Freedom of speech protects unpopular ideas
Published November 9, 2023
By Andy Jackson
A gaggle of left-wing academic departments at the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNCA), many with the predictable “studies” as part of their titles, recently sponsored an event that explored what they claimed was “anti-Black or anti-Indigenous state violence that connects the United States and Israel.” It was an event with the clear aim of justifying the recent terrorist attacks against Israel, or at least providing the “context” for such a justification.
Republican Congressman Chuck Edwards, whose district includes Asheville, rightly condemned the event and declared, “Western North Carolinians and Americans everywhere must disavow and condemn events that encourage anti-Semitism and inspire violence.”
So far, so good. But Edwards then declared that it was “hard to believe that an institution like UNCA would allow this event on campus,” implying that officials at the university should have banned it. That would have been far more dangerous than the disease the congressman seeks to cure. It is proper to ban groups that provide material support to Hamas or other terrorist organizations, but this event appears not to go beyond thought and word.
But what about speech from the crazies? What about the antisemites? What about the racists? What about those who speak in favor of terrorism or offer justifications for the horrors of communism or fascism? What about Holocaust deniers? Do the views held by those firmly in the moral minority deserve the same freedom of speech protection as the views of those who favor truth and freedom?
Yes, they do.
John Stuart Mill explained that silencing a minority, even a minority of one, is repressive:
If all mankind, minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
By silencing the speech of the minority, we also deny ourselves and future generations the right of “exchanging error for truth” if those in the minority are right and a “clearer perception and livelier impression of truth” if they are wrong.
The organizers of the UNCA event are clearly in the moral minority. Most Americans support Israel in its campaign against Hamas in the wake of the Oct. 7 terror attacks that deliberately targeted Israeli civilians, including children. An earlier poll found that 67% of American college students said the attack was an act of terrorism, while only 12% said it was a justified act of resistance.
People who seek to justify such acts of barbarism, who try to explain away genocidal slogans such as “from the river to the sea,” or who try to justify political violence in the United States, deserve ridicule and contempt. We should welcome them exposing themselves and their abhorrent ideas to that ridicule.
Also, what they say may have some element of truth, however minuscule, that could help us refine our views.
Let’s neither deny ourselves the pleasure of exposing contemptuous ideas nor the opportunity of correcting our own errors by suppressing speech we may find repulsive.
In addition, deciding that some views can be suppressed implies that some person or group should be given the authority to determine which ideas are worthy of protection and which are not. Ironically, this censorious instinct appears to be at least as prevalent on our college campuses as it is anywhere else in our republic.
Do we really want to assign authority to predetermine which speech is permitted and which is not to college administrators at UNCA or elsewhere? To members of Congress? To anyone?
By empowering those in authority to suppress odious views, conservatives would be setting a trap for themselves. Are we to believe that college administrators, once empowered to censor speech on campus, would not exercise that power more broadly? Which speakers, radical progressives or conservatives, would those administrators be more likely to ban from speaking on campus? Which groups would administrators be more likely to deny official recognition and funding? Which views would they most likely hold up as deserving protection, and which would they suppress?
So, for those reasons, we must grant the devil the right to speak his mind on our public college campuses, not for his good, but our own.