Who's afraid of free speech?

This, one suspects, is what bothers many critics of political correctness: the fact that so much of the social pressure and pushback takes on a nasty, vindictive tone that is painful to observe. But free speech often is painful. It was painful to envision neo-Nazis marching through Skokie, Illinois, home to thousands of holocaust survivors, in 1977. It was painful to watch the Westboro Baptist Church picket a military funeral in 2006 with signs reading “Fag troops” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” In both cases, the speech was deeply offensive to our sense of decorum, decency, and tolerance. But the courts rightly concluded that this offense was irrelevant to whether the speech was worthy of protection.

Many critics, particularly on the left, seem to forget this. Although they claim to be promoting an expansive view of free speech, they are doing something quite different. They are promoting a vision of liberalism, of respect, courtesy, and broadmindedness. That is a worthy vision to promote, but it should not be confused with the dictates of free speech, which allows for a messier, more ill-mannered form of public discourse. Free speech is not the same as liberalism. Equating the two reflects a narrow, rather than expansive, view of the former.