Please keep in mind that whenever I say “you” in this piece, I don’t mean you. I mean somebody else who isn’t you. This also goes for “we” and “our.” When I say we, I mean other people including me, but not you. Unless it’s about something good, in which case you’re included in the we/us/our. I hope I’ve made myself clear.
The assaults on free speech in this country come, in large part, from the American left. This is not to say that there aren’t right-leaning attempts to chip away at inalienable First Amendment rights, like McCain-Feingold and the ludicrous notion of changing the libel laws to salve the sunburnt ego of our current president (though in all fairness, McCain’s a center-left Republican, George W[eird shit] Bush was a centrist, and Trump’s a New York liberal). But, let’s face it, it’s progressives who want to control who says what to whom. Recent examples include:
- The Citizens United case, which progressives ache to overturn.
- The couple behind the Planned Parenthood baby parts-selling sting videos were charged with crimes for engaging in the same sort of investigative reporting that 60 Minutes used to do.
- Conservative speakers find themselves and their audiences subjected to violence by rioting leftists on college campuses across the country, and The New York Times blames the conservatives for daring to speak in public.
- Former Vermont Governor and former DNC chair Howard Dean claimed that “hate speech” (which he gets to define) isn’t protected by the Constitution because Chaplinsky.
I could go on and on (and often do), but you get the picture.
Our social media culture has encouraged appearance over substance. We’re concerned over what we show over what we do. So we show our support for free speech through shared Facebook posts or Retweeted hot takes so everyone can see that Howard Dean (or some other buffoon) said something stupid and potentially injurious to the God-given right to free speech. Great, but Howard Dean’s still invited to talk on TV. People still read and link to New York Times articles. Colleges that feature progressive riots whenever conservatives are invited to speak still receive endowments and federal money. So nobody’s done much of anything.
Our commitment to showing over doing is such that we often have to show the world how repellent we find certain speech before we can talk about our support for the legality of that speech. “Ann Coulter’s a monster, but she shouldn’t be prevented from speaking at Berkeley,” is the most common example. Such a statement has a trifold purpose: it signals our tribal affiliation (not-Trump, not-Coulter, not-Murray); shows our commitment to free speech rights; and displays that we’re willing to get our hands just a tiny bit dirty, ideologically speaking, by suggesting that someone we don’t like should not be torn apart by an angry, smelly mob of progressives. So it’s at least as important to not be misidentified as a member of a certain tribe as it is to show our support for free speech.
The root of this free speech tribal affiliation comes, in part, from Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s paraphrase of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Is that true for any of us today? Is anyone reading this willing to die so Ann Coulter can speak to the Young Americans for Freedom? You’re going to leave your wife a widow? Leave your children without a mother? Maybe you are, I don’t know. I do know that one of the many reasons why we rightly prize and honor the service of military, law enforcement, and emergency personnel is because they often put their lives at risk on behalf of people they don’t know.
Most of us won’t even put our convenience aside over principle. We support the careers of performers and writers who express their abject loathing of us every day. If you’re not going to stop watching a TV show when the lead actor calls you a racist for your voting choices, what will you do to support your principles? How far are you willing to go? If you have to signal your tribal affiliation before you show your support for free speech, how committed to the principle are you? (Remember, I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about someone else.)
I know, I know: you can walk and chew gum at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with signaling how virtuous you are by telling us how you support the existence of speech you don’t agree with. One doesn’t affect the other. And not watching the new Batgirl movie isn’t going to change anyone’s mind.
Have you ever heard of a publisher named Paladin Press? Over twenty years ago Paladin was sued because of a book they published called Hit Man: A Manual for Independent Contractors. You can read a brief piece about it here. The resolution of the case was a major breach of the First Amendment. During the lawsuits, appeals and associated legal wrangling, articles were written about the case in newspapers ranging from the New York Times to the LA Times. Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes came to Paladin’s office in downtown Boulder to film a piece about it. American Justice, the A&E program featuring Bill Kurtis, produced an episode about the Hitman Case titled Blueprint for Murder. Timothy Hutton starred in a sub-moronic TV movie made about it. I’m familiar with the case myself because I worked for Paladin Press for twelve years. I was there.
What we found as the case went on, with wins, losses, appeals, and the final disastrous settling by our insurance company, was that we actually had very few friends. Free Speech Warriors didn’t donate to the Paladin Legal Defense Fund in a flood, let alone a trickle. Being sued over a book was a thing that happened to Other People. Nobody wanted to get involved. This was before Twitter, so people showed their support for free speech by reading newspaper articles, washing the newsprint ink off their hands, and shrugging on their way to work. Hashtags hadn’t been invented yet.
So yeah, our commitment to free speech rights might just be limited to saying what we think on social media. Good deal; just make sure nobody thinks we like Ann Coulter while we’re at it. Can’t let anyone get the wrong idea.