My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
Eighty-six years ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” Distressingly, almost three in 10 Americans now support government suppression of hateful thoughts and that number is growing.
The Pew Research Center recently conducted a wide-ranging global survey about support for some fundamental democratic principles including freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of the press. While the survey generally found Americans more supportive of these principles than people in most other countries, that support is still lower than it should be and declining with each successive generation.
When asked if the government should prevent people from saying things that are offensive to minority groups, 28 percent of Americans said yes. When broken down into generations, the numbers are alarming. Only 12 percent of the Silent generation (70-87) said yes while a full 40 percent of the Millennial generation (18-34) support government suppression of offensive statements. Also, people are more likely to support such government censorship if they are a Democrat, a woman, nonwhite and do not have a college degree.
As far back as 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, Americans understood that freedom of speech is an absolute necessity to preserve our liberties. That is why it is written in the First Amendment in unambiguous language, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” There is not any wiggle room in that prohibition on government regulation of free speech.
Since that amendment was ratified, our nation has seen fit through our judicial process to put very limited restrictions on free speech when it comes to things like national security and speech that leads to imminent damage, like the proverbial “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theater,” but outside of those narrow restrictions, Americans’ freedom of speech has generally been held inviolable.
But now there appears to be growing support for our government to actually prohibit speech that is offensive. The problem with this, if we decide to allow our government to use the power of the coercive police state to regulate offensive speech, is we must first define what is offensive. The trend in places like college campuses has been to allow the offended to define what is offensive. That standard gives any single crank who decides that he or she is offended by something a veto power on speech. It also turns our legal system upside down by putting the burden of proof on the accused offender to prove that what they said was not offensive. Such a standard is unworkable in a free society, but works just fine in a tyranny.
Furthermore, in our current age of microagressions and students protesting about people violating their “safe zones,” the standard of what is offensive or not is a briskly moving target. Today’s perfectly acceptable language could be tomorrow’s racial slur. For an example, just look at how quickly the accurate phrase “illegal alien” has become a derogatory term that some presidential candidates are striking from their vocabulary.
Empowering our government to regulate our speech — even our offensive speech — is not the path to tyranny. It is tyranny. We must not allow our distaste for offensive speech to be a license for oppression.
Instead of looking to our government to protect us from offensive speech, we should do what free peoples have always done: combat speech with more speech. While people should be free to say offensive things, it does not mean their speech should go unchallenged. The timeless tools of argument, ridicule, shaming and ostracism have regulated hateful idiots to the fringes of American society for generations and they can continue to be relied upon.