“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” – John Stuart Mill
The Pew Research Center frequently releases some fascinating polls. They conduct a lot of wide-ranging polling on larger issues, not just particular policies in the news. If you have ever heard someone say a certain percentage of a particular country has a favorable or unfavorable opinion of America, that data likely came from Pew. Unfortunately, Pew also has a habit of releasing data that is wholly depressing.
In a survey on attitudes towards free speech, Pew found that 28% of Americans, including 40% of millennials, support the government preventing people from saying things that are offensive to minorities.
I could go into a long diatribe about the practical implications and difficulties of such a policy: how does the government decide what is offensive to minorities? Why is it just minorities that cannot be offended? What is the punishment for offending minorities? Is the punishment for offending some minorities worse than others? How does the government decide what groups are deserving of protective status as a minority?
But really, why bother? If we are debating those questions, the principle of free speech has already been eroded.
Let’s be clear: No one has the right to not be offended. One person’s right to express themselves is not trumped by another’s desire to avoid unpleasant or even painful ideas. Some people are offended by bigotry, others by the truth. We cannot ban one without the risk of banning the other. It is a short step from banning speech because it is deemed “offensive” to banning speech because the powerful deem it harmful.
Allowing those who are wrong to express their false opinions is the only way we can be sure that ours are correct. If your enlightened views cannot withstand competition, if you believe that contrary opinions may detract from the truth, then I question your committment to your beliefs. The truth is the truth, and it can withstand all falsehoods. It may take a long time, it may take too long, but if given the chance, eventually the truth will out.
Now think of it from the other side. I doubt there is anyone who believes both Obama and Trump are infallible. If such a person exists, I would like to meet them before the DEA confiscates their stash. So I think I am on solid footing when I say everyone would agree that it is possible at least one of those men would prevent people from speaking the truth if given the power and inclination. Given the fluctuations in the control on government offices, it is a certainty that whatever you believe, your speech would be proscribed at some point without freedom of speech. It has been nearly three decades since a president was followed by a member of his own party. If we are to ban certain speech, are you comfortable with the other side determining what speech is offensive or incorrect?
For years now, Republicans warned Democrats that they would not always be in power and therefore should not limit the minority party’s influence. They ignored those warnings, and now President Trump will inherit President Obama’s vastly enhanced authority. The same pattern would play out if the government took it upon itself to determine what ideas are and are not allowed in the public sphere.
But more than that, free speech is a good unto itself, and should be defended as such. Free speech is a matter of human dignity and independence. Controlling speech is an attempt to control the mind by controlling what you are allowed to say, hear, and think. And if your mind is not free, neither are you.