Several years ago, I explored the idea of a constitutional prohibition to hate speech. My logic flowed from the concept that there was no reasonable argument to be made for allowing anyone to spread hateful speech or speech intended to insight people to violence. It seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Of course, and here’s the rub, I was setting myself up to be the fair and impartial minded judge who would determine what was hateful and what was not.
The trouble with my supposition, which I began to realize over time, was that it is impossible for me or anyone else to see the world through anyone else’s eyes. People are different. People have different perspectives and beliefs. They live their lives differently, and they raise their children differently. Most of society has a pretty homogeneous idea of how we should live, and in the past, we have passed laws to censor certain kinds of speech “for the good of society.”
During the 60’s, part of that youthful rebellion was focused on loosening those restrictions in the name of Civil Liberty. Brilliant left-leaning, civil libertarians like Stokely Carmichael, Gloria Steinem and Lenny Bruce, just to name a few, fought with forthright zeal to expand America’s perspective. They knew and believed that certain kinds of speech were being stifled in the name of someone else’s view of good and bad – someone who did not necessarily look at life the way that they did.
As a direct result of those efforts, the nation had a good conversation, a good debate, about censorship, and we decided the best thing to do, as the Founding Fathers intended, was to open the doors to speech of all kinds, even if we disagreed or found it personally offensive. That way people have the broadest possible context to make decisions for themselves. The more perspective you have, the greater choice you have in decided what you believe. The operational reality is, if people are allowed the widest possible perspective, they will overwhelmingly dismiss abhorrent ideas or philosophies, such as white supremacy, and make good choices for society as a whole. We decided to trust the people to make their own choices.
In recent years, the left has been drifting away from the core beliefs it championed in the 60’s to gradually push for censorship of ideas with which it disagrees. Conservative speakers on college campuses have been assaulted and driven away without an opportunity to speak. Opposing views are routinely ridiculed, shouted down or dismissed without having an opportunity to express themselves. This week the New York Times fired, theoretically resigned, its opinion page editor, James Bennet, for having the temerity to publish an opinion-editorial written by a sitting United Sates Senator, and HBO decided to remove Gone with the Wind from its catalog.
While I completely agree with the liberal motivation in all of these efforts, I completely disagree it is right to censure them. A young New York Times staffer who argued for the dismissal of Bennet, said that “People will die” because of the printing of Cotton’s Op-Ed. Are we so unsure of our arguments, that we cannot defend them in the marketplace of public opinion? Are we so dismissive of the ability of the public to determine right and wrong, that we have to make choices for them?
No. Trust the people. Trust democracy. Totalitarian states always begin this way. We have a better way. We need to stop the opposition's ideas from infecting the people. People will die. It is nonsense. It is always been nonsense, and that is why our Party has always stood for Freedom of Speech and other civil liberties. Democrats need to stand-up for civil liberty now, before it's too late.
Photo courtesy of insidehighered.com