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American Culture

March 12, 2019

Free Speech Is A Fundamental American Value

Free Speech Is A Fundamental American Value

Free speech was so important to our Founding Fathers that they enshrined this basic right in the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights.

But today, it often seems like free speech only applies to “acceptable speech.” College campuses are rife with “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” Every other week, it seems like another scheduled speech has to be canceled because a group of students is offended. Professors who write about politically unpalatable ideas are publicly shamed, or worse, fired. 

Consider Samuel Abrams a professor at Sarah Lawrence College who wrote a New York Times op-ed about political bias in college administrations a few months ago. This week, students at Sarah Lawrence College occupied the college president’s office demanding that Abrams’ tenure be reviewed for daring to support a “difference in dialogue.”

Of course, this is the opposite of free speech. True free speech is summed up by the famous quote by Stephen G. Tallentyre in The Friends of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Alternatively, some may prefer George Orwell’s more modern version: “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”

Sadly, the speech police on college campuses is destroying people’s lives and careers. In the process, we are teaching younger generations to fear ideas they disagree with. We are teaching them to use outrage instead of debate, to reflexively take offense when there is none, to insist on their moral superiority instead of thinking through arguments and questioning preconceived notions.

There was a time when going to college was supposed to be educational. The college experience was supposed to be eye-opening and expose students to new ways of thinking about the world and themselves instead of reinforcing the ideas and opinions they came in with. 

Without a change, the new speech police will break down the fabric of our society. When people can’t disagree respectfully, they can’t have relationships with people outside of their ideological bubble. They can’t sit down to dinner with family members without erupting into a political war. They can’t be friends – even Facebook friends – with people who support different political parties. They end up seeing the world in an unsustainable black and white – everyone is either friend or foe. 

One of our favorite stories is that Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and their families shared New Year’s Eve dinner together every year for decades. The two justices could not be ideologically farther apart. (Scalia used to say about Ginsburg: “What’s not to like – except her views on the law?”) But they respected each other as human beings, as legal scholars, and as friends.

Free speech is a fundamental American value; it serves as a foundation for our democracy and our communities. We cannot function, let alone thrive, in a civil society without it.