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Free speech should make us squirm

A few years ago, the Westboro Baptist Church came to my hometown and picketed several Jewish institutions, including schools and my local synagogues. They held signs that were blatantly offensive and anti-Semitic; I don’t remember exactly what they said, but they must have looked something like this. I saw them as I went about my day. Their ‘protest’ was upsetting; it was detestable. It was, however, a valid exercise of the right to freedom of speech.

The atrocious terrorist attack on Charlie Hedbo, the French satirical publication, has inspired an outpouring of public support for free speech in the past few days. Many pundits have rightly praised the slain cartoonists for their willingness to court controversy in the face of physical threats. However, as Jim Norton notes in a Time article, now is the easiest time to express support for free expression. It takes no courage to support a cause when everyone else is doing it, too. We, as a society, must be willing to defend free speech even when it makes us uncomfortable–even when the speech is near-universally reviled.

Historically, we have done a pretty lousy job of this.

In 2003, amidst the charged post-9/11 political environment, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks said the following during a concert in England: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Given that the American political scene was so jingoistic and pro-war in 2003 that freedom fries briefly became a reality, Maines’ statement was bound to be unpopular. This was a chance for Americans to disagree with a public figure’s views, yet reaffirm her right to hold them. This was a test for Americans to support freedom of speech when it was difficult.

Americans failed this test.

Almost immediately the group faced enormous backlash, with many calling for a complete boycott of the Dixie Chicks. Country music stations took the band off the air, citing overwhelming demand from their listeners. Country music fans gathered to burn and smash their CD’s, and Maines received several death threats.

One might reasonably assert that those who try to silence their political adversaries through legal means are merely exercising their own rights to free expression. This was the argument that George W. Bush used to defend the Dixie Chicks boycotters in 2003. In a sense, this argument is valid; people do not have to give their money or attention to people they disagree with. However, the Dixie Chicks boycott, with its threats, public shaming rituals and media blacklisting, amounted to more than a collected exercise of free expression — it was a concerted effort to censor a minority opinion.

A Stanford-affiliated reader might protest at this point that this example does not apply to the environment of a college campus. Perhaps jingoistic war hawks are willing to silence philosophical opponents, the reader thinks, but surely a liberal undergraduate would not stomach that sort of behavior. Unfortunately, speech-policing has indeed infiltrated campus life. To see that this is true, one need only note the many prominent figures, including Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde, that have been forced to cancel speeches at universities due to student protests. At times the censorship has been even more explicit: NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly was heckled off the stage while trying to give a talk at Brown University. These students are not simply rebutting their ideological adversaries — they are silencing them.

Why is freedom of speech so important, anyway? If almost everyone agrees that a certain opinion is disgusting, or even just annoying, why should a minority of the population be allowed to hold and express that view? The truth is that the right to express an unpopular opinion is vital to a progressive society, in that it allows society to progress. Many ideas that are taken for granted now — that the Earth revolves around the sun, that women should have the right to vote — were once widely-ridiculed minority views. By allowing these minority opinions to enter the marketplace of ideas, a liberal society (in the classical sense) allows the best views to rise to the top, and the worst to sink into the sediment below.

This is not to say that all expression should be tolerated. Certain types of speech, like physical threats, libel, and slander, are rightfully regulated by law. However, speech that is legal should not be policed by vigilantes. Those who claim to be freethinking should not practice censorship, even when they are faced with ideas that make them uncomfortable.

Free speech should make us squirm.

Contact Joel Gottsegen at joeligy ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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