How Important is Freedom of Speech?
March 30, 2020
Some thoughts on a perennial question that has endured decades of inconclusive examination.
When the supreme court first sided with the freedom of speech in 1930, it inadvertently laid the groundwork of a new kind of animal farm - one that breeds the sacred cows of microaggression, safe spaces, and trigger warnings into the vernacular of modern day discourse. Though these trendy buzzwords can provide guidelines for communicators to follow, they are often and easily mistaken for a defense mechanism against conversational landmines; many eagerly champion these words to censor controversy, or to simply turn their heads away from things that are hard to discuss. In fact, these tools of communication have come to resemble a “content cop" who censures expression of thought at the behest of public outcry. After all, nearly everyone would rather surround themselves with like-minded individuals rather than the hostile climate of contrarians.
Milo Yiannopoulos himself narrowly escaped harm for being one such contrarian. As a British commentator and writer who celebrates the freedom of speech with inflammatory remarks ranging from those that defend pedophilia to comments about transgender individuals being “deeply mentally damaged," Yiannopoulos has on countless occasions been revoked his invitation to speak: the Conservative Political Action Conference rescinded his invitation to the event, and many of his book deals have been cancelled (Millstein). In the same vein, when he was welcomed onto UC Berkeley’s polarized campus in February, “150 anti-fascist demonstrators...set fires, broke glass and threw rocks, prompting university police to shut the event down immediately" (Svrluga).
While he garners support from the right and religious condemnation from the left, the ultimate crux of concern regards the limitations on Milo’s controversial rhetoric as a speaker. Calls to impose restrictions on offensive speech come in disparate forms, from censoring messages that disrupt communities to restricting speech that promotes violence. The common ground shared by all, however, lies in the reliance of government intervention, which champions the notion that as long as a government is in place to regulate the platforms of communication, all is well.
Yet, there are evident threats in the reliance of government intervention as well. Following UC Berkeley’s struggle to maintain bipartisanship on its campus before Yiannopoulos’s speech, Donald Trump released a tweet threatening that “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS," siding with Milo’s sentiment that supported the First Amendment. Evidently, government approach utilizes political rather than moral principle to reconcile. Historically, it has even “sought to prohibit speech hostile to gays and lesbians - and speech supportive of gays...promoting religion…[and speech] attacking religion" (Wizner). Indeed, as Wizner says, “the only thing predictable about giving the government the power to censor speech is that it will use that power unpredictably."
The price of free speech is one that cannot be quantified. However, it is one that can be rightfully questioned when the costs of protecting it include violent demonstrations and the stifling of different voices. Even so, entrusting this responsibility to the government may produce even more troublesome concerns. Hence, the most sensible course of action would be to weigh the ramifications of speaking privileges and restrictions to arrive at a middle ground in which impositions on neither side exist.
A world in which speech from all minds is suppressed equates to a stagnant civil society. It would create a community wherein which dissent is feared and punishable by a despotic authority. In short, it would be a world not wholly alien to the ideals of George Orwell who after all, had warned us of such travesties in his award-winning works.
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