Is America having second thoughts about free speech?

Politics

The free speech wars are getting worse, but it seems that none of the warring factions quite grasp the character of the dispute — or precisely what’s at stake.

At the figurative center of the clash is the norm of near-absolute freedom of speech and expression, which its defenders like to treat as the American default. A number of ideological challenges have arisen in recent years to overturn this norm.

On many college campuses, groups of left-leaning students insist that free speech should be conditional on speakers adhering to explicit standards of diversity and avoiding the infliction of emotional harm on the members of marginalized groups through the spreading of “hate.”

From the opposite ideological direction, President Trump believes that the government should “take a strong look” at libel laws to keep news organizations from subjecting his own administration to negative coverage.

Finally, from the center-left come calls to use anti-discrimination law to punish organizations that oppose the legitimacy of same-sex marriage and accommodations for transgender people. If that happens — either by passing new laws that explicitly add to existing anti-discrimination statutes or by courts treating the members of these groups as protected classes covered by existing law — the result will almost certainly be a significant constriction of speech, as those holding more conservative views will face sanction for expressing them in public.

Those are the trends — and each one looks to the others like the onset of democratic decline.

For much of the left, the president’s (so far merely rhetorical) attacks on the freedom of the press is a sign of incipient fascism, and the complaints of the religious right are at once signs of paranoia and a form of special pleading for bigots. For the right, the agitation for free speech restrictions on campus is evidence of burgeoning anti-intellectualism in a place that should be open to all ideas and arguments, while the possibility of conservative religious believers facing punishment for their faith is both profoundly illiberal and a threat to free government in the United States.

As a free speech absolutist myself, I find plenty to be concerned about in these trends. But it’s important to recognize that such disputes are not new — and that they need not signal the precipitous decline of liberal democracy in the United States. On the contrary, our clashes over free speech grow out of tensions within the liberal tradition itself, which in the past has been quite compatible with substantial restrictions on freedom of speech.

The reason why such restrictions seem anathema to so many today is that for the past several decades, one side in a centuries-long dispute has been ascendant. That’s the libertarian position perhaps best represented by the 19th-century political philosopher John Stuart Mill. This tradition of thinking, which first came to political and cultural prominence in U.S. during the middle decades of the 20th century, holds that when it comes to freedom of speech, almost anything goes. People should be allowed to think, write, and say pretty much whatever they …read more

Source:: The Week – Politics

      

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