Politics & Media
May 25, 2015, 10:04AM

People Don't Like Free Speech Anymore

Yet another thing the Internet has screwed up.

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People used to feel that they ought to like free speech—not just their own, but anybody's. They might not like hearing what came out of other people's mouths, but they felt obliged to give a few dutiful cheers for the principle that allowed the nonsense to come forth. “I may deplore what you say,” they assured each other, “but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Some delved down to the principle that underlay this tolerance. “No one has a monopoly on truth,” they said somberly. Nobody was at the center of the universe, so nobody had an especially good view. All viewpoints were necessary, and their input could be sorted out only by argument, a free-style collision of ideas, a never-ending debate marathon with no opinions barred.

Boy, has that changed. We hear heated talk about how free speech doesn't guard you against repercussions for your speech. If you're a talk show host, you aren't guaranteed to keep your job if you say something against gay marriage (or, I suppose, if you say terrorists who risk their lives aren't cowards, that Americans are cowards because they shoot missiles at far-off targets). If you're a bank teller, you're about certain to lose your job if you tweet something against Martin Luther King (or, I suppose, if you tweet that the financial sector is managed by greedy fools who would be criminals if the law weren't so cooperative). The idea isn't just that this will happen, because it always could, but that we're supposed to think it's a good thing. Some confused people even believe that direct suppression of speech—tearing down an obnoxious poster, for example—is just one more repercussion and doesn't really count as suppression.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I was struck by the people who thought the victims ought to be honored for their work, work that appeared to be nothing special except that it occasionally flailed at Islam, Judaism and Christianity along with French political figures, and that it flailed in what seemed to me a way that was more hurtful than funny. (More caricatures of Jews and Arabs with out-of-control noses—oh, good.) Artists and professors assured each other on social media that the killings were a tragedy and a disaster, but not because people had been killed for expressing themselves. The idea was that artists expressing the right notions shouldn't be killed, and that Charlie Hebdo's notions were indeed right and only looked like silly junior-grade bigotry. The mourners couldn't process the thought that free expression is also threatened when anybody, just anybody, is murdered for expressing any idea, no matter what that idea may be. They couldn't process the thought that free expression, not just their kind of expression, is the important thing. “I  may deplore what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Nah.

Here's another symptom: the growing insistence that the First Amendment is, simply, the First Amendment, the item in the U.S. Constitution that restricts Congress from interfering with what citizens say or believe. Well, I can't argue with strict usage. All I can do is point out that everyone knew the term's technically correct meaning but still went ahead and said “First Amendment” when what they meant was free speech. The amendment wasn't just a contractual item that cleverly kept Congress on the leash. It was the premier example of a principle the rest of us meant to live by as best we could. Now we don't.

One reason for the change: high-mindedness is a lot easier when you belong to a group that doesn't hear too many nasty things being said about it. In the old days, northern European heterosexuals with healthy bank accounts and a Christian faith could say whatever they wanted about other groups, and what the other groups said back rarely got much play. We are definitely better off now that the demographic ins are being challenged by the demographic outs. Now we really are getting input from all directions; the old model has become less of a model and more of a reality. But any order has its drawbacks.

Another reason for the shift is, of course, the Internet. Free speech looks a lot like an infestation of termites when a horde of obnoxious fools can plant themselves on your Facebook page, Twitter feed or in the comments section of the blog you like. Most of them aren't really there to express an idea; their true aim is to punish you with their presence, to make you suffer for saying something they don't like. Weeding out troublemakers is self-defense; even during the old days, a few hardy souls might plant a punch in the snoot on anyone who physically showed up to mouth off at them. Now that people don't have to show up and risk a snoot-punching, they swarm like bugs and leave their snotty remarks behind them. Victims can't be blamed for clearing out the mess. But the idea grows that any expression of an unwelcome idea is a mess of the same sort.

Personally, I'm against punishing opinion. But sometimes people are going to suffer for what they say, and there's no way around that. A teacher or executive or waiter or military officer who says they dislike blacks, Jews, whites, Asians, Catholics, gays, straights, men or women can't be trusted to act professionally toward all the people they deal with and therefore can't be trusted to do their job right; that person has to go. These exceptions can be multiplied many times. But there should still be more rule than exceptions. We should still want there to be more rule than exceptions. Seems like we don't.

—Follow C.T. May on Twitter: @CTMay2 

  • C.T. what support do you have for "The amendment wasn't just a contractual item that cleverly kept Congress on the leash. It was the premier example of a principle the rest of us meant to live by as best we could. Now we don't." ? This was not taught in history class nor have I come across any examples of this in my U.S. history reading. On the contrary, U.S. history is full of suppression of speech. Blacks, women, children, anti-war protesters, protest and protest-free zones, are just a few examples. These groups have been suppressed by fellow citizens (and the government) on and off throughout U.S. history. When and where was this utopia you speak of?

  • When was the speech of women and children suppressed? And what was the punishment?

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  • For over half of this country's history women did not have the right to vote which is a fundamental right of free speech. At other times, they were unable to attain higher degrees, and hold certain work positions. And keep in mind that C.T. isn't discussing the "strict usage" of the term. By his definition children are rarely taken seriously or given the same speech rights by society that adults are afforded. And for most of U.S. history, women were treated more like children then adults. If you are wondering about the actual first amendment, where are women allowed to walk topless in public? Other than a few specialized beaches and maybe a town or two, they would be arrested for public indecency regardless of the reason or protest the women were not fully clad

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  • Tex, I don't think my words got past your preconceptions. I certainly don't claim that speech rights have never been violated in the US. No belief in utopia here, whether past, present or future.

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  • No preconceptions here. Just asking for a time or place where we lived by this principle. Your statement of " Now we don't" suggests you think we did at some point in history. I don't remember such a time in my lifetime or the history of the USA.

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  • As for your dismissal of those, like me, who adhere to a more "strict usage" Just because you believe that "everyone knew the term's technically correct meaning but still went ahead and said “First Amendment” when what they meant was free speech." doesn't make it true or accurate and is therefore a weak pillar for an argument.

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  • But I didn't dismiss those, like you, who use the term only in its strict sense. I suggest that the declining use of the term in its looser sense suggests that people aren't as enthusiastic about the principle of free speech as they used to be. Now as to whether my personal impression of popular usage cuts any ice with you, all I can say is you may take my recollections or leave them. I remember many times when people would say "First Amendment" and mean free speech. The first time I ever heard anyone insist on the strict usage was in 2004. If your recollections are different, so be it. I hope you can live with this difference in memory.

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  • Our having different recollections I can agree with C.T. I recall the principal of free speech always being linked to the government and the first amendment. I also remember being taught by my parents, teachers, experience, and many other sources that challenging the status quo or conventional wisdom would usually be met with resistance on a social level not too mention on a governmental level. In fact, I have yet to experience any society that does not mock, deride or suppress those who are "different" from the norm. I remember Don't Ask Don't Tell, and that was a government program. I remember when being a member of communist party would prevent one from getting certain government and non-government jobs. I remember a time when the minority votes have been suppressed. I remember when gay bashing was common terminology for literally beating a suspected homosexual. I remember clubs that would prohibit minorities or women from joining. What I don't remember is a time when people truly believed that ". It was the premier example of a principle the rest of us meant to live by as best we could"

  • Well, I was raised by teachers and parents to believe that different points needed to be heard, with none of them being suppressed. Did people live up to this ideal? Often yes, too often no. But it was the ideal, and I hate to see how it has lost ground. As to your catalog, you seem to have decided that tolerance of speech is the same as tolerance of everything. Awful as it is to beat up someone for being gay, or to deny them membership in a club because of their race, these are not free speech issues. Given that we disagree on such a fundamental definition, we're not going to get too far. I'll say for the record that I enjoy your posts (except the ones directed at Noah) and appreciate your often cogent prose. But we are proceeding from different premises and heading rapidly away from each other, so this exchange is probably useful to neither of us.

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  • I too was taught to challenge conventional wisdom. I was just taught to be prepared for the likely blowback. My point on gay bashing was that even the appearance of homosexuality and speech in favor of homosexual rights would often be suppressed through violence and/or automatic dismissal of expressed views. (e.g. Harvey Milk) And although I think non-discrimination is a key component of the colloquial use of the First amendment I'm more than willing to drop the private club example. My main point is that in my experience, regardless of lip service, the ideals of the first amendment are no more, or less, adhered to than any other time in U.S. history as I hope my examples demonstrate. As for Noah, if he showed an ounce of the courtesy and thoughtful consideration that you do in these discussions, I would find it easier not to be dragged down to his antagonistic level.

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  • The Noble First refers to the government. If you want to expand the meaning and the institutions which allow or suppress speech, you have a problem. The first is we're no longer talking about the First Amendmet the second is that by opening the question, making it open-ended, anybody can say anything is or isn't free speech, is or isn't allowing free speech. "I call it....." Sure. Call it what you like. But it leaves you open to somebody else saying, "I call it nuts," with the same degree of factual gravity. Fun with that.

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  • Well, you made me laugh. That's something.

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