Progressive Intolerance and the Threat to Free Speech

Intolerance from those in our country who oppose what they call offensive or hate speech is becoming increasingly commonplace. We who value our freedom of speech should regard this trend with the greatest concern, because it reflects an underlying motive to deny some of our most important freedoms, those which are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Such intolerance came into sharp focus in the reaction to the white nationalist protesters following the August 2017 Charlottesville tragedy. For example, a column by Rob Hedelt appearing in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star in the aftermath of the of the Charlottesville events inaccurately attributed the loss of life that day to the actions of the white nationalist protesters. [1] Not only was this attribution inaccurate, it was stated in the most vitriolic of terms, with words such as “vermin” and “disgusting bile” describing the protesters and their message.

The facts are that the civilian death that day was caused by a single person, and the law enforcement deaths were caused by a helicopter accident. These deaths were not caused by the white nationalist protesters who had both a First Amendment right and a judge’s order authorizing them to be there. Although Mr. Hedelt admits that the protesters had “every right” to assemble and protest, he advocates police and legislative action to prevent such protests in the future because the protesters were armed. He wants action to prevent such protesters from reappearing, despite the fact that no deaths were caused by these armed people, and injuries other than those caused by the single automobile driver were caused by conflict between protesters and counter-protesters.

While he pays lip service to the First Amendment protections, Mr. Hedelt uses the fact that some of the protesters were armed to justify his argument that they and their message should be barred from the state of Virginia henceforth. Yet he makes no similar judgment about the counter-protesters, many of whom were also armed. I suspect that the truth is that he is offended by the message of the white nationalists, and wants to shut them down because of what they believe.

Another example of liberal intolerance came from the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen in September of 2017. In responding to President Trumps’ tweets about the NFL “kneelers,” Mr. Eisen made this statement:

“Offensive speech should not be tolerated in this country and offensive behavior that tears down the fabric of this country, like we saw in Charlottesville, should be called out.” [2]

This is a remarkable statement. What exactly does Mr. Eisen mean by the phrase “should not be tolerated in this country?” Does he think that the government should step in and prevent such speech? Is he ignorant of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment?

Common to both the Free Lance-Star article by Mr. Hedelt and Mr. Eisen’s statement to President Trump is the assumption that speech they consider offensive should be prohibited. They appear to have nominated themselves to be the arbiters of offensiveness. And they seem to think that too much diversity is dangerous when it comes to free expression.

I submit that we have the First Amendment precisely in order to protect offensive speech. After all, what need is there to protect inoffensive speech? The speech that really needs to be protected is exactly that speech upon which we disagree, and which expresses divisions between us. We cannot get at the truth, unless we hear all sides of the argument. In the United States of America, the government cannot stop us from saying things that other people don’t like. There is a fundamental recognition in the United States that what is offensive to one man may not be offensive to another.

Therefore, the First Amendment does not contain an exception which requires offensive speech, even hateful speech, to be suppressed by the government. This freedom has been confirmed by the U. S. Supreme Court as recently as June 2017, in the case “Matal vs. Tam.” Here are two key quotes from Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion which make this clear:

“Those few categories of speech that the government can regulate or punish-for instance, fraud, defamation, or incitement-are well established within our constitutional tradition. See United States v. Stevens, 559 U. S. 460, 468 (2010). Aside from these and a few other narrow exceptions, it is a fundamental principle of the First Amendment that the government may not punish or suppress speech based on disapproval of the ideas or perspectives the speech conveys. See Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819, 828-829 (1995).”

“A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.” [3]

This desire by the easily offended to prohibit speech they don’t like is getting to be very important today, where progressive ideals clash directly with traditional religious values. The widespread acceptance in our society today of homosexual behavior as normal provides an apt example. The quote below is an example of a widely held religious belief, which is no doubt considered offensive, even hateful, by many. Note that this is a statement about homosexual behavior, and not a statement about how homosexuals should be treated:

“Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” [4]

This is an official teaching of Roman Catholicism, a worldwide religion with 1.2 billion adherents [5], and a teaching which has survived the vagaries of human behavior for twenty centuries. This expression of truth is even more ancient if we consider the Judaic moral traditions preceding Christianity. This view of human behavior norms cannot be lightly dismissed.

For those who believe that what you deem to be offensive speech must be suppressed, are you now going to demand that the government censor religious expression which offends you?

That censorship of conservative views in our universities is commonplace has been well-known for decades. It is not surprising, therefore, that a recent study of college students found that “a very significant percentage of students hold the view that hate speech is unprotected.” [6] It is quite alarming that a significant portion of the future leaders of our society are fundamentally ignorant of the speech protections provided by the First Amendment. And we now see major internet companies vigorously exercising censorship on their platforms, under the guise of curtailing what they view as inappropriate or unsafe content. The lawsuit by PragerU against Google’s YouTube is a good current example. In that case the judge supported internet censorship by reasoning that:

“Defendants are private entities who created their own video-sharing social media website and make decisions about whether and how to regulate content that has been uploaded on that website.” [7]

This should be recognized as a dangerous statement for those of us who were brought up believing that we in the United States can express our opinions freely. In an age when much of the public square is dominated by social media platforms operating on the internet, we find ourselves subject to censorship by the private corporations which own those platforms. Views that may be expressed without censorship on a radio or television station may well be forbidden if the medium is one of the internet social media platforms. The key distinction between internet social media platforms and print or broadcast versions of public expression, which Judge Koh failed to consider in the YouTube case, is that social media content providers are the users of the media themselves, and not the corporations which provide the media infrastructure. Print and broadcast content providers are free, within the established bounds of the First Amendment, to express any viewpoint. Fortunately for them, a social media platform is not necessary in order to traverse the airwaves. Yet in the case of social media, where the information content is originating from the users of the media platform, these users are subject to censorship by the owners of the media infrastructure merely because those owners have that capability. This seems to me to be a case in which the application of the law, particularly the Constitutional protection of free speech embodied in the First Amendment, has not yet caught up with the rapid technological advances which have created the ability for anyone to widely disseminate their own personal viewpoints.

The propensity to crush opinions deemed to be offensive or hateful is an attack on our freedom, and it must be fought. It reminds me of President Reagan’s famous quote, which is as relevant today as it ever was:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” [8]

References:

1.Hedelt, Rob. “Hedelt: Saddened and sickened by the senseless loss of life and violence in Charlottesville.” Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, August 2017.

2. Traina, Jimmy. “Rich Eisen Explains To Donald Trump Why NFL Players Take A Knee.” Tech-Media. September 24, 2017.
https://www.si.com/tech-media/2017/09/24/donald-trump-nfl-national-anthem-protests-rich-eisen.

3. U. S. Supreme Court. 2017. Natal vs Tam, syllabus, 582 U. S. __.

4. United States Catholic Conference, Inc. – Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Catechism of the Catholic Church, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994, paragraph 2357.

5. “How Many Roman Catholics Are There In The World?” BBC World News. March 24, 2013. https://www.bbc.com/news/world/21443313

6. Villasenor, J. “Views among college students regarding the First Amendment: Results from a new survey.” Brookings: FixGov. September 18, 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2017/09/18/views-among-college-students-regarding-the-first-amendment-results-from-a-new-survey/

7. McCann, N. “YouTube Did Not Censor Conservative Videos, Judge Rules.” Courthouse News Service. March 27, 2018.
https://www.courthousenews.com/youtube-did-not-censor-conservative-videos-judge-rules/

8. Reagan, Ronald. Address to the Annual Meeting of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. Phoenix, Arizona, March 30, 1961.