By Mark Grabowski
It’s Free Speech Week, but how can we possibly celebrate with the presidential election looming?
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The 12th annual national event from Oct. 17-23 aims to “to raise public awareness of the importance of free speech in our democracy,” according to organizers, which include school, media and law organizations.
Then again, as French philosopher Joseph de Maistre observed, “people get the leaders they deserve.”
Donald Trump’s contempt for free speech is well-publicized. Although the Republican blowhard crusades against political correctness, he’s called for banning flag burning, limiting journalists’ freedom to publish negative stories about him and “closing that Internet up in some way,” among other restrictions. He’s even had security kick reporters out of public events.
A Hillary Clinton presidency is just as threatening to free speech, given her abominable track record. As first lady, she advocated against “gangsta” rap music and racy advertisements. As a senator, she proposed criminalizing flag burning and the selling of violent video games to minors. As secretary of state, she reportedly suggested a drone strike to silence WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange. As a presidential candidate, she’s campaigned for overturning a Supreme Court ruling that allowed her opponents to fund documentaries that criticize her.
Although both candidates claim they’re running to give ordinary folks a voice, they support governance that would do just the opposite. But maybe that’s what Americans want. After all, the candidates reflect the electorate.
Polls consistently show that, like both candidates, the vast majority of Americans support the concept of free speech: that people have a right to express their views no matter how unpopular they are. But, when asked about specific real-world applications, broad support for free speech quickly dissolves.
Should it be legal for cartoonists to publish unflattering images of the prophet Muhammad? For athletes to protest the national anthem? For the Confederate flag to be displayed?
Free speech exists only when we’re willing to defend the rights of people whose views we profoundly disagree with. But a growing number of Americans prefer speech safeguarded à la carte. For example, a 2015 survey by YouGov found they support criminalizing hate speech, by a 41 to 37 percent margin. Among college students, 69 percent want “intentionally offensive” speech prohibited, according to a 2016 Gallup poll.
While these kids’ hearts may be in the right place, their minds aren’t. There’s no scientific evidence proving that hate speech bans improve social harmony. But there are plenty of examples of speech crackdowns leading to oppressive governments. True democracy rests on voices being heard.
Fostering an environment that’s accepting of a wide range of contrarian, unconventional and sometimes offensive viewpoints is essential to actual liberty — especially as America grows more pluralistic. It’s what British philosopher John Stuart Mill might call a “marketplace of ideas.”
Mill presented perhaps the most famous defense of free speech in his 1859 essay “On Liberty.” He argued that truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in free, transparent public discourse.
Not only did Mill welcome all speech, he believed people should actively seek out viewpoints they disagree with. He reasoned that very few people really know what they think because most people “have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them.”
This selective exposure has arguably worsened in recent years. It’s become so easy to avoid speech with which one disagrees through the echo chamber of social media that present only the views of one’s like-minded Facebook friends and those one has chosen to follow on Twitter.
A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found conservatives are twice as likely to have a Facebook news feed that aligns with their own views while nearly half of liberals have blocked or defriended someone on social media because they disagreed with something that person posted about politics.
“Mill might have been talking to citizens of today when he says that we each have the responsibility to seek out opinions different from our own,” said Deni Elliott, a media ethics professor at University of South Florida St. Petersburg who authored “Getting Mill Right.” “Whether the other opinions have elements of truth or not, we have something to learn from understanding how other people think about controversial matters.”
We should all give Mill’s dictate a try. It is Free Speech Week, after all.
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