The University of Chicago and some of our faculty are pondering creating an orientation module on free speech for incoming students—a module that’s all too rare but essential, for “progressive” students are beginning to oppose free speech and the First Amendment since some speech is seen as “harmful”, “offensive”, or even “violent.”
I wrote to a few people involved in our campus endeavor and told them this:
This short article by Ira Glasser (former head of the ACLU) is the best concise explanation of why we need the First Amendment that I’ve ever read. It carefully explains why all speech—including “hate speech”–must be protected. Naturally, it appeared in a right-leaning site, Spiked, but that makes no difference.Were I to construct an orientation for first-year students here, I’d have them read his piece (it also explains why all progress in social justice has required freedom of speech):. . . and also watch Christopher Hitchens’s 20-minute defense of free speech; a tour de force of rhetoric:
Now Glasser has just published a very good piece in Spiked that I highlighted above (naturally it’s on a right-leaning site, for the Progressive Left is not so keen on free speech because it can include “hate speech”). It’s hard to get a defense of free speech published in a liberal place.
Glasser’s message is simple and compelling; click on the screenshot to read it:
The parts of the article essential for a modern student’s introduction to free speech is Glasser’s explanation of not only why “hate speech” must be allowed, but also why progressive social justice of the good type requires freedom of speech.
I’ll give a few excerpts. I hope college administrators can and will use this piece to introduce students to the purpose and meaning of the First Amendment.
This describes why the ACLU defended the racist George Wallace’s right to speak in New York City after the mayor had banned him.
For example, the First Amendment protects the right to free speech and assembly by barring the government from abridging such rights. That is how I was able to stop the mayor of New York from banning George Wallace from speaking in 1968. Why did I do it? Because what if George Wallace had been elected? He had already been elected as governor of Alabama. He was trying to get elected as president (and he had considerable support). If he had gained political power, he would not have hesitated to suppress or punish my speech, or the speech of others I supported.
So I needed an insurance policy. I needed a legally supreme rule that barred him from curbing my speech in case he gained political power. And in order to do that, I needed to stop the then mayor of New York, a liberal whom I supported, from using his power to silence Wallace, a reactionary whom I feared. The two were linked because the antagonist of liberty is always power. And because power is fickle and unpredictable.
In a democracy, you can never know who will have power. So all power must be limited in order to protect liberty, including speech. That’s what liberty is: a legal limit on democratic power. The right to freedom of speech is guaranteed only by limiting the power of any government to abridge it. By defending George Wallace’s right to speak when he doesn’t have power, you insure against his curbing your right to speak should he gain power.
On the two-edged sword of bannng speech:
When Martin Luther King, Jr and his colleagues marched, white and black, hand in hand, in America’s deep South, the majority of residents there found King’s vision of an integrated society deeply offensive and tried, on that ground, to ban his speech.
We may find the two examples vastly different. They are vastly different. But if being offensive was allowed to justify banning speech, and if what is offensive were decided by majority vote, then civil-rights marchers would have been banned in Alabama, just as neo-Nazi marchers would have been banned in Illinois.
Could the two cases have been separated, and decided differently? Consider this: those same neo-Nazi marchers in Skokie were also banned from demonstrating in a park in Chicago, along with rival demonstrators from the Martin Luther King, Jr Association, a civil-rights group. Both were banned, based on the same law. And both bans were struck down by the First Amendment, which bars the government from enforcing such a law. The rights of both groups were thus joined together, even as their goals were diametrically opposed.
There was – indeed there is – no way around that. That is why the price of permitting King to speak in Alabama was to allow Wallace to speak in New York. And the cost of banning Wallace from speaking in New York would have been to allow Alabama to ban King from speaking in Alabama.
Finally, the part that may stir the thought of “progressives” who want to ban offensive speech:
What progressives say they care about most is social justice. And for many progressives, free speech and social justice seem to be antagonists. How, they ask, does defending the right of people to advocate bigotry advance the cause of social justice? In their view, prohibiting speech because its content is bigoted or hateful would seem to advance social justice.
Such speech is a barrier to social justice, they say. Permitting it makes it harder to eradicate the layers of prejudice against women and people of colour that has resulted, and still results, in invidious discrimination and subjugation.
I certainly have no quarrel with the passion to end such discrimination and subjugation. I have spent most of my adult life fighting to do just that, and I believe that although much progress has been made, we are still far away from the day when we can declare that fight definitively won. So opposing the content of racist speech remains vital. But believing that, in order to advance social justice, it is necessary to give the government the power to ban speech is self-defeating. Giving the government this power harms social justice. That’s because, in practice, social justice depends on free speech, and always has.
Historically, in the United States, every fight for social justice began with free speech, depending on speech to initiate and sustain the movement to right wrongs. In the early years of the 20th century, for example, the nascent labour movement critically required (and did not often enjoy) the right to meet, to leaflet, to demonstrate and to picket in order to convert workers’ powerlessness into success against oppressive employers.
Also during the early 20th century, the movement to end the lynching of black people, led by courageous advocates like Ida B Wells, totally depended upon freedom of speech and the right to publish. Without these freedoms, it would not have been able to spread the word about the epidemic of lynchings in the South and to gather and build opposition to it.
Or take the case of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. In 1916, she was arrested in New York City nearly every week for distributing informational leaflets on birth control to women victimised and, yes, effectively enslaved by unwanted pregnancies. The beginning of the reproductive-rights movement required freedom of speech the way a new plant requires water and sunlight.
And of course, in our own time, the civil-rights movement could not have ended legalised racial subjugation without freedom of speech. The First Amendment protected the early efforts of activists to call attention to the abuses of skin-colour exclusions and build the support needed to end them. In 1955, for example, Rosa Parks sat down on a seat reserved for whites on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, and a then unknown young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr stood up to support her, by organising a boycott of those buses. None of that would have been possible without the protection of the First Amendment.
If this doesn’t convince people to adhere to First Amendment principles, on or off campus, well, there’s no hope for them.
Here’s a 7-minute clip of Mighty Ira defending freedom of speech on Bill Maher’s show, as well as criticizing the modern ACLU for preferring to defend speech that isn’t “harmful”. The ACLU has undergone a severe erosion of its founding principles since Ira was at the helm: