The terror attack in France against the satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo is a stark reminder that free speech is neither free nor safe in many parts of the world. While it may be true that the pen is mightier than the sword in the war for hearts and minds, on the actual battlefield against evil, the pen is no match for the sword. This is why free speech is so critical. If we do not use reason, logic, and discourse to reach each other, we cannot ever reach those poisoned by the influence of evil and radicalism. The war on freedom and modernity is fought not just with guns and terror, but with speech codes, blasphemy laws, speech police, and political correctness. Those who will shout down your free speech are not far removed from those who would shoot down your free speakers.
Protecting unpopular speech is far more important than protecting popular speech. In fact, so much of our political speech today is meaningless, vacuous, platitudes designed to say nothing and offend no one. The best way to be elected to political office in this country is to have said virtually nothing substantial or meaningful. Victory goes to those who have failed to take a stand on the hardest and toughest issues of our time. It is no wonder that the popularity of politicians keeps falling while the popularity of talk radio keeps rising. Americans thirst for free political speech, but we have become less tolerant of the free speech of those with whom we disagree. This has to stop. The best antidote to free speech with which you disagree is more free speech, not less.
We now see speech codes at universities. Imagine, here in America, we have to tell people in an academic setting which words they can and can’t use. Thoughts and speech don’t need regulation, they need exploration. The Constitution of the United States does not afford you a right not to be offended. Moreover, speech codes and political correctness create a false environment and expectation that one has the right not to hear things one does not like. In creating this bubble of phoniness, we suppress speech and leave our society ill-equipped to handle or hear unpopular speech. This is why so many in this country hear or read free speech that “offends” them and think that the speaker is a hate-monger or racist. In this politically-correct, faux world of speech codes, we then impute bias, ill-motive, and improper intent to people with whom we disagree. I strongly, passionately and unapologetically disagree with many people – and they with me – but their mere disagreeable speech does not make me believe that they hate me, or that they are a hater.
Years ago, I ran the law school newspaper at the school at which I am now an administrator. The nearly moribund publication was revived and won a national award in 1998 because of our free speech. Make no mistake, we wrote some tough pieces, published some stupid items, and occasionally made people crazy. However, those who disagreed were afforded the open platform to fire back. That is the essence of speech and dialogue. Some of my closest friends on that paper had worldviews profoundly different than my own, but that did not detract from our friendship. We enhanced the dialogue at the institution, and we grew a better understanding of each other through vigorous, unapologetic debate. That is the method of unfiltered free speech that serves a healthy society and civil community best.
Our founders engaged in the greatest of debates in trying to re-form a government and create a Constitution. The disagreements on freedom, power, and politics ran deep. If they had chosen not to debate, to limit debate, or to assume that those with whom they debated were not worthy of acknowledgment, the greatest democracy the world has ever known would not have been created. This is a stark lesson that while freedom is a natural birthright, it is also an obligation of each generation to secure.
Today, rightfully so, our focus is on those who attempt to literally murder free speech and limit the freedom we take for granted. We are, however, doomed if we do not recognize that it is the subtle attacks and regulation on free speech that pose an immediate threat to the type of society we create. We are all guilty of using and attacking unpopular speech. That is why we must endeavor to protect free political speech, encourage its use, explain its importance, and defend its necessity … particularly when it is unpopular. We should meet free speech with more free speech. When our speech lacks civility, we should endeavor to elevate it. When it lacks substance, we should infuse it with reason and logic. When it is disagreeable, we should resist the urge to dismiss it without examination. Free political speech is the best weapon in the arsenal of reason, used in the war for the civil society. If you find yourself shouting it down – test your ability to advocate for the right of the speaker to be heard. That’s when you will know if you believe in everyone’s free speech or only your own. The former makes us stronger, the latter does not. Will you speak up for free speech? JeSuis Charlie Hebdo.
Richard Kelsey is an Assistant Dean at George Mason Law School. A former Virginia state court law clerk and commercial litigator, Dean Kelsey was also the CEO of a technology company. He teaches legal writing and pre-trial practice. He is a regular commentator on legal and political issues in print, and on radio and TV. His Twitter handle is @richkelsey.