Between the University’s recent report on free expression, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and The Maroon’s recent editorial on open discourse, we find ourselves in a moment where there is much hand-wringing about free speech. Many, myself included, were inclined to believe that, for all intents and purposes, the debates on this subject effectively ended in 1791 when the states affirmed the First Amendment. Yet again we find ourselves asking: Does freedom of expression admit of any limit? And, most fundamentally, what is free speech?
Free speech is first and foremost a limit. As applied to the government, via the First Amendment, it means that the state must make “no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech.” However, it applies just as forcefully, if not legally, to the University. As it acknowledged in its statement, it is not the University’s job to police arguments, even when the views of one side may seem downright vile, bigoted, racist, or, yes, even discriminatory. Contrary to seemingly popular belief, U.S. law neither recognizes nor criminalizes anything called “hate speech,” and nor should the University. “Hate speech” is not and never has been illegal in the United States, as the Supreme Court made clear in its cases R.A.V v. City of St. Paul and Snyder v. Phelps. There are very few, if any, exceptions to free speech, primarily because there exists nobody qualified to decide, for the whole community, what thoughts may or may not be held.
Too often, we conceive of free speech as merely a negative limit on what institutions, whether governments or universities, may do to restrict what we say and believe. We fail to acknowledge that these negative limits, which ought to be absolute, are grounded in a long tradition of arguments about why open, rigorous discussion is actually good for us. Free speech is a positive quality, even a virtue, which we all ought to embrace by actively engaging with views we find abhorrent.
The negative view of free speech alone often leads us into relativistic claptrap, where both sides to the debate appeal emptily to some notion of free speech. Those who protest commencement speakers (something which, luckily, has not happened at this University…yet), often justify their actions by pointing out that, yes, the commencement speaker has some right to speak, maybe on some street corner somewhere, but the protesters also have a right not to listen. Under the merely legal and negative view of free speech, they are correct. And this is where that conception fails us: We descend further into a society where everyone speaks and no one listens, except to those with whom they already agree.
This ignores the ultimate justification for the legal protections that our governments and, sometimes, our universities give to open expression. Namely, that it is good for each of us to actively seek out views with which we disagree. Indeed, it is most important to seek out views that fill us with disgust. As John Stuart Mill originally pointed out, this serves two purposes: first, those arguments which we previously found abhorrent may indeed contain a grain of truth; second, even if they do not, we come to improve our own arguments merely by being exposed to those we do not agree with.
Free speech as a positive quality likely admits many more limits than does free speech as a negative quality. One need not seek out the views of the KKK in order to refine one’s views on race relations in America. Yet it is neither the place of the University nor the government to ban those views from ever being uttered. Rather, it is civil society that can and should shun those who hold such extreme and bigoted views. These actions are necessary only in very extreme cases, like that of the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church. We can say it’s a virtue to seek out those with whom you disagree without saying that those on the right need to seek out the violent anarchists or that those on the left need to seek out the Fred Phelpses of the world. But still, no one should ban any views from being held.
Yet of the two possible extremes— one in which civil society is far too tolerant of extreme or heretical views, and one in which it is not near tolerant enough— it is clear that we find ourselves much closer to the latter. Especially on college campuses, we pigeonhole ourselves into small groups of our ideological compatriots and rarely take the other side seriously. We prefer to get our news from satirical outlets like The Daily Show that mock and deride the most ignorant people, instead of identifying and grappling with the arguments of the smartest of those with whom we disagree. Free speech certainly means something about what the University cannot do. Indeed, ironically, it means the University cannot stop us from being so narrow-minded if we so choose. Yet those very same principles compel us to go beyond our ideological blinders and to fully embrace truly open discourse.
Nicholas Saffran is a third-year in the College studying political science.