borne pathogens.

Technology that allows us to communicate safely during a pandemic.

The knowledge of how to facilitate proper child development.

The knowledge of how to stay in good physical health.

The invention of motor vehicles that are able to get quickly get us to hospitals for proper medical treatment.

Cell phones allow us to call people on the side of the road in case of emergencies.

The ability to safely preserve food for future consumption.

The ability to disseminate medication quickly throughout the world.

Communications technology is able to quickly inform the public of impending or a current crisis.

Pain-killing medication.

The ability to read this blog post as well as many others.

All of the above benefits as well as many others are made possible through the process of science, and the process of science is only possible through, you guessed it, free speech.

We know now that the benefits of free speech outweigh the negative consequences. We should also note that there are other very effective ways to restrict the negative consequences as a result of free speech. In fact, the free exchange of ideas is what makes moral progress possible, which in turn mitigates the negative consequences that occur as a result of free speech.

Now, what about hate speech? Well, it’s worth noting the restriction and allowance of hate speech requires everyone on both sides of the debate to walk a thin line. Unless, of course, tyranny is the end goal. However, my guess is that that’s not the intention of most who participate in the free speech discussion.

As mentioned earlier, there are forms of hate speech that are restricted in the United States. Slander, for instance, is prohibited. Libel, or the ruining of someone’s reputation through writing, is also not protected by the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

I think the topic of what counts as hate speech and what doesn’t is a conversation worth having in our society. The fact of the matter is that the civil rights movement wasn’t that long ago, and there are still issues of discrimination and hate speech that needs to be ironed out. Having removed the political obstacles of making our society more equal, I think we are finally ready to hash out the implications of our society’s embrace of social equality.

That said, I’m concerned with how many who do not favor free speech define “hate speech.” What I believe is actually happening is that free speech is being defined as speech that doesn’t agree with someone’s political agenda.

This is where things tend to become a “left ” versus “right” issue. Here is what everyone needs to understand about the debate over free speech, and if you take nothing away from this blog post, please take this away: the “political left” sincerely but falsely believes that the average person on the “political right” is for racism and sexism.

Let me speak directly to both sides of the political spectrum for a moment. I’ll talk directly to the right first and then I’ll talk to the left.

If you are on the political right, if you are going to convince the left that you have the right to speak your mind, you have to at least try to convince them that you’re not racist or sexist. I’m serious. They genuinely believe this.

Let’s say that you’re a college student and your school was hosting an event for a Ku Klux Klan member to speak on why they believe black people are inferior to white people. Would you stand for that? Probably note. I certainly wouldn’t. I detest racism and I don’t want it to have a platform at my college or university.

The problem is that many on the left see conservative speeches at colleges and universities in the exact same way. Racism and/or sexism having a platform at my school? Why would they stand for it?

This is where conservatives need to come in and have compassion and patience with people on the left. They actually believe that you are a racist and a sexist. You know that it’s patently absurd, but they don’t. Therefore, have compassion for them and be patient with them, and do your best to convince them that you’re not a racist or a sexist. If it doesn’t work, then that’s on them. There’s nothing that you can do about it, and hopefully, the more reasonable people who are on the “political left” will see that and understand you better.

Now, let me speak to people on the left. Let me just take a moment to say that I am with you. I don’t want hate speech to have a platform. Especially at public institutions. I believe it shouldn’t have a platform at all. That said, I am concerned about how you define hate speech. You see, most right-wing voters aren’t actually, or at the very least don’t intend to be, racist or sexist. They want to promote peace and love just as much as you do. They’ve been trying to tell you this all along, and I urge you to see things from their perspective. If we do this, we can make so much moral and intellectual progress, and make the world a safer place to live.

Conclusion

I think it’s safe to conclude that the debate over free speech, for the most part, as been a result of a misunderstanding between two diametrically opposed party, and the roots of the conflict run decades deep.

I ultimately think it’s going to be up to those who are in favor of free speech to compassionately and patiently correct our cohorts who are against it about their perception of us. We need to show them the rational way of doing things. We need to lead by example. Anger isn’t going to solve anything. It’s only going to reinforce false stereotypes. It is ultimately going to be through breaking those stereotypes that we overcome this stalemate that we have reached in the United States of America, and really the west in general.

Ultimately, it will be the freedom to listen to and the freedom to express different ideas that will help us make progress in society. Let’s work together to achieve this goal.

Footnotes:

*It may be worth noting here that I think we too often allow the media to get away with libel. Many lives have been ruined as a result of high-price media coverage. I think that discussing the ways in which we can hold the media accountable to these laws without suppressing necessary free speech is a worthy endeavor.

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