No offense: The new threats to free speech

The new censors advanced such arguments as that “free speech can never be an excuse for racism.” These arguments are essentially exercises both in begging the question and in confusing it. While the principle of free speech cannot justify racism any more than it can disprove racism, it is the only principle that can allow us to judge whether or not particular speech is racist. Thus the censor’s argument should be reversed: “Accusations of racism can never be an excuse for prohibiting free speech.”

Meanwhile, the narrowly legal grounds for restricting speech changed, too. Since the 18th century, the basic legal justifications for restricting political speech and publication were direct incitement to harm, national security, maintaining public order, libel, etc. Content wasn’t supposed to be considered (though it was sometimes smuggled in under other headings).

Today, content is increasingly the explicit justification for restricting speech. The argument used, especially in colleges, is that “words hurt.” Thus, universities, parliaments, courts and various international bodies intervene promiscuously to restrict hurtful or offensive speech—with the results described above. In the new climate, hurtful speech is much more likely to be political speech than obscene speech.