At a time when freedom of speech seems to be under assault, it’s worth stepping back to reconsider why it matters.
In a free society, all citizens must be able to pursue their own paths, set their own goals, and think for themselves. Of course, in America and elsewhere, there are norms, orthodoxies, and taboos. And dissident personalities frequently challenge these norms by eschewing orthodoxy and venturing into the taboo.
How a society treats these dissidents can tell you a lot about how truly free that society is. In some places, government silences or punishes those with unpopular viewpoints for refusing to sacrifice their independence and their ideas (the recent protests in Hong Kong are an instructive example).
America offers a richer tradition. People are free to express their ideas, even if those ideas are unpopular, unconventional, or wrong (though, in many cases, they may eventually be proven right). Americans are thus free to participate in peaceful protests, wear black armbands to school, and even burn the nation’s flag. A speaker may say things that are unpopular, uncomfortable, or downright grotesque. But in a free society, we engage dissent through discussion and debate rather than through censorship and punishment.
Free speech is inextricably linked to prosperity. After all, prosperity comes from ideas, and new ideas can thrive only in a society in which they are free from suppression. It’s easy to think of widely embraced ideas that were once controversial -- for example, the idea that all children, regardless of race, should have the same educational opportunities. Thanks to our tradition of free speech, such forward-looking ideas reshaped our society for the better.
Today it is more important than ever to protect our freedom of speech. Too many people have come to believe that discussion and debate are inadequate; they seek a society that squelches dissent with force. In law, government regulations are censoring speech that is “disparaging,” “immoral,” and “offensive.”
In culture, people attack the speaker rather than engaging their ideas. Opponents vilify speakers as “misogynists,” or “racists,” and then attempt to drive them from the public square, or deprive them of their livelihood. In worst-case scenarios, disagreeable speech is met with violence. These attacks on the tradition of free speech are damaging to a free society and suppress uninhibited, robust, and wide-open debate.
Freedom of speech is an invaluable cornerstone of a free society -- and it’s worth fighting to protect.
Wen Fa is an attorney in Pacific Legal Foundation's national headquarters. He has litigated numerous direct-rep cases dealing with private property, equality under the law, school choice, economic liberty, and the First Amendment.