I’m so far to the political left that Barack Obama couldn’t find me with a GPS. That said I’m taking liberals to the woodshed. For years liberals have called for restrictive readings of the Second Amendment, but they’ve been like a mule with cement overshoes in refusing to tinker with the First. The recent murders of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas and security guard Stephen Johns at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC lead me to conclude that liberals need to reconsider the parameters of free speech.
Unfettered free speech has long been a liberal article of faith. The argument runs that unless one supports the right to say or represent anything, no matter how morally repugnant, free speech will be endangered for all causes. In a moment that I hope now gives him pause, Noam Chomsky once wrote the forward to a Holocaust denier’s book in the name of free speech. Chomsky vigorously denounced the author’s ideas, but argued that banning the book was more dangerous than making distasteful views public. Chomsky was wrong, and so are others who take an absolutist’s perspective on free speech. They confuse liberty with libertinism.
Let’s dispel a myth: speech is not and never has been 100% free of constraint. The classic example of not being able to yell “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium is a public safety/common sense restriction, but it’s not the only one. You cannot legally slander another person, use words to sexually harass, display certain words or images in places where they would cause public alarm, or make utterances that make someone fear for their safety. This leads me to wonder why Scott Roeder and James von Brunn—the murderers of Tiller and Johns—were able to cruise so many hate-filled, violence-inducing Websites. Google Tiller and you can come up with various “Tiller the Killer” sites. Some are busily taking down pages that incited violence, but quite a few remain unrepentant and celebrate Tiller’s murder. As for von Brunn, convince me that the neo-Nazi, white supremacist Websites he frequented were warm, fuzzy, and harmless and I’ll reconsider this statement: It’s time to regulate the Web and all other hate group utterances; a civil society should not hid behind abstract free speech principles in the face of concrete examples of harm done. If a group advocates violent law-breaking or denying the rights of others, take down their Websites, ban their literature, put them on terrorist watch lists, and let Homeland Security monitor their actions.
“Isn’t that what the Nazis did?” liberals ask. “If we ban hate groups, don’t we quash everyone’s right to dissent?” Wrong on both scores. All we need to do is apply existing public safety standards. There’s a world of difference between an anti-choice group holding a public rally or pray-in and one that advocates violence. We can disagree with the anti-choice position, but still defend the right to hold it as long as violence is not incited and dissenting viewpoints are not suppressed, threatened, or harassed.
In 1977 I stopped making donations to the American Civil Liberties Union when it filed suit to allow American Nazis to hold a parade in Skokie, Illinois. The ACLU cried “Free speech!” but I was (and remain) unmoved. Why on earth should free speech be respected for any group, which if successful, would curtail that very right? Liberals who support the ACLU’s position on Skokie—or the rights of current hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or Operation Rescue—elevate individual rights over public safety and civil society. No matter how many noble platitudes about freedom are uttered, the recipe is one for social chaos. The real danger of unregulated speech is more likely to induce fascism than slapping down dangerous libertines. If public discourse has no limits on what behaviors it is allowed to entice, the logical result is a society in which might defines right, not those principles that ought to be higher than free speech: life, liberty, and choice. Let the anti-choice or anti-Semitic groups take power and then tell me how much free speech is allowed.
Why do we lack the guts to say it? There are things that ought not to be tolerated: coerced belief, gay-bashing, anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism, incitement to violence… How horrible would it be if anti-choice groups weren’t allowed to call for the murder of abortion providers, Nazis were denied an audience, and Barnes and Noble had to take Holocaust denial books off the shelf? I can live with that. More to the point, maybe George Tiller and Stephen Johns could have. With more prudence regarding the First Amendment, liberals wouldn’t have as much recourse to argue about the Second.-LV