Practical Reasons to Support the Right to Free Speech

Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

In the wake of tragedies like what happened in Charlottesville, one common impulse to demand new limitations on free speech. This reaction is predictable, understandable, and mistaken.

The case for limiting free speech is straightforward enough. The Charlottesville violence broke out at the scene of a political rally in defense of a Confederate general’s statue and it included a line-up of speakers that promote fascism and white supremacist views. These views are not part of legitimate political discourse and if they were suppressed, these abhorrent ideas would remain appropriately marginalized and perhaps violence of the sort we saw this weekend could be avoided.

There are variations on the theme, but this is the general spirit of it.

The problem is that the case quickly breaks down on further analysis. And even if you don’t think free speech should be defended as a matter of principle, there are compelling practical reasons to do so.

Two articles help make the pragmatic case for protecting free speech.

First, over at Reason, Katherine Mangu-Ward adeptly summarizes one of the more obvious logical problems with the argument for restrictions in the era of President Trump (emphasis in original):

But if fascists are to lose their free speech rights, someone must take them. And if you believe, as many of the counter-protesters do, that the white nationalists and their brethren were emboldened by the presence of a man in the White House who sees them as part of his coalition, then why on God’s good green earth would you want to turn around and hand that very man the right to censor anyone whom he labels fascists? Because I can tell you right now, the list of folks that Trump and the restive-but-still-Republican Congress would like to silence sure won’t look like the list those sign-wavers have in mind.

Then, check out David Meyer-Lindenberg’s harsh but delightful take on the German experience with free speech restrictions, which includes an array of absurd and foreseeable outcomes. His conclusion? When it comes to hate speech, Never Go Full Europe.

- Advertisement -
Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan