The New York Times took a piece I wrote strongly defending the right to free speech, the raw concept of unfettered speech from a content-neutral position, and called it Right Partisan Writing You Shouldn’t Miss, intended as a compliment. What I wrote was directly in line with the absolutist view of free speech and the First Amendment I have always taken: Let them speak. Except for the very narrow and specific restrictions on speech defined over the years by the Supreme Court, let them speak. Let good ideas whoop bad ideas. Look for ways to allow more speech, not loopholes that might let an institution get away with silencing a speaker. It is as much of a philosophical argument as a legal one.
My ideas are not particularly new. They are the same positions taken by the American Civil Liberties Union, and for that matter, most of the modern Supreme Court. I really didn’t invent anything here, though hopefully my version of the idea was neatly typed and well-presented. So how did I end up becoming a conservative for defending free speech?
Though free speech should be an American position, for the most part it has been traditionally associated with progressive politics. Free speech enabled the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, got extreme acts of protest such as flag burning recognized as protected speech, ended silly law enforcement resource-wasting campaigns against nude photos and naughty song lyrics, and grew alongside egalitarian tools like the Internet to bring all sorts of voices into the public marketplace of ideas.
Yet, in a few short months since Trump’s election, everything seemed to change.
Some progressives morphed into “anti-fascists” who believe it is okay to punch someone they deem a “nazi” in the head to silence their speech. Universities which made their political bones via the Free Speech Movement are trying tricks like de-platforming speakers (“You have a right to free speech, but we don’t have an obligation to let you speak here.”) Those same people were only last summer raising their voices against so-called Free Speech Zones that fenced protesters off miles from the Republican and Democratic Party Conventions so they could protest to their heart’s delight without anyone hearing them.
Students at liberal colleges are proud of themselves for shouting down invited speakers who say “offensive things,” and have even convinced themselves such a Heckler’s Vote is a form of free speech itself, instead of old-fashioned brownshirt mob rule. A key debate now is how much wiggle room private and semi-private schools have to get away with denying someone’s First Amendment rights. Some student groups are pleased when they think they’ve figured out a way around the 1A and can block a speaker, forgetting such tricks were used to silence the Civil Rights Movement and women’s groups. My article defending the right of all to speak was pushed into “conservative” categories because the example I built the piece around was Ann Coulter at Berkeley. I have never heard Coulter speak. I’ve never read any of her books and, to be honest, could care less what she has to say. From some quick googling, it seems like my politics and Ann’s generally do not agree. And that’s the whole point, of course: Support her right to speak while not necessarily supporting what she says.
That now, apparently, has become a right wing position to take.