Guest column: free speech is essential to American liberty
In the wake of protests in Berkeley, California, and the ensuing support for silencing speakers deemed upsetting by the left, we all should step back and reflect upon the idea that has made our society truly and classically liberal.
Free speech is more than a mere law; it is a defining principle of our society. It is not merely one among many competing values. Properly understood, it is a foundational value that supports all else that is good in our culture.
We hold this truth to be self-evident: that free expression, the foundation of a liberty-loving society, is granted to us by our creator and cannot be justly restricted by the institutions of man.
Free speech and government
Those who believe government grants us our rights fail to comprehend this essential feature of the American tradition. If government grants us free expression, then it has the ability to constrict it by requiring that it be exercised in the proper place with proper consent.
I do not hold to that idea and neither should you.
The moment we give individuals the authority to decide where and when you can express your views, we relinquish the power to freely dissent. Being at liberty to do so is not merely a concoction to benefit the few; it protects us all no matter our race, religion or ideology. It provides universal benefit, and we must never lose sight of that basic truth.
In his immortal treatise On Liberty, John Stuart Mill described the virtues of free expression.
He said: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” And further, “The particular evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race…those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
Even if a suppressed opinion may be erroneous, it often contains a kernel of truth. Since no view is ever perfectly formed, by the battle of wits we elucidate the unknown. This argument is not about law, but rather a personal responsibility to engage with those whom we disagree.
Any restriction on the expression of an opinion reduces the total knowledge of humanity and immorally robs from history the conclusions of our frank and honest debates.
Constraining free speech
The problem with confronting free speech with forceful demands that it be stopped is not that it runs counter to law — the Constitution constrains only the government from such action, not individuals. The problem is that those actions trample the principle of liberty that a pluralistic society must cherish.
Rather than shout down speakers, we should hear them out (or not — you’re not required to listen) and then counter speech we find disagreeable with our own. If you truly believe your views are correct and important then you should use every opportunity to persuade others rather than banish dissent.
Shutting down discussion is merely a self-gratifying exercise rather than one of academic courage. The corollary to this notion is that any restriction on the locations where free expression can be conducted similarly constricts the voices of those who wish to be heard.
The only difference is that, where speech is restricted to designated places, the coercive force is exerted by administrators and police rather than by a mob. Free Speech Zones are, therefore, an aberration which have no place in a university setting.
Rather than talk about what areas of campus should be Free Speech Zones, an understanding of the rationale and importance of free speech should cause us to flip the argument around. Instead of designating a few areas as places where we allow the exercise of liberty, we should consider all of campus to be a place of free expression barring only the few requirements necessary for the functioning of the University.
For example, it would not be possible for a professor to teach if people were to protest inside her classroom.
By looking at the entire campus as a Free Speech Zone as the starting point, and only then limiting the few necessities, we make a statement of our values: We will no longer aspire to the bare minimum of the law but rather to the maximum of our principles.
In a commitment to free expression, universities nationwide should be fostering speech in all forms, at all times, and everywhere that does not diminish the ability of the school to perform its functions.
I urge our beloved University to similarly codify its own commitment to fostering dialogue, free expression and open inquiry by all students, faculty, staff and guests. The University of Chicago described the importance of and its commitment to this value in its “Statement on Principles of Free Expression.”
It is high time we make a similar pledge.
In Whitney v. California, Justice Louis Brandeis said: “If there be a time to expose through discussion the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
History senior Matthew Wiltshire is the president of College Republicans at the University of Houston. History senior Michael Anderson is the chapter president and Texas state chair of Young Americans for Liberty. Both can be reached at [email protected]