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Is free speech still worth defending?

| Monday, October 19, 2020

It’s game night. You and your friends huddle around the dining room table, prepared to face off in a riveting game of Bananagrams. One friend unzips the sacred yellow pouch and pours out a pile of little letter squares. Another complains that Sophie, who has the entire English dictionary memorized, always wins. She’s just too good. To even the playing field, this friend declares a new rule, to which everyone agrees: Whenever Sophie swaps out a bad letter, she must draw fifteen new letters, while everyone else must only draw three. Excited that you might finally be able to dethrone Sophie as the Bananagrams champion, you divvy up the letters among everyone, and get right to speedily spelling all the words you can. 

It’s a tight game, and Sophie’s already arranged her letters into a few words you’ve never heard of. But now she’s stuck and needs to swap out a pesky “Z” for fifteen new letters. Meanwhile, you manage to form your final word, for the game-winner. But what’s game night without a rematch? This time, the group has decided that you are the one who has to draw fifteen letters when you swap, while everyone else only draws three. Wait, this wasn’t part of the plan — they can’t do that, can they? Suddenly, you wish the rules hadn’t changed. It was fine when others had to draw fifteen letters because it helped you win, but you didn’t think they’d ever make you draw fifteen. 

Lately, I’ve noticed a growing distaste toward the words “free speech.” Certain people cringe at the thought of letting words run wild because some seem dangerous. A segment of society is saying that not all speech is worth protecting — that morally bad speech should not be allowed. We are diverging into two paths when it comes to free speech, but heads up: One is a dead end.

There seems to be a negative attitude toward fans of free speech based on the assumption that the reason these people defend the freedom to say bad things is because they have bad things they want to say. This isn’t much of a surprise. While free speech was originally prized as a tool against tyranny, nowadays it often seems like a cover for spewing vile words and an excuse to offend. We see it invoked today to defend neo-Nazi and white supremacist rallies, as well as to allow alt-right speakers on college campuses. Thus, to position oneself as a friend of free speech seems to express tacit approval of discriminatory attitudes toward historically oppressed groups. In other words, if you consider yourself a “free-speech person,” we think that what you really want is simply the right to be racist, sexist and hateful in other ways. 

Moreover, free speech has come to be implicitly associated with the political right. “Oh, so-and-so told you he thinks we should hear out all viewpoints and let the best ones win? He must be a conservative.” If we associate free speech with conservatives, and conservatives with principles we do not like, we might conclude that free speech is something we should not like. It is slowly being etched into leftwing ideology that “free speech” is really just code for linguistic oppression. However, I urge the left to reclaim the liberal position: the defense of free speech. 

John Stuart Mill, one of the strongest early advocates of free speech, argued that we should let all thoughts flow freely in society, without any censorship, and that in the marketplace of ideas, the best ideas will prevail. Mill reasons that since no single person can know everything, by allowing all of our ideas into the public sphere, we can collectively reach a more complete truth. I somewhat agree with Mill — but I have a slightly different take. Some speech is so objectively reprehensible and unproductive that, unlike Mill, I would be hard-pressed to say it is beneficial to our country’s discourse. 

For example, when neo-Nazis wanted to parade through Skokie, Illinois, a town with the largest population of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel, and the Supreme Court upheld their right to do so under the First Amendment, I am certain our nation could have done without their march and still had a vivacious marketplace of ideas. We did not need them to parade through Skokie to remind us how repugnant their ideology is, so that we might decide that it is bad. We already knew. When such blatantly hateful speech is involved, the reason we must defend the right to free speech is not because it strengthens our democracy and discourse, but because the alternative is more concerning. 

If we decide to disallow hate speech, we must next determine what constitutes such speech. Who should decide that, and how do we enforce this? It is not as easy as simply banning the speech of Hate Group A. Who qualifies as part of this group? What if people share Hate Group A’s ideas but are not official members? And should their speech be banned at all times, or only when they promote the ideology of Hate Group A? In the blink of an eye, what started off as a narrow ban on clear hate speech can spiral into a sweeping prohibition of anything that seems to even come close to such speech. 

 What society might consider to be hate speech can change with time and with who holds power. Leaving determination of what speech should be free to the discretion of the majority at a given time should alarm any of us. You do not need me to remind you of all the times the majority has been wrong. If your favorite group is in charge, you might agree with what speech they deem hateful and support banning it. But what if the next administration deems your own ideas hateful and suddenly your speech is the one being suppressed? I’ll bet you’d wish you hadn’t changed the rules. “I take it back! Sophie doesn’t need to draw fifteen letters!” 

Those on the left who nowadays seem skeptical of freedom of speech share ideas with people who historically were themselves victims of curtailed free speech. In the 1900s, Communists were frequently denied free speech protection by the Supreme Court. If limitations on free speech were used against the left once, what makes us think they will not be used in that way again? Sure, some of the people seeking free speech defense today seem to be people we despise. But what if someday the people deciding whose speech deserves protection despise us? We must be cautious when changing the rules for other people because one day we might have to play by our own rules. We have to ask: Was one Bananagrams win worth it?

Eva Analitis is a junior in Lyons Hall majoring in political science and pre-health. If you see her around campus, don’t be afraid to whisk her off for an impromptu philosophical discussion. Otherwise, you can reach her at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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