In Defense of Robust Free Speech
An increasingly common response to speech deemed as intolerant is to punish the speaker. For example, the Miami Dolphins suspended player Don Jones for his response to a celebratory kiss between NFL draftee Michael Sam and Sam’s boyfriend. Jones tweeted “OMG” and “horrible.” The Dolphins also fined Jones and ordered him to attend “educational training.”
The reasoning behind punishing speech deemed as intolerant seems to be as follows. “Yes, we have free speech, but free speech sometimes has consequences. Some speech acts represent hateful attitudes towards certain groups. Those speech acts shouldn’t be tolerated, and the speakers should be punished. This doesn’t violate the first amendment because the government does not carry out the punishment.” On this view, punishing Don Jones is consistent with a free and open society because his speech is of the sort that warrants punishment by non-government forces.
Let’s look at another example. In 2010, National Public Radio fired journalist Juan Williams after Williams said the following on The O’Reilly Factor:
Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.
Williams very carefully pointed out that we shouldn’t paint all Muslims as terrorists, but his remarks were nonetheless taken to be anti-Muslim. Thus, NPR terminated his contract.
Again, the view here is that some forms of speech ought to be punished. The right to free speech only limits the government’s power to punish speech that it deems to be unacceptable. Indeed, many proponents of this view deny that the incidents mentioned are free speech issues.
However, this view is incompatible with the classical liberal view of free expression. On this view, free speech is not just something that the government should respect; it is something to be respected by citizens of a free society. My neighbor may express all sorts of views that I disagree with, perhaps vehemently, but his right to express those views grants him protection not just from the government, but from me as well. I am not justified in punishing him for his free speech merely because I am not a government official; I am not justified in punishing him because I, too, wish to be able to speak my mind without fear of punishment. If I afford my neighbor a meager right to speak his mind, then I have no reason to complain when he likewise affords me a meager right to speak my mind.
It may be argued in response that a man can hold whatever views he wishes in the confines of his mind, but that when he speaks his mind, his conduct becomes public and hence is open potentially to non-governmental censure. However, this response hinges on the distinction between inward freedom of expression and outward freedom of expression—and this distinction is by no means clear. Of what use is my inward freedom of expression if it cannot be manifested outwardly? Indeed, the government can only put me in shackles for my exercise of speech, but it cannot stifle an idea; my fellow citizens, however, have the power to stifle ideas, to demand conformity to a majority opinion, to instill fear in those who would speak against the majority position, and to circumscribe the realm of human thought. Thus, the right to free speech should count against the tyranny of the majority, which can only shackle the mind, even more than against the tyranny of government, which can only shackle the body.
Let me end my argument with a thought experiment. Here are three possible societies. In Society 1, an openly gay man has very little chance of becoming a professional football player, and no one is punished for expressing distaste at the sight of two men kissing. In Society 2, an openly gay man with sufficient athletic talent has the same chance of becoming a professional football player as anyone else with his talent, but expressing distaste when he kisses his boyfriend is likely to incur punishment. In Society 3, an openly gay man with sufficient athletic talent has the same chance of becoming a professional football player as anyone else with his talent, and no one is punished for expressing distaste when he kisses his boyfriend.
Society 1 resembles the not-so-distant past. Society 2 resembles the present and probably the future. Society 3 resembles no current society. Now here’s a question: which of these three societies do we want to live in? Which of these societies maximizes freedom of expression?
My answer is this: I want to live in Society 3 because it maximizes freedom of expression. I think that an openly gay man with the requisite athletic talent should have an equal chance to play professional sports as anyone else, and I think that someone without penalty should be able to express disgust when he kisses his boyfriend. Society 3 is the only one consistent with a free and open society. On the other hand, Societies 1 and 2 cannot exist without some form of oppression, some tyranny of the majority that punishes people for not being who the majority thinks they should be or for saying what the majority thinks they should not say. A robust commitment to freedom of expression, even expression that we find loathsome, entails a desire to live in the third society.