In the U.S., neo-Nazis can speak their mind. So can communists.
This wasn't always the case. President Woodrow Wilson thought that "any language disloyal to the government, the Constitution, the military, or the flag" was out of line in wartime and promoted the Sedition Act.
Perhaps the most consistent advocate of free speech in the US is the American Civil Liberties Union. In its first years, the ACLU didn't win many cases, but among its founders was Helen Keller, not easily deterred by obstacles and failures.
The ACLU's cases are often controversial. They have supported:
- NRA: in opposition to a gun registry
- Communist party, although during the cold war support faltered
- Citizens United, though they argued for full transparency of donors
- Jehovah's Witnesses: in 1943, a couple thousand children were kicked out of West Virginia schools for refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag. The ACLU defended their religious liberty.
- KKK: as early as 1923 the ACLU defended their right to hold meetings
There are limits to free speech: threats, yelling "fire" in a crowded public place, slander, lying to Congress, perjury, lying to shareholders. But as a society we are pretty lax about what people can say. On balance, I think, that's a good thing, since the alternative can so easily be corrupted.
But I do wonder sometimes. And I am not alone. About half of the US may think it is time to amend the 1st amendment.
There is an aspect to freedom of speech that I find unnerving. We grew up saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." But we know this is often not the case. There is such a thing as verbal abuse, and it can be more harmful than a physical punch. So, if words have the power to harm, shouldn't serious attacks with them be taken as seriously as with fists?
The power of words is not a new concept. Plato thought music and other arts should be censored because they could corrupt the masses. "The tongue has no bones, but it can break bones" is an old Sicilian proverb, according to Eric Hoffer (a more romantic rendition says it can break a heart).
Nazi propaganda set the stage for the holocaust. Radio stations in Rwanda played a significant role in the genocide of Tutsis in 1994. Before people were aware of the effects, perhaps they said, Don't worry! It's just words.
The president of the US has exercised his freedom of speech by lying to the people 13,500 times in 1000 days in office. He further exercises his right of free speech by accusing media who expose his falsehoods of, you guessed it, lying. Not only does he abuse the right of freedom of expression, but he also uses his position to inhibit this right for others. This is (mostly) not illegal. It is pathetic.
And yet, if this president, who calls the press the enemy of the people, were allowed to shut down all who fail to adore him, the results would be worse than letting him spew lies upon lies. If he had his way and dictated what was good and acceptable, our society would be even more vulnerable to the lies.
Of course, US politics are not unique. In Britain, lies were the means to a pro-Brexit vote. Just one example: Boris Johnson held up a kippered herring and blamed the EU for excessive and expensive regulations on shipping and packing. Never mind that the regulations he protested are in fact fully British.
Hungary has restricted the press so that only things favorable to the government can be broadcast or published. On the books, the law is strong on freedom of expression, but the government favors media owned by president-friendly oligarchs and squeezes out any media outlet critical of them. You see how it works.
Facebook has decided to limit falsehoods in some cases, but not for politicians running for office. I don't understand why those seeking office as public servants are exempt from rules of civility that apply to the rest of us, but perhaps Facebook couldn't face the loss of revenue. Whatever the reason, the larger dilemma of what to allow on Facebook's platform illustrates changes in media that have us scrambling for new rules.
The problems of allowing free speech, despite abuse of this right, seem smaller than the problems of restricting it. So we allow a president to lie without ceasing and billionaires to use unlimited resources to mislead us to line their pockets.
How much abuse of a freedom will we tolerate to avoid the abuse of its restriction? After how much abuse will a right be taken away? What price will we pay for squandering our freedom of speech on lies? When one contractor defrauds his clients, 20 honest contractors submit to increased regulation; will the same hold for those entrusted with maintaining this country? Will we eventually respond to the worst offenders' abuse of free speech by restricting this right for all?
Given their history and their willingness to address it, the Germans' ban on holocaust denial seems a reasonable restriction. Perhaps here too we will impose some additional sensible limits. I don't think we will prohibit false advertising in political campaigns, despite a recent record setter. But maybe we'll at least require any PAC to publicize all their major donors' names. We may not pass a law to this effect, but it seems Facebook and television networks could set such a rule for any group paying for a political ad. I don't know, what are your ideas? Shouldn't we do something?
When a Head of State uses freedom of speech to publicly lie to his nation an average of over 4,000 times per year, then that freedom is not worth much. When elected members of congress repeat those lies for political gain, free speech is cheap. When a nominee for the highest court in the land lies about his qualifications, freedom of expression is a joke. The abuse of freedom of speech by those in power is an insult to all who have protected this right.