Cracked’s Chris Bucholz was right to note that too many people who cite their right to “free speech” don’t actually understand how the concept is supposed to work. Bucholz wrote Tuesday on five points about freedom of expression that he’d like readers to remember. There are several important points in his piece—but also a few that require a little bit of a clarification, and that’s where FIRE President Greg Lukianoff steps in.
In his article in The Huffington Post today, Greg covers seven common misunderstandings about freedom of speech and the First Amendment—the first of which is that those two should not be conflated. Greg explains the legal and moral reasons why freedom of expression should be allowed in the vast majority of cases. He alerts readers to some of the manyinstances in which speech is unlawfully censored or otherwise punished, which of course occur far beyond the scope of FIRE’s mission. Greg also clarifies some points about First Amendment jurisprudence that far too many people get flat-out wrong.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind, though, is the practical argument for broad free speech protections. Greg writes:
[T]here is also real value to knowing what your fellow citizens think. And this may become more important, not less, if your fellow citizens think vile, terrible, misinformed things. (I tease this idea out in more detail here.)
By trying to blot out unpleasant words and opinions, government and mob censors alike are essentially declaring that they would rather know less about the world they actually live in–and they’ve decided that you should know less about it, as well. The result is that the general public will be less aware of those attitudes and may thus be lulled into a false sense of security, blinded to the existence and prevalence of problems in their communities. FIRE Co-founder and Chairman Harvey Silvergate put this very insight into practice as a young lawyer for the Massachusetts ACLU, when he successfully defended a group of neo-Nazis in court even though he himself is Jewish. He did so partly because he understood that people are better off when they’re aware of the presence of bigots in their midst: “If there are Nazis in the room, I want to know who they are so that I can keep an eye on them.” Simply put, it it is better to know the world as it is than stick your head in the sand and hope you’ll be fine.
All would-be censors should consider this carefully and ask themselves how often problems are solved by pretending they don’t exist.
Read the rest of Greg’s piece over at The Huffington Post.