The Perversion and Disgrace of Free Speech
It really shouldn’t be that difficult to differentiate between free speech, the fundamental democratic right, and free speech, the amoral we’ll-attack-whoever-we-want ideology.
Future of Jewish is the ultimate newsletter about Judaism and Israel. Subscribe to better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world.
Please consider supporting our mission to help everyone better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world. A gift of any amount helps keep our platform free and zero-advertising for all.
For all the enlightenment and liberties that modern society claims, we are losing hold of a fundamental pillar in the free world — free speech.
This has been the case for years, but confronting it ferments more fear. It feels like a third rail: dangerous. For a strong world and open societies, the current trends of free speech are dangerous.
How did we get here?
In large part, the political Left and Right have been running in destructive circles of condemnation and recrimination.
As legal historian Laura Weinrib wrote in her book, “The Taming of Free Speech,” labor organizers formed the earliest pro-free speech groups.
Weinrib focused in particular on the rise of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose radical founders viewed “the right of agitation” — the right to strike, to picket, and to boycott — as both constitutionally protected and essential to workers’ ability to resist the power of their employers.
These advocates envisioned agitation as an arousal to action, and the breed of direct action they had in mind was labor action, designed to counter the consolidation of capital with the organized power of workers.
A free speech vision that takes seriously workers’ rights — and rights to undertake meaningful structural social and economic change — is obviously important and worth fighting for. But a free speech vision that doesn’t take seriously hate speech — and, by extension, micro-aggressions, bullying, fear-mongering, and gaslighting — is repugnantly reckless, no less harmful to society.
It really shouldn’t be that difficult to differentiate between free speech, the fundamental democratic principle, and free speech, the amoral we’ll-attack-whoever-we-want ideology.
Last week, however, heads of some of the world’s most “prestigious” universities had a hard time rebuking hate speech against Jews on their campuses, contending at a U.S. Congress hearing that it “depends on the context.”
“When speech crosses into conduct, we take action,” Harvard University president Claudine Gay said.
But if a punch hurts and harms, so can words. Or at least certain types of words. At Harvard, “fatphobia” constitutes violence and “using wrong pronouns” is considered abuse, but “globalize the intifada” requires context.
In 2021, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose president testified alongside Gay last week, canceled a lecture by a scientist after faculty and graduate students complained about his criticisms of some diversity initiatives.
“Safety first” has been the rationale that many universities are using to dismiss professors, such as Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania, who is openly critical of affirmative action. But when the University of Pennsylvania’s president claimed last week if calling for the genocide of Jews violates her campus’ rules, she said the decision was “context-dependent.”
At Stanford, the university issued a statement after the Palestinian terror attacks on October 7th, saying it “does not take positions on geopolitical issues and news events.” Yet Stanford’s president was outspoken on the subject of George Floyd’s murder, writing: “Our hearts are sickened and our consciences are affronted by the continuing acts of violence and prejudice we see committed against people of color. When such acts are inflicted on any members or groups in our community, they injure us all.”
Over in New York City, a dean at Columbia University said that he’s so committed to free speech, he would invite Adolf Hitler “to engage in a debate and discussion” — which is precisely the type of robust sharing of ideas that the architect of the Holocaust was known for, right?
At Yale University, a law professor was ostracized by students and the administration for her praise of U.S. Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh. Yet when Zareena Grewal, a Yale associate professor, posted on X on October 7th that Israel “is a murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle,” the university defended her by saying Grewal’s comments “represent her own views.”
The irony of all this is that many students are engaging in self-censorship to avoid being punished for views considered problematic on campus. A survey this year found that 61 percent of students said they often felt intimidated in sharing beliefs different from their professors in class. In the same survey, 46 percent of undergraduate students said they thought it was appropriate to shout down or disrupt a speaker on their campus.
Many people are understandably confused about what they can say and where they can say it. People should absolutely be able to put forward viewpoints, ask questions, make mistakes, and take unpopular but good-faith positions on issues that society is still working through.
In 1859, British politician John Stuart Mill correctly argued that the fullest liberty of expression is required to push arguments to their logical limits. We unquestionably need places where reasonable people can debate civilly and disagree productively, respecting their shared humanity and contributing to the exchange of ideas. And we ought to accept that disagreements are inevitable in a diverse, multicultural society.
More than anything, freedom of speech is the bedrock of democratic self-government, where people can confidently feel protected to express their views in their communities, and democratic levers can respond to and resolve competing ideas. Ideas are always strengthened by stringent scrutiny, and amiable opposition serves a vital function in offsetting or mitigating the normal process of bureaucratic decay.
When speech is stifled or when dissenters are shut out of public discourse, a society also loses its ability to resolve conflict, and it faces the risk of political violence.
But there is a difference between demanding the right to espouse visions for a just society, however radical or revolutionary, and espousing hate and vitriol toward a particular groups of people, including but certainly not limited to Israelis and Jews.
Arguments and debates should be about ideas, not people. A society that values free speech makes pluralism and mutual respect its priorities, and punishes people who do not play by these more-than-fair rules. No right should ever be so prized that it can be so easily distorted and manipulated against the country that accommodates it.
Yet that’s exactly what we’re seeing with the “right” of free speech. I put the word “right” in quotation marks because let’s be honest: Free speech is not a right; it’s a privilege that comes with significant responsibility.
When we frame free speech as a “right,” we allow ethical conduct to be crushed; coarseness in thought, speech, and manners to prevail; and justice to be left unmonitored.
When we frame free speech as a “right,” we enable deranged activists to impose their agendas on our educational institutions, judicial systems, and legislation.
When we frame free speech as a “right,” we create unhinged environments where the loudest and angriest voices drown out civil and logical ones.
When we frame free speech as a “right,” journalism becomes synonymous with activism and compromises its own unique mission.
When we frame free speech as a “right,” we give the biggest microphones to celebrities, athletes, and influencers whom, in turn, our kids grow up idolizing.
When we frame free speech as a “right,” identity politics overtakes broad-based, nuanced political programs.
Nonetheless, to understand what free speech is, we have to understand what it is not.
Free speech is not the old war chant “Khaybar Khaybar ya Yahood” at a pro-Palestinian rally to imply that Jews will face the same fate as Khaybar’s Jews. You know, death and expulsion.
Free speech is not tweeting to more than 325,000 followers: “I hate Israel about as much as I always did, but I hate its defenders much, much more than I did before all this started. Absolute scum of the earth.”
Free speech is not forcing a student to leave her study group because group members told her that the people at the music festival in Israel “deserved to die because they were partying on stolen land.”
Free speech is not claiming that “billions of people around the globe are about to celebrate the birthday of a Palestinian man, born in Bethlehem 2,000-plus years ago.”
Free speech is not holding up a sign that shows the Jewish star in a trash bin, next to the words: “Keep the world clean.”
Free speech is not using your celebrity to write an “op-ed” that explicitly claims Israel is committing “genocide” and “war crimes” — without any plausible proof.
Free speech is not using the Holocaust as a call-to-action, in order to aggressively encourage Europeans to “know better” than to not have a “strong reaction” to “Israel’s current attack against Palestinians.”
Free speech is not stating that Jews are part of an “ownership class” which wants to take opportunities away from others.
Free speech is not so-called journalists citing Hamas, a genocidal terror group, as their only source of the “estimate” of Palestinian casualties in Gaza.
Free speech is not pushing more than 100,000 Jews in London to now consider leaving the country because they feel unsafe.
“History can tell us is that we’ve been too credulous in accepting the traditional narrative about the trajectory of free speech,” Laura Weinrib said.
One of the world’s first free speech acts was introduced in Sweden in 1766. According to a report published that year, the author wrote that no evidence should be needed for a “certain” freedom of speech to be “the strongest bulwarks of a free organization of the state, as, without it, dimness would darken the entire sky of our freedom.”
“Certain” is the keyword here. For if the current rubric of free speech is indeed darkening our skies, what is the point of it?