A Moral Case for Free Speech



Nicholas Johnson

Free speech is a hot-button topic in the political arena. Where there once existed a general consensus surrounding the First Amendment’s importance, there is now avigorous debate over which ideas deserve legal protection. This debate has permeated even the top levels of government.

Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch made overtures toward the prosecution of anti-Islamic speech. More recently, former Governor of Vermont Howard Dean publicly stated that hate speech is not defended by the First Amendment, specifically referencing provocateur Ann Coulter. President Trump suggests strengthening libel laws. Right-wing commentators often lambaste what they perceive to be a culture of political correctness. They argue that the protection of oppressed classes should be secondary to candid dialogue, and there is some validity to this argument. However, the importance of protecting the First Amendment goes much deeper than that.

The free speech debate is not only political; it is moral.

American political thought is predicated upon the ability to speak truth to power. If President Trump were to walk into your apartment and declare that two plus two equals five, it is within your rights as an American to disagree. Furthermore, if President Trump happened to stop by on some other rainy Thursday (Good on you for having the President over so often; he’s a busy man), you can feel free to take as many jabs at his peculiar hairstyle as you wish.

A person’s status can never be a blanket shield against criticism. Though citizens of the U.S take this right for granted, it only takes a precursory glance at the rest of the world to see how rare it is for controversial speech to be protected. If you’re a Russian citizen reading this, try telling Vladimir Putin he looks kind of flabby in those topless horseback riding picks. See what happens.

Almost anyone would agree with this free expression, in theory. However, things become muddled when the reverse is the case.

Does a person have the right to passionately proclaim that two plus two equals five? Or that the Earth is flat? Or even, God forbid, that Matt Damon is overrated? I don’t want to discredit my argument with such obviously ridiculous examples: Nobody could really believe any of these things, but the ethics of defending utter asininity are worth considering.

Let’s turn this abstract argument to a real-world example. I think communism is stupid, both as a theoretical construct and a political reality. But there is a chance, however slim, that I’m completely wrong. Maybe Marx was right, and I have nothing to lose but my chains. If that is the case, it is easy to see that defending free expression for the commies—funny hats, terrible beards and all—is essential. Even the slightest possibility that any given worldview may be the solution to society’s ails necessitates free exchange of ideas. This holds true no matter how unsavory an individual’s ideas may be.

Though this idea makes sense in the abstract, it becomes much more difficult to defend reprehensible expression when its purveyors become visible. Seeing the Westboro Baptist Church wail against the grieving mothers of fallen soldiers, or Alex Jones denying Sandy Hook’s occurrence on Megan Kelly, or more recently watching Nazis march in Charlottesville, is almost painful enough to make one long for some limited form of censorship.

Here’s where the moral case for the First Amendment comes in: We, as human beings, are constantly struggling to find the truth. Our worldviews are formed from the fragments of knowledge we pick up as we go through life. To prohibit a person’s expression is to inhibit his or her ability to form a worldview, and it is fundamentally inhumane.

The conclusion is this: We get stuff wrong, a lot. The only way for society to progress cognition is for each individual to freely bring forth his or her truth into the marketplace of ideas and for rigorous debate to squash those ideas that would destroy, rather than build.

Censorship will always fail. A nation where free speech is defended as a moral imperative is the only place where truth, love, and understanding can win.