AMC Key Issues: Free Speech

Free speech is such an intuitive and fundamental right that it can often be taken for granted.

Yet we find ourselves in an era in which the American university – the site of the free speech movement’s greatest triumphs – produces among its most suspicious and hostile adversaries.

Whereas students were once quick to sacrifice comfort for their right to freely express themselves, that right is now frantically surrendered in exchange for the promise of comfort. Absent defined parameters on speech and expression, students today are inclined to argue, society’s most vulnerable are cruelly put in harm’s way.

This notion has caught on throughout college campuses, often accepted uncritically. ­But nothing could be further from the truth.

The purpose of upholding free speech isn’t simply to flatter the First Amendment’s late architects. Allowing speech to compete unbridled in the arena of ideas is the most practical deterrent against hateful – and even harmful – speech.

Far from protecting the vulnerable, censorship grants heinous and unsound ideas a free pass from the burden of open debate. Banishing impermissible thoughts to the shadows enables those ideas to spread beneath the surface, seduce uncritical minds out of view.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has more recently shied from its frontline defense of free speech – bending to the social-justice plea for padlocked comfort zones. But the importance of free speech in combating hate has been made no clearer than by former ACLU president Nadine Strossen. In her latest book, Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech Not Censorship, Strossen guides the reader through well-intentioned hate speech laws that have silenced those they were designed to protect in some cases, and in others, emboldened hate groups unchallenged by virtue of their own obscurity.

By ceding to misguided appeals to “safety,” universities have delivered quite the opposite – instead divesting students of the rhetorical equipment necessary to counter disagreeable or outright vile speech.

A society can only advance by choosing to embrace good ideas and actively reject bad ones. But that challenge only becomes more difficult when we refuse to allow that debate to take place.