We are getting it wrong on free speech. Recently, Ann Coulter canceled an appearance at the University of California-Berkeley after her invitation to speak was rescinded because of the fear of violence. The campus had erupted in February over the planned appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos. The school canceled his event because of students’ violent response.
Those who opposed the appearances say we shouldn’t give a platform to speakers with extreme or hateful ideas. Some say that thoughtful people must try to block those espousing extreme ideas from access to our campuses and other public spaces to prevent normalizing those ideas.
They’re wrong. Students treat challenges to their beliefs as an attack, then protesters attack people who hold differing viewpoints as their enemies. A free society can’t function that way.
With few exceptions, the First Amendment means the government can’t stop us from speaking or jail us for having done so. Public universities are bound by the First Amendment in their public spaces. They also must protect public safety and their primary purpose — providing higher education.
Those shouted down and driven out may be provocateurs. Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter certainly are. But shouting them down is not the way to fight them. Ignoring those we don’t agree with or trying to shut them up means that no one is directly addressing and opposing their ideas. And trying to muzzle controversial speakers can actually strengthen their case by casting them as victims of repression.
While this happened at Berkeley, it echoes First Amendment issues that arose at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2015, where students and faculty used intimidation and crowd “muscle” to shut down access in a charged environment.
When we shut down opposition, we act as if other ideas will overwhelm and defeat ours. And that could be. If their ideas are better than ours, those ideas will win out in open discussion. If not, they will fail. But we can’t be afraid to confront opposition if we truly believe in a free society.
From our founding, our nation has valued free speech as integral to the functioning of democracy. The marketplace of ideas is fundamental. Concepts must be openly shared. Free expression allows ideas to compete with one another, so that free people may consider them. The best ideas will be advanced, the worst will decrease in favor.
We must tolerate offensive speech in this market, or we face the threat that orthodoxy will shut down the free and transparent exchange of ideas. In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson said, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. … Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Those who would fight ideas they find offensive should protest. They should speak out. But shouting the other guy down is not free speech. It is the opposite. Thuggery and violence are not ways to oppose an idea; they are an attempt to stop its expression.
We can’t treat people who disagree with us as threats. Saying something disagreeable — or even reprehensible — is not an assault.
Copyright Joplin Globe. Reprinted with permission.