Is Free Speech Really Free?

by Simon Sarevski

When we think of freedom of speech, the first thing that comes to mind is the first amendment in the Bill of Rights, even if someone is not American.  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” reads the amendment. If we delve down into history a little bit, we can see that the founding fathers didn’t invent hot water. They merely followed in the enlightenment footsteps, more precisely the 1689 English Bill of rights and to a lesser extent the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  

England, a country not known as a bastion of religious toleration in the early modern period, was still much more advanced than its contemporaries. Writing in 1733 in the Letters on the English, Voltaire notes the religious toleration present in England, if nothing else, is the cornerstone of peace. He explains: “England is properly the country of sectarists… If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.” 

But the first amendment is 45 words, written on a parchment of paper back in 1791 – and words on parchment of paper are exactly that, only words, even if they are as sacrosanct as the first amendment is perceived to be. 

Adulation it has received, but one thing is for certain; freedom of speech neither is nor has been, in more than two centuries of its existence, absolute. Take the 1919 decision for example, when the famous ‘shouting fire in a crowded theater’ quip was originally popularized. It stated that some speech, as in the case of expressions which were intended to result in a crime, and posed a clear and present danger of succeeding is not protected under the first amendment. It took the U.S. exactly fifty years, to partially overturn the 1919 decision.

Defamation, or more precisely slander and libel are outlawed on the grounds of causing harm to one’s reputation, and in turn his/her livelihood. The serious question that has to be asked is what reputation really is, if not as Walter Block has put it, nothing else then what other people think of you, for which one does not have a possession of. Under the first amendment, people are free to express their opinions, and in turn, influence what other people think of third parties, albeit in a negative way. Somehow, this speech is not protected under the first amendment. 

But the self-proclaimed “advanced, civilized” west is no better than the U.S. Blasphemy laws until very recently were vehement in many western countries and still exist, albeit in a rather minor manner even today. In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered comedian Mike Ward to pay a total $42,000 compensation for making a joke about a kid with a disability. Back on the continent, in Germany and Austria, the Nazi salute is banned, while the swastika insignia is banned in several more European countries as well. This has led to games like Wolfenstein: The New Order to have everything connected to the Nazis censored in Germany and Austria. The absurdity goes so far to the point that a game critical of the Nazis, to say the least, has to change its main villain, i.e. the Nazis into the faceless ‘The Regime’ just to comply with the regulations, and in the process, if successful, even depriving the players of  connecting ‘The regime’ to the real culprits.

Lastly, and perhaps the worst of all is the punishment people face across the continent for the denial of the Holocaust. Not precisely because of the severity of the punishments in itself, but by not challenging the faulty thoughts. To borrow from Ayn Rand: “It is forgotten that the right of free speech means the freedom to advocate one’s views and to bear the possible consequences, including disagreement with others, oppositions, unpopularity and of support.” Don’t get me wrong here – denying the Holocaust is the same as parting with reality and as offensive and as close to heart that many take the Holocaust denial, and rightfully so, it is not an excuse for the restriction on freedom of speech, because freedom of speech goes both ways.

The best solution for tamping down offensive, or simply put, wrong speech is through the marketplace of ideas. The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that trust is the only good ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. In the famous On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued that silencing any opinion is wrong, even if the opinion is false because knowledge arises only from the “collision [of truth] with error”.

The past was much simpler in the fight over freedom of speech. At least you knew where the attack was coming from – government busybodies, concerned and in the name of the greater good, wreaking havoc. They came for the comic books in the late 1940s and early 1950 – the same generation that bled and died overseas, fighting a dictator that publicly burned books with “unGerman” ideas. In the 1980s they came for the music – Parents Music Resource Center, a group of well-connected “Washington Wives” held the moral high-ground, demanding record companies to start putting parental advisory warnings, similar to what we know as PGs for movies and television. 

What has changed in the last decade is the direction from the attack on  freedom of speech comes, which is probably the most unlikely place – the universities, making the sting a bit closer to heart. It all started when the microaggression spirit became prevalent at the universities. At some point, admissions were rescinded at Ivy League colleges over offensive memes in private groups. Imagine this, young people having fun over extreme politically incorrect issues is a lack of moral character. Please. 

Some, like Jordan Peterson for example, who got famous in 2016 over the controversial Bill C-16 that adds gender expressions and gender identity as protected grounds to the Canadian Human Rights Act, have been treated handsomely, at least financially. One might disagree with Peterson on many things, but one thing society can’t take away from him is his staunch defense of freedom of speech, saying “I’m not doing this and that’s that. I’m not using the words that other people require me to use” when threatened with jail over his refusal of using genderless pronouns.

The biggest disappointment, sadly, comes from the mother of the free speech movement. Back in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was still brewing, it was the students from UC Berkeley spearheading the free speech movement. In little more than three months, the first fight was won and ground for the future was freshly paved. Fast forward to today, the institution prides itself in saying: “Free speech is one of UC Berkeley’s most cherished values.” However, actions speak louder than words and 2017 just shows how much. 

After the apocalypse happened and Trump was elected as POTUS, many high profile right-wing commentators were barred from speaking at UC Berkeley. First, it was Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech, which a petition from more than 100 faculty members didn’t manage to cancel, but violent protesters, while doing an estimated $100.000 in damaged, did.Then it followed an event that Ann Coulter was supposed to speak, but it was canceled due to safety reasons. There were few more incidents throughout the year that saw clashed between the right and the left. It is a shame that the birthplace of the free speech movement has become its graveyard

If this was an isolated case, then shame on UC Berkeley and move on, but it was not. The controversial for some, Charles Murrey, was shouted down at Middlebury College in an encounter that turned violent, for which dozens of students were disciplined. In a non-violent, yet disruptive manner, this has happened to Murrey again. Back on the continent, at the King’s College in London, Antifa stormed an event featuring controversial youtube star Sargon from Akkad and Yaron Brook. But universities are not barring only right-leaning/libertarian controversial speakers. 

The problem is that universities have become the toxic environment when it comes to the freedom of speech, discouraging discourse that might turn into a disagreement. After surveying 449 schools in the US, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that 39.6 percent maintain severely restrictive, “red light” speech codes that clearly and substantially prohibit constitutionally protected speech. Although we’ve seen a nine-year consecutive decline, still, two out of five universities stomp over the first constitutional protected right. 

Lastly, as Caroline Simon at Forbes notes, “free speech isn’t free”, there is a case to be made of the costs faculties face when catering controversial speech.. In 2017 UC Berkeley spent over $2.5 million for security alone; Richard Spencer’s visit cost the University of Florida $600.000. But since they are publicly funded universities, to quote Simon again “Not only must they host speakers like Spencer — they’re required to cover the costs as well.” Like any business, if they cannot pay the price, they should not operate in the business, even if it’s publically funded .

What’s baffling, and frankly sad, about all this is that on the one side faculty members are so opposed to hearing, and god-forbid debating intellectual adversaries. There is a space for a soft spot for students, as they are still in the process of learning. But when the youth learns from such examples, the future looks grim.

Like the left and the right, we libertarians live in ideological bubbles as well. What is the migration crisis (Europe) and border security (U.S.) for the right, and income inequality and climate change for the left, freedom of speech is for libertarians. Maybe that’s the case because we view freedom of speech as one of the cornerstones of modern civilization and justice, or it might be a totally different reason. Whatever the case is, freedom of speech is clearly under attack. 

But in this process, just like the left and the right, we have confirmed our biases with the recent attacks on free speech, especially on university campuses, and overblown the whole issue.  Of course, I might be totally wrong and we might have reached a critical point, but, like beauty, the truth is in the eye of the beholder. 

Not to fall into the Hegelian trap of repeating history and not learning anything from it, we have to confess to ourselves, at least only when we look into the mirror, that freedom of speech we so much cherish is only an ideal of 45 words written in the Bill of rights and we need to make extra effort to preserve it as it is, let alone make it reality to the fullest extent.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organisation as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, click here to submit a guest post!

Image : Pixabay

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