Among the many problems with constitutional ideological ideas is that they never seem to go away.
Let’s take the concept of banning “hate speech.” It always seems to be lurking — mainly in the academy — beckoning Americans to turn their backs on the First Amendment for the sake of a simple, alluring thought.
Wouldn’t it be good if people were less cruel? After all, what does hate speech add to public debate — besides fear and intimidation?
But what is hate speech, exactly? Ask 100 people, and you’ll get 100 different answers. It’s a term that can’t be objectively defined because it depends inescapably on subjective listener reaction. Take, for example, a recent survey conducted by McLaughlin & Associates for Yale University in which two-thirds of the 800 college students queried agreed that hate speech was “anything that one particular person believes is harmful, racist or bigoted.”
In other words, my rights depend on your feelings, and if your feelings are hurt, then I must shut up.
This is the ideology at the heart of the campus shout-down, where activists will disrupt (sometimes violently) speech they find hateful. At Claremont McKenna College in California, students tried to shut down a speech by Heather MacDonald, a respected Manhattan Institute scholar. Her crime? Using statistical analysis to rebut the claim that police had declared “open season” on young men.
No one, on the left or right, is safe. At Reed College in Oregon, left-wing protesters turned on left-wing professors, disrupting lectures because a humanities class was too “Eurocentric.” At Evergreen State College in Washington, protesters forced a progressive professor off campus because he objected to demands that white people leave campus on a so-called day of absence.
In more than 20 years of free-speech advocacy on college campuses, I’ve seen virtually every form of ideological argument — particularly conservative ideological arguments — labeled “hate speech.” Yet I’ve never seen a single, coherent definition of the term. I’ve also seen the pernicious effect of hate-speech arguments on young minds. If you label a thought or an idea as hate speech, you don’t have to engage with it. You don’t have to rebut it. You merely have to oppose it.
The result isn’t liberty or safety or even civility. (After all, who would call angry, violent activists civil?) It’s an atmosphere of fear and a culture of ignorance. We’re raising citizens who know what they believe but don’t understand why they believe it. They can label their cultural enemies but often have no idea why they are wrong.
In reality, free speech is the best weapon against hate. Many years ago, I had a conversation with the late Walter Fauntroy, one of the lions of the civil rights movement. I asked him how the movement was able to accomplish breathtaking things in a relatively short span of time, reversing centuries of legal rules and precedents that sanctioned and sometimes even mandated racial discrimination. His answer was swift: “Almighty God and the First Amendment.”
The First Amendment gave them a voice, and God softened men’s hearts to receive the message. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass called free speech “the great moral renovator of society and government” and rightly declared that “slavery cannot tolerate free speech” and that “five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South.”
The founders knew their new nation was imperfect and imprinted in its DNA the means of improvement. Free speech is the liberty that guards all others. How can we learn of inequality but through free speech? Of denials of due process but through free speech? Of suppressions of religious freedom but through free speech? Given this record, beware of calls for censorship — even from the most well-meaning censors.
No man has a monopoly on truth, and thus no man should be empowered to silence your ideas.
Our nation’s moral renovations are not yet complete.
David French is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.