The Eternally Radical Idea

Free speech is for everyone: Part 2 of answers to bad arguments against free speech from Nadine Strossen

September 8, 2021

In May, I published a list of “Answers to 12 Bad Anti-Free Speech Arguments” with our friends over at Areo. The great Nadine Strossen — former president of the ACLU from 1991 to 2008, and one of the greatest experts on freedom of speech alive today — saw the series and offered to provide her own answers to some important misconceptions about freedom of speech. My answers, when applicable, appear below hers.

Earlier in the series:
Part 1: Free speech does not equal violence

Assertion 3: Free speech is the tool of the powerful, not the powerless.

Nadine Strossen: People who have access to resources that facilitate communication — not only money, but at least as importantly education, and technology — can more meaningfully exercise their freedom of speech to communicate more effectively with a larger audience. That fact, however, does not logically support the conclusion that freedom of speech should be curtailed. Rather, it supports the conclusion that our society must continue to vigorously promote everyone’s full and equal access to the means for effective communication. 

It is precisely those who lack political or economic power who are the most dependent on robust freedom of speech.

In 1960, journalist A.J. Liebling famously quipped that “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Advocates of both free speech and equal rights have been working to change that impoverished free speech reality, including by leading the fight for a free and open internet, which can potentially make everyone the functional equivalent of a printing press owner. The internet and mobile phones have empowered grassroots groups to mobilize for multiple causes — including Black Lives Matter and Me Too — that could not have gained such traction through the vastly more expensive, exclusionary communications tools of earlier eras. 

It is sad but true that not only freedom of speech, but also other rights, are too often more fully enjoyed by those with more resources. The solution to this problem is hardly to reduce the scope of the rights, but rather, to increase the ability of more people to meaningfully exercise them. Consider, for example, the fundamental right to life itself. 

In the U.S., people charged with capital crimes are far more likely to be sentenced to death, and actually executed, if they are indigent and hence dependent on overburdened and under-resourced public defenders. The answer to this problem is hardly to reduce constitutional protections against capital punishment, but rather, to increase the resources that permit poorer people to benefit from those constitutional protections. 

There is another fatal flaw in the argument that freedom of speech further entrenches the privilege and power of those who already have both: It is precisely those who lack political or economic power who are the most dependent on robust freedom of speech. 

Throughout U.S. history (and in other countries), equal rights and social justice movements have gained momentum through forceful exercise of free speech rights to advocate and demonstrate, litigate and lobby. Conversely, censorship is consistently wielded in an effort to stymie these causes. In short, it is the disempowered, not the powerful, who have the most to gain from strong free speech protection, and the most to lose from its weakening. To this day, state and local governments around the U.S. have been disproportionately enforcing existing laws, and enacting new ones, to stifle protesters for progressive causes including racial justice and police reform. 

The idea that we can trust [the powerful] to use that power to defend the powerless is not borne out by history.

Greg: The powerful do well under virtually any system of government. They’re not the ones who need freedom of speech. Its purpose is precisely to protect minority opinions and those who are unpopular with powerful people.

For most of history, the rich and powerful were protected by their wealth and power. Then, when democracies first emerged, the majority set the laws, and, because of that, their majority positions were protected by law. You only need a separate concept of freedom of speech or a law like the First Amendment to protect people, ideas, and arguments that are not already otherwise protected by the right to vote or some other power.

The ones who enforce the rules are, by definition, powerful. In a country with strong protections for freedom of speech, the powerful are barred from using the legal system to attack the powerless for their speech. If you empower the government to censor, you are giving the powerful more power.

The idea that we can trust them to use that power to defend the powerless is not borne out by history. If you want to give whoever is powerful censorship tools to protect the marginalized, do you trust that they will use it well? Do you trust what a Biden administration would do with that power? If so, do you trust what the next Trump would do with that power? A good intellectual exercise before passing a new law is to consider how your worst enemy would use that law — and thinking about that is even more important when imagining restrictions on free speech.

Assertion 4: Free speech is nothing but a conservative talking point.

Nadine Strossen: It is true that too many conservatives are eager to support free speech when conservative speakers or views are the targets of censorship — and less eager to support free speech in other circumstances. However, the same is also true for too many liberals and progressives. Multiple commentators have quipped that most people believe in “free speech for me (or people who agree with me), but not for thee.” 

Principled supporters of free speech should neutrally support freedom “even for the thought that [they] hate,” to quote former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Such an even-handed approach lends more credibility and influence to their advocacy, which can’t be dismissed as mere result-oriented lip service to free speech values only when the speech at issue accords with their own political, cultural, or other values. 

For example, FIRE’s consistent advocacy of free speech rights on campus, for students and faculty members all across the ideological spectrum, has earned it well-deserved respect as a principled free speech champion, lending weight to its arguments. The same has been true of the ACLU, which has controversially defended free speech even for racist speakers whose views are antithetical to the ACLU’s own championship of racial justice. While many critics object to such work, many supporters of it — including leading African American civil rights champions — are convinced that the ACLU’s racial justice advocacy is strengthened by its support for robust free speech rights, extending even to opponents of racial justice. 

Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes Norton (US House Office of Photography)

One prominent example is Eleanor Holmes Norton, the longtime District of Columbia Representative in Congress. Norton began her distinguished career as an ACLU staff lawyer in the 1960s, when she (successfully) defended freedom of speech for a number of white supremacists, including Alabama’s notorious arch-segregationist Governor George Wallace and an Ohio Ku Klux Klan leader, Clarence Brandenburg. In a 2019 interview, discussing her work on those cases, Norton said:

I relished those cases, because I knew that the left and civil rights activists were the primary users of free speech, so the racist cases made our principled arguments even stronger. My friends at SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were not always convinced by this approach because “what’s sauce for the goose would not have the same flavor for the gander.” But I knew we were winning all those cases because we were winning for both sides.

So, yes, when conservative speakers and perspectives are censored, some conservatives may opportunistically invoke free speech principles specifically because they support the particular content of the speech at issue. Yet it behooves liberals, progressives, and other non-conservatives also to invoke free speech principles in these situations, because that is the most effective way to ensure freedom for speech for those whose ideas they support. In other words, consistent defense of free speech for all speakers and views is not only the principled approach; it is also the strategically sound one. 

Greg Lukianoff: Free speech is neither a conservative nor liberal idea. It is an eternally radical idea.

In our hopelessly polarized society, too many people begin by asking, “So, is free speech a conservative or progressive idea? Is it right-wing or left-wing?” If the answer is left-wing, throngs on the right assume it can be ignored. If the answer is right-wing, many on the left feel absolved from having to take it seriously. At various points — even in recent history — both major political parties in the United States have claimed to represent free speech at the same time as both have been extremely hostile to free speech.

True support for free expression — especially extreme political speech with which you disagree — is a rare and, indeed, historically radical idea. I think this point is so important that I even named my blog The Eternally Radical Idea.