What it is
In America our First Amendment give us the right to express ourselves as controversially or offensively as we want without governmental interference. It’s a right that used to be taken mostly for granted, though when I was growing up in the ’80s you had to keep an eye on those pesky conservative tight-asses who didn’t approve burning the American flag. Thankfully they lost that battle.
Today the biggest threats to free speech come from leftists who insist that some speech is too dangerous. Their hearts are in the right place, but here are the two problems with that.
1. It is precisely dangerous speech that requires protection. Speech that isn’t offensive, ridiculing, hateful, or controversial doesn’t need the protection of a First Amendment. Expression that doesn’t offend in some way isn’t free. That has always been its point against governmental censorship and tyranny. Those who object to dangerous speech or ideas are basically making the state’s case. What is dangerous to one isn’t so to another. Right-wingers might wish to silence socialist ideas, while the left would love to silence critics of Islam. Which takes me to my next point…
2. No waivers. There can’t be. We could all think of exceptions we feel passionate about, and hate speech is frequently singled out. But when you can be blackballed as a hateful bigot for, say, criticizing Islam as a uniquely toxic religion, it shows that people don’t even understand what hate speech is. Yale University revoked the courageous activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s speaking invitation when students petitioned against her “hateful” opinions; Berkeley wisely overruled petitions against Bill Maher. Students can of course petition as they please (that’s their own free speech), and private universities have every right to accept or reject these requests as they deem fit. The point is that students are becoming more and more clueless, and universities are disgraceful when they cater to these kind of demands. Practically anything is deemed hateful and bigoted these days, which is why comedians won’t perform on college campuses any more, and why the University of Chicago, commendably, released its recent statement that they, for one, will not tolerate this trend of pandering to “safe spaces” and shielding students from honest inquiry.
What it isn’t
Quite a lot, it turns out, and confusion reigns supreme here.
1. Inciting violence, harassment, child pornography, using copyright, disturbing the peace, etc. These are sometimes confused with supposed “restrictions on free speech”, but they are really different issues. The opinions and thoughts aren’t being censored in these cases, but rather how they are being directly translated into harmful action, or involve by necessity violating the rights of others.
If we consider Donald Trump, I believe that a legal case could plausibly be made against him for sometimes crossing the line when he tells people what to do at his rallies. His speech against Muslims, Mexicans, and African Americans is (arguably) being weaponized in these cases. On the other hand, Pastor Steven Anderson has repeatedly called for the execution of gay people, and is actually even more hateful against gays than Trump is against non-whites — but Anderson never crosses the line. In all his sermons and speeches, he expressly forbids vigilantism. People should obey the laws of the land even when the government is wicked (per Rom 13). Homosexuals, he insists, should be executed only by a righteous government (per Lev 18 and 20). The examples of Trump and Anderson should underscore the need to distinguish between hate speech, which itself is protected at the most toxic levels, and the potential for direct harm.
2. Private-space protection. Free speech doesn’t cover us in the private spaces of others, whether in physical places like homes, universities, and businesses, or virtual spaces like blogs and Facebook pages. I do believe that university professors, bloggers and Facebook users should emulate the standards of free speech as much as possible when moderating comments, but they shouldn’t be, and are not in fact, required to do so.
Thus the contrast: As a government employee I cannot censor any comments from the Nashua Public Library Facebook page. If a patron writes vulgar and bigoted comments, that is rightfully protected speech. But on private Facebook pages, comments like that are censored all the time. Whether or not they should be is an open and subjective question, but certainly no one can invoke “free speech” to demand being tolerated on someone’s private webpage, anymore than in a private home or university class.
3. A guarantee of respect. If you enjoy spreading hate, the government must tolerate you, but no one has to respect you. It never ceases to amaze me when the most offensive purveyors of free speech play the aggrieved when others exercise their own heaping doses of free expression to combat the offensiveness.
The bottom line
Humanitarians are correct that free speech is dangerous, but co-existing with dangerous ideas is what freedom is all about. We do not, should not, have the right to be shielded from outrage that upsets us. Libertarians are correct in this regard — there are no waivers for free speech — but this no holds-barred principle applies in a restrictive context of governmental interference.
A final word. As Americans we are lucky to live in a country that protects freedom of expression in the way that it does. It’s our most powerful right, and we should make every effort to use it responsibly. There are those who don’t, and that’s when our free speech becomes even more important — to speak out against those who abuse the privilege.