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Freedom of Speech or Freedom From Speech: 50 Years After the Berkeley Free Speech Movement

The Eternally Radical Idea

This article appeared in The Huffington Post.

Late Friday afternoon, at a time usually reserved for announcements campus administrators would prefer to bury, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sent out a message to all faculty, staff, and students titled “Civility and Free Speech.” While the message was intended to honor the 50-year anniversary of the start of the famed Berkeley Free Speech Movement, it struck an ambivalent and qualified tone.

As I explain in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Dirks noted that the “free expression of ideas” is a “signature issue for our campus,” but he cautioned that free speech can cause “division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation” and may threaten the “delicate balance between communal interests.” That may be true, but that’s the point. Freedom of expression can shake things up and disrupt dogmas—and that’s a prized feature of open discourse, not a bug.

Mr. Dirks writes that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so.” But a right to freedom of speech that ends whenever someone on campus claims not to feel “safe and respected” is a right to little more than polite chitchat.

And while a call for civility may seem uncontroversial, we at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have seen the term abused to enforce top-down conformity, just as the great philosopher John Stuart Mill explained in his 1859 masterpiece, On Liberty. An article today in Inside Higher Education elaborates on why professors should be concerned. Civility is nice in theory, but the problem is that few agree as to what it actually means in practice. It thereby provides a handy tool to punish or exclude dissenters, oddballs, and critics. And while civility is arguably important, it pales in importance to open, meaty debate and discussion on heated topics—debate that can often feel anything but civil.

But, as I discuss in my new short book Freedom From Speech, released today, I fear that our society may be losing its appetite for freedom of speech and instead moving, almost as if by a historical force, towards a tendency to want to be protected from speech. As I explain:

The increased calls for sensitivity-based censorship represent the dark side of what are otherwise several positive developments for human civilization. [...] I believe that we are not passing through some temporary phase in which an out-of-touch and hypersensitive elite attempts - and often fails - to impose its speech-restrictive norms on society. It’s worse than that: people all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right. This is precisely what you would expect when you train a generation to believe that they have a right not to be offended. Eventually, they stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech.

My reason for writing Freedom From Speech was to lay out why I am concerned about the future of freedom of speech as a cultural value, both within the United States and globally. I don’t say this fatalistically, or with undue pessimism, as I do think there are ways to fight back. But the first step is recognizing that freedom of speech has always been a radical virtue. Maintaining it requires a population that understands that, against all our internal intuitions, that being offended, challenged, and even being shown to be wrong can actually be good for us and for society as a whole. This is a difficult premise to accept. It requires not only a certain level of intellectual discipline, but also the acceptance of the discomfort of living in a pluralistic society where people genuinely differ on the most fundamental philosophical, moral, religious, and personal issues. It is simply easier to want to blot out speech that disrupts our deepest held beliefs, that goes against our personal or community values, or provokes anger or disgust. Yet hearing such speech is an essential part of coming to understand the wide panoply of views people actually hold, and in doing so, to better understand the world in which we live.

Free speech has always been the harder road for any society. It isn’t always nice and it isn’t always civil, but I hope we continue to see both the value in maintaining the right to dissent, joke, and challenge as seen fit, and the real peril of trying to enforce a dreary conformity on our marketplace of ideas.

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