We live in an age of radicalism. On the far left, the AntiFa movement is out in full force, breaking windows and punching people, while fighting what they claim to be a rise of “neo-fascism." On the far right, we have the alt-right movement, running people over with cars and advocating for a segregationist white ethnostate. Violent actions, like those listed above, cannot be defended; however, advocacy to silence these groups among others has risen to notoriety, wrongfully so.
This piece will make the case for universal free speech, for any and all ideas, with no exceptions. The cries of hate speech aside, whether you are a liberal, a conservative, a nazi, or a communist, complete freedom of speech is a moral imperative, particularly in the university community. This is true whether you believe everyone has the right to speak, you want maximum social welfare, or you want to destroy neo-fascism.
The founders of the United States felt that the right to freedom of speech was fundamental. For this reason, the primary legal defense for freedom of speech starts at the founding of the United States of America. During the battle over the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, a group known as the Anti-Federalists fought against the ratification. In their eyes, it provided too much power to the federal government. In 1791, the first Ten Amendments (also known as the Bill of Rights) were ratified to appease the concerns of the Anti-Federalists. In addition to protecting the press, the right to assemble, and religious liberty, James Madison wrote in the First Amendment to the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Under no circumstances, said Madison, could the government, and by extension a public entity, could not regulate the right of every person to speak freely.
This view is based in a theory of natural rights, which is recognized as the position held by John Locke and the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these are the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This deontological view believes that some set of rights exists inherently within human beings, typically listed as “life, liberty, and property.” Under this line of reasoning, the right to freedom of speech is understood within the right to liberty, or the right to act as you wish without infringing on others’ right to do so. Holding this view necessitates belief in absolute freedom of speech.
Rejection of natural rights is a common response to the constitutional case for freedom of speech. It is often proposed that the freedom of speech is granted by the government, rather than inherently, therefore the government and other public entities can restrict certain kinds of speech that are “bad for society." However, it is important to distinguish that the rejection of natural rights does not necessitate rejecting freedom of speech. Why might one who reject the idea of natural rights defend absolute free speech protections? In short, because intellectual advancement and the preservation of civilization depend on it.
What if your standard is maximizing everyone’s happiness? This sounds incredibly common, but it is actually rooted in a deep intellectual tradition known as “utilitarianism,” where actions are judged by whether they create the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Restricting certain kinds of speech on the grounds of “social welfare” have been made by many on the political left; however, if this view was held consistent, universities would still have scientific racists as professors. For much of the early 20th century, advocates of racially motivated eugenics programs (systemic sterilization and murder based on race or mental illness) were not a radical minority, but rather the scientific consensus among academics. If it were not for the ability to openly challenge these ideas, those ideas would never have been cycled out for better ones.
After this line of reasoning, one may respond “well, we have the right ideas now, why should (insert group name here) be allowed to speak?” There is a massive misunderstanding of academic inquiry in this kind of question. Any advocate of scientific inquiry understands that nothing is ever settled, with fundamental ideas like gravity still being revised hundreds of years after their conception, who is to say that any idea is “settled?” As Professor Jordan B. Peterson says, “in order to be able to think, one must risk being offensive.” Failure to inquire further in fields of science, technology, philosophy, politics, or economics would have left us stuck in Plato’s cave, so to speak.
Finally, what if your goals were simply to turn as many people away from fascism, communism, or another political philosophy as possible. The AntiFa activist or the Anti-Communist will argue for censorship of the group they hate. As stated above, nothing is ever settled, but some things come pretty close. Communism’s plague-like effect, killing 85 million people in the 20th Century. Nazism’s assault on Jews and other minorities murdered 17 million in a mere five years. History cannot be forgotten. Without those ideas’ implications clear, future generations may very well adopt them. If we cannot speak of those evils, they will rise again, under different names, and kill millions like they did less than 100 years ago.
The suppression of speech and ideas makes those who suppress them weak and those who are suppressed resentful. Failure to allow these debates in open forum hurts everyone involved. If your goal is to reform Nazis or get society to disown them, is it not better to debate them and try and get them to reform their Nazism, rather than make them suppress their beliefs? If your goal is to show communists the evils of their ways or get society to reject communism, is it not better to engage people who hold those beliefs? In truth, it is better for the anti-fascist, anti-communist, anti-environmentalist, or conservationist and their interlocutor to discuss their ideas openly rather than to stop any of them from speaking.