The NY Times has published several articles recently questioning whether or not free speech should be treated as an absolute. So it’s a relief to see them publish something today which defends free speech in no uncertain terms. The Book Review column offers space to two authors under the headline “Is Free Speech an Absolute Right, or Does Context Matter?” I’ll admit that when I read the headline I was expecting the worst but for once I’m glad to be disappointed. First up is Adam Kirsch, a “poet and critic” who offers this summary of the historical development of free speech:
The Inquisition burned heretics because it saw in their speech such a spiritual threat; surely it was an act of kindness to protect the innocent from deadly lies?
It took the Western world many generations of religious wars and persecutions before liberal thinkers, in the 17th and 18th centuries, began to challenge this imperious logic. The key to the invention of free speech was the recognition of pluralism — the fact that, in any human population, there will be people with irreconcilably different understandings of the truth. Pluralism is not relativism: I do not have to agree that there is no truth about climate change or racism or God. But I must recognize that we do not all agree on what that truth is.
The question is what to do with that disagreement. Liberalism is founded on the belief that we should tolerate one another’s error, not because we approve of it, but to avoid the violence that would result if we each sought to silence the other.
Kirsch, who is clearly on the left, makes the case that campus protesters shouting down their opponents are making a big mistake in that regard:
Campus leftists who believe they are serving the cause of goodness and truth by silencing right-wing (or even not-so-right-wing) speakers are living in a fool’s paradise, because they temporarily inhabit an environment where they are in the majority. When they graduate into Trump’s America, they will find that many people, including people in power, think they are the ones who are wrong and dangerous.
The second take offered under the same headline is from author Francine Prose who distinguishes between what is ugly and what is illegal:
Just because you’re legally permitted to say what you want doesn’t mean it’s socially or morally acceptable to subject other humans to racist rants. Yet almost daily one can see, on social media, someone doing just that, losing it on a plane or at the checkout counter. I think the ranters are reprehensible, but I don’t want to see them locked up unless they’re trying to goad their fellow passengers or shoppers to mob violence.
Seeing this sort of thing in newspapers shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, this is the long-standing liberal approach to free speech in America. But the NY Times has been questioning that understanding quite a bit recently. In April, an op-ed published by the Times contained the line, “The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks.”
In July the paper published a piece titled “Save Free Speech From Trolls” which quoted Anita Sarkeesian complaining the right had “weaponized free speech.” The same month the paper published “When is Speech Violence” which put forward the idea (with little support) that speech can do physical harm to people and should, therefore, be treated as violence. Last week the paper published another op-ed arguing the ACLU should “Rethink Free Speech.”
So it’s good to see the paper publish something that defends free speech as a blessing rather than a problem that needs to be solved.