Monday, January 8, 2018

"Freedom for the Thought That We Hate" -- Or What Freedom of Speech Really Means

The First Amendment Protects All Speech and Not Just What is Popular

It seems everywhere we turn these days there is anger and frustration being expressed against individuals or groups that are espousing words and ideas deemed by others somehow to be wrong, disrespectful, or hurtful. In other cases a mere failure to agree with a popular belief becomes the object of scorn. It is happening at football games when players take a knee during the Star Spangled Banner, on college campuses when speakers are shouted down or physically attacked, and in numerous other settings. 

The concept of freedom of speech in the United States has both normative and legal aspects. The normative aspect postulates that free speech is a critical tool for self-governance, as well as a way to promote individual liberty and freedom -- all concepts enshrined in our founding documents and given true meaning over the last several decades. The legal aspect, which developed relatively slowly in our history, is that courts will limit government efforts (of its own accord or to aid other citizens) to ban or suppress the content of speech or otherwise burden or punish expression, which includes the right not to speak.

My goal in writing this post is not to take sides on any specific issues but rather to share some thoughts about a framework for appreciating and understanding what I see as the true meaning of freedom of speech, its essential role in maintaining a free and open society, and why each of us needs to be concerned about the current assault on free speech -- regardless of which side you take on any given issue. 

As you read on, keep in mind the following questions. If the First Amendment was adopted only to protect views on which a majority of people agree, then why do we even need it? And, borrowing from Noam Chomsky, if you don't believe in freedom of speech for people and ideas you despise, do you really believe in it at all?