Be Careful Whom You Censor; You Could Be Next

Free speech. What is it? Put simply, it is the right to think what you want and express those thoughts in any way you want, regardless of what your neighbor thinks about your opinions. Free speech is a good idea and a right so fundamental it is enshrined in our Bill of Rights.

Of course, there are some reasonable restrictions on free speech. One can be sued for libel or slander, face criminal charges for direct incitement to commit a crime, or be sued for  violation of privacy. The prominent gossip site Gawker was forced to pay $31 million in such privacy suit. Also, I can’t legally tell my friend “Hey, go over there and rob that Starbucks.”  These are reasonable limits on free speech in The United States. Yet, all it takes is one Google search to find that free speech of a much broader sort is still  constantly under attack.

One big criticism of free speech is that falsehoods can be told without repercussions.  Just  last year I was in Walgreen’s and saw a magazine that read “Hillary Clinton gives birth to dog.” What is the solution that the attackers of the first Amendment have for falsehoods being spoken? Often, the proposed solution is some sort of government intervention. I have heard my own friends and family members propose this. 

Another criticism of free speech is that the wealthy, in effect, have a megaphone and a shield while the rest of us have nothing. Hillary Clinton could have sued that magazine that claimed she gave birth to a dog, while my middle class mother cannot afford to sue someone for libel. A millionaire can pay to have her ideas promoted across the country, while I can only have my ideas put in this tiny school newspaper. Speech is not equally distributed. There may no good way to fix this problem. 

The final popular criticism  is that marginalized groups are hit with hate speech at disproportionate rates.  Hate speech is, generally, free speech. I would never encourage this, but someone could come out tomorrow and say that they hate all Peruvian or all LGBTQ+ people, and it would be completely legal under the first amendment. 

The gut reaction is to use the government to censor hateful people. A recent New York Times article entitled “Free Speech is Killing Us” made the case to censor people with hateful views.  A while back a popular TV personality on The View  expressed this gut reaction when she  said “Why can’t he be brought up on charges of hate speech?” when talking about a politician who said some arguably hateful stuff.  This year a Pew research poll entitled “40 percent of millennials OK with limiting speech offensive to minorities” revealed just how strong that gut reaction is.

Yet, the underlying assumption that free speech hurts marginalized groups more than it helps is false.  It is our Constitution’s guarantee of free speech which allowed the abolitionists to stand up to slavery, women’s rights groups to push for equality,  and Martin Luther King Jr. to stand up to racism. It is that guarantee which allowed people to fight to legalize same-sex marriage. It is that guarantee which today allows marginalized groups to speak out in favor of more civil rights.

No one has the authority to take away anyone else’s speech just because they disagree with them. And no one, not even rich people, can ever “use up” their right to speech, just like we can’t “use up” our right to protest. Even if the government did have the right to censor people with “hateful”  views, the system would be abused. Once the government can deem one person’s speech hateful and restrict it, it can deem anyone’s speech hateful and attack anyone because it disagrees with them. It is unreasonable to believe that the very same government that interned 100,000 Japanese-Americans without trial and spied on American citizens without congressional authorization would fairly restrict speech.

Our right to free speech is supremely important. While private companies and individuals may censor speech in private areas, it would be destructive to our rights to allow the government to do so. People are not perfect, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Any government plan to restrict speech based on opinions expressed would be abused.

So next time you hear a politician or celebrity or even a friend say that they want the government to punish someone for what they’ve said or written, remember that you could be the next one to be censored.