Free speech threats, left and right

The organizers of the Rose Festival Parade in Portland, Oregon, had to shut it down because of threats of violence. This isn’t something that should be happening in the United States.

When Trump was elected, I was afraid there would soon be rampaging mobs assaulting people for what they said. I was right, but the mobs aren’t the ones I expected. While Trump talked about leaving people to be “carried out on a stretcher” it’s the political left that’s now using brass knuckles on people. Not everyone is overtly supporting violence, but too many are, and the opposition is numerically weak.

At the same time, the Trump administration is overtly hostile to the news media, and there’s currently talk of prosecuting a foreign news organization, WikiLeaks, that doesn’t operate on U.S. soil. This would be a shot across the bow for both American and international news organizations everywhere.

Which is the greater threat? Donald Trump holds a powerful position and has support in Congress. The courts have been holding him back, but he’s making noises about changing the court system to a more compliant one. He could do serious harm by 2020. On the other hand, leftist mobs have already done concrete damage to free speech. It’s not just the people they’ve assaulted and the events they’ve forced cancellation of, but other events whose organizers know might be threatened by these thugs.

I think the left is the greater threat in the long run, but the mobs themselves aren’t the main reason. It’s more dangerous because its hostility to free speech runs philosophically deeper. Trump is a Randian Attila, with no real philosophy. I don’t think he’s the start of an enduring movement, even if he’s pushed conservatism in a bad direction. The hostility of the left to free speech is just an aspect of its hostility to individual independence.

During World War I, Wilson’s progressive government prosecuted critics of the war, sometimes sending people to jail for years. In 1919, upholding the sentencing of draft protesters, Oliver Wendell Holmes equated their protest with “falsely shouting fire in a theatre.” Enemies of free speech, especially on the left, have loved to quote that line ever since. There was later a shift toward support of free speech, including a dramatic change in Holmes’ own views, but that was an anomaly. Now it’s shifting back.

An early step was to declare that “commercial speech” wasn’t free speech. The courts have never supported this, except that fraud and deception in commerce don’t qualify for free-speech protection. (Defrauding people is a violation of their rights.) Next came the invention of “hate speech.” It doesn’t mean speech expressing hatred; the people who claim “hate speech is not free speech” are often very hostile in their own expression. Like “blasphemy” and “sedition,” it comes down to saying disapproved things. The advocates of the “hate speech” doctrine try to convince us, by sheer repetition of the lie, that the First Amendment excludes it.

After the Citizens United decision came a burst of rage against organized speech. The claim is that only individuals acting separately have free speech rights. The case concerned an anti-Hillary Clinton movie, which Clinton tried to have censored. She declared in her campaign that she’d appoint a Supreme Court judge who would overturn the ruling against her. A large part of the Democratic opposition to Gorsuch’s nomination stemmed from the expectation that he wouldn’t.

In 2017 we’ve seen serious violence, mostly on college campuses, to intimidate speakers and force cancellation of their appearances.

The philosophical root of the left’s opposition to free speech is belief in the weakness of the individual mind. They’re convinced that “good” ideas can’t win in an open marketplace, so people have to be kept from hearing bad ones. (Why they think that “good” ideas can win a battle of physical superiority when they can’t win a debate is a mystery.) They think that words literally inflict injury, so that saying something which offends a person is morally equivalent to striking a victim. (This doesn’t apply to their own words.)

When two superficially opposing forces both oppose freedom, it’s very bad for a society. Each side depends on convincing people that the other side is the only alternative. This was the real reason for the outrage at people who voted Libertarian or Green last year; we rejected the premise that Clinton was the only alternative to Trump, or Trump the only alternative to Clinton.

There’s still strong opposition to the progressive/Trumpist false alternative. FIRE is doing good work on college campuses, and there’s a good chance people will realize they have to stand up to goons who try to shut events down. I’m not feeling optimistic about the long run, though.

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