Opinion: Free speech decline more frightening than Halloween
Last year, Americans spent an estimated $9 billion on Halloween.
In my own neighborhood, several houses have been decorated for weeks and to a much more elaborate degree than during the Christmas season. A detailed history of the tradition isn’t necessary to arrive at the general conclusion that by confronting — even celebrating — that which we fear, we can diminish the power our fears have over us.
We may need the same approach for free speech. A recent poll reveals a frightening downward trend in support for First Amendment freedoms due to the perceived impact of “hate speech.” Allowing speech or ideas we deem abhorrent into the marketplace of ideas and our national conversation is an understandably scary prospect. Yet, this is a fear we as a people must overcome.
The poll conducted by the Campaign for Free Speech reveals a majority of Americans believe the First Amendment should be rewritten to “reflect the cultural norms of today.” Nearly 60% of millennials believe the Constitution “goes too far in allowing hate speech in America.” Forty-eight percent of Generation X and 47% of baby boomers agreed. A majority of millennials also said hate speech should be a crime, with more than half of those saying it should carry jail time.
A crucial follow-up question for those who are willing to outlaw “hate speech” is who gets to decide what qualifies as hateful enough to be illegal? The cultural norms of today might be easy enough to identify, but what happens when the cultural norms of tomorrow no longer include your beliefs as worthy of constitutional protection?
The answer is found daily in the object lesson of millions of Americans holding fast to values and teachings of their faith despite the fact some of their deeply held convictions are at odds with cultural orthodoxy.
If we value freedom for ourselves we must be willing to protect it for everyone, including those, perhaps especially for those, who employ that freedom in ways we find distasteful to the point of being dangerous to our preferred notions of civil society.
If Americans are to continue living in ordered liberty, securing its blessings for ourselves and our prosperity, we must once and for all rid ourselves of the notion that government should protect us from speech or ideas. Censorship is not the answer to speech we find hateful or wrong. The answer is to confront what is wrong with what is right.
Living in a free civil society isn’t always easy or comfortable and frankly, it isn’t always civil, but the price of admission into a free society is the respect and defense of freedom for all. Cultural norms come and go but once freedom is gone it rarely returns. We must defend the First Amendment or it will eventually be incapable of defending us.
Lathan Watts is director of legal communications for First Liberty Institute and a regional fellow of the National Review Institute. He wrote this for InsideSources.