To my surprise, I have learned that my daughter's generation -- especially those educated at more selective liberal arts schools, often do not share our family's view that free speech is an extremely important legal right, that we need to watch closely and protect. In fact one of my daughter's friends said that she didn't think free speech was that important -- and that she thinks it is MORE important to be able to restrict speech considered offensive -- especially when it is racist or derogatory to religion.)
So I wanted to share some quotes from this FABULOUS book we've been reading. It has really opened our eyes. The book is called Unlearning Liberty -- Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. Here are just a few passages that we loved:
It may be very tempting for high school students entering college to have sympathy for the advocates of speech codes, but that is only because they misunderstand the purpose of the First Amendment and lack knowledge of the legal, philosophical, and historical principles that support it. The First Amendment exists to protect minority point of view in a democracy, and anything that undermines it necessarily gives more power to the authorities. It is ultimately the best protection of the weak, the unpopular, the oddballs, the misfits, and the underdogs. If the only price that we have to pay for this freedom is that we sometimes hear words that we find offensive, it is well worth it.
One predictable result of working so hard to prevent offense is that students quickly learn that claiming to be offended is the ultimate trump card in any argument. After all, if you knew you could immediately win an argument by calling the other person’s position offensive, wouldn’t you be tempted to use that tactic?
Prohibitions on hateful speech do nothing to stop hate, but they let resentments simmer, and they also prevent you from knowing who the hateful people even are
Probably the simplest but most successful argument for restrictions on speech I hear today is that censorship can protect people from hurtful or bigoted speech. The implicit question I run into all the time on campuses is, “Can’t censorship be acceptable if one’s intentions are pure, compassionate and generally good?”
History tells us that the answer is flatly “no”. I cannot think of a single anti-free-speech movement in American history that did not sprout from someone believing that they were fighting for truth, justice, decency, and goodness itself. This is so common a friend of mine has an acronym for it: the “GIRA Effect,” standing for “Good Intentions Run Amok.”. John Adams thought he was saving the country from ruin by instituting the Alien and Sedition Acts. Northerners who believed that abolitionists needed to be silenced thought they were preventing a bloody civil war.
Having pure intentions, steadfast goals, and an unwillingness to consider that you might be wrong is the formula for some of the worst evils mankind has ever wrought upon one another, from inquisitions to the twentieth century’s disastrous experiments with totalitarian utopias. As pushy as those of us who defend civil liberties may seem, the right to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience rests on a deep-seated humility: I know I am not omniscient, and I suspect you aren’t either. Therefore, I have no right to tell you what you can’t say,
A system that allows for censorship must necessarily put actual, flawed people in charge of deciding what does not get to be said. This is probably the most important reason to take that power out of the hands of authority. Even if we think authorities should be empowered to regulate opinion, they are likely to be too self-interested and self-deceived to do it fairly or, even, competently. Time and time again, those with the power to censor see criticism of themselves as what needs to be banned.
Unlearning Liberty can be checked out from the Lawrence Public Library by clicking on the image of the book above.