New Yorker Writer Wants to Do Away with America’s Free Speech in Favor of European-Style ‘Robust Debate’

August 11, 2015

By Anthony Hennen at Red Alert Politics

An article in the New Yorker questions the American devotion for free speech, dismissing “speech nuts” who seem irrational by European standards.

Kelefa Sanneh, a contributor to the New Yorker since 2001, critiques Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson’s End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun), expanding into the role of free speech, public debate, and American cultural norms.

Sanneh admirably reviews Ham and Benson’s effort as something other than it seems:

“For many modern free-speech advocates, the First Amendment is irrelevant: their main target is not repressive laws but shifting norms and values… It is this vision of how we should speak to one another—and not an abstract belief in the right to speak—that animates their book.”

With increasing frequency, the cultural wars of the 1990s have shifted into other areas and forms, and what is publicly acceptable to say has been a leading one, especially on college campuses.

However, Sanneh has a strange memory on college speech codes, claiming that they have been “widely repealed.” That would be news to anyone who follows speech codes on college campuses, or has seen the work of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE has won many cases surrounding campus free speech issues, but speech codes remain common and restrictive.

The contemporary legal conception of free speech has evolved over centuries. That Sanneh recognizes this fact and uses it to advocate a limitation on free speech in favor of limitations in favor of “robust debate” is strange.

Western Europe, it is true, is willing to jail religiously intolerant speech under the guise of harassment, but how such actions improve a sense of “robust debate” isn’t so clear. To confront hateful ideas, those ideas must be expressed; a jail sentence is a persuasive case to remain silent while preventing a society from addressing hateful ideas. Silence might be golden, but it does not an argument make.

Sanneh notes that America “is virtually the only place in the world that takes such an expansive view of free speech.” The expansive interpretation of free speech does not always benefit the public discourse, nor is it completely benign. Yet to reign in those protections would put ideas, good and bad, at risk, with little evidence to show that the benefits outweigh the costs.

The European example is anything but promising. France will prosecute anti-semitic Twitter users, but France also banned wearing full veils in public, which its Muslim population opposes based on religious conscience and expression.

A restriction on free speech in favor of expression that promotes “robust debate” could limit public displays of harassment, but the cost to a pluralistic and open society isn’t negligible.