Free Speech, Some Exceptions

I read with interest Elana Cates’ editorial proclaiming “free speech, no exceptions.” I admire her fire, her facts and her ire. Cates is absolutely correct about one thing: freedom of speech has been seriously jeopardized on the American campus. Just the other week, I encountered a professor’s handout, which was a photocopy of a 20th century logic handbook, in which in an illustration “housewife” had been blacked out and “homeowner” scribbled in its place — like trying to put whiteout over virtually all of domestic history. As Cates rightly points out, and as has been observed in sociological studies, instead of seeking to understand differences, those on American campuses are far too eager to be offended, to lament others’ insensitivities and to involve the community and the authorities.

I nevertheless have reservations on Cates’ conclusion. To begin with, there are absolutely exceptions to free speech – legal exceptions, in fact which include: child pornography, incitement, sexual obscenity without literary, artistic, political or scientific value and “fighting words and offensive speech.” And no, this is not a “slippery slope;” these are rules that have always been here and should always stay here, for good reason.

Part of Cates’ confusion, I imagine, boils down to her understanding of why free speech exists. No, it’s not for people “to express themselves.” In the Supreme Court case Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire  the Court ruled against Chaplinsky’s freedom to profanity and offensive speech.

“It has been well observed,” wrote Justice Frank Murphy, “that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”

Now, is the law unjust in legally restraining Chaplinsky from cussing out a police officer? Is Chaplinsky not entitled to express his hatred, his vitriol and his dissent? Indubitably. Only, as a society, we have an expectation that ideas of any sort should be presented civilly. You’ll notice the thrust of Justice Murphy’s statement, that public discourse should be a “step to truth.” This is why we must protect free speech.

This idea must color our interpretation of Voltaire’s famous maxim, which Cates quotes: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire’s point, however, is concerned not with form, but with content. That is, Voltaire would surely die for your right to accuse him of being wrong and for your right to provide reasons and evidence to that end. But we’d be ridiculous to think that he’d die for your right to insult and condescend in that process.

There is such a thing as civil discourse. There is such a thing as respect for inherent human dignity. We needn’t degrade a person with ad hominem attacks to engage their ideas in dialogue, even if we hold that those ideas are patently and hideously false. Even if we think their ideas are dangerous to the world at large. That was the logic of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century ( need not revert to that.

Now, personal attacks, slurs, condescension and offensiveness often fall perfectly within the bounds of the law (à la Westboro Baptist Church. The perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre were certainly wrong to assert it as a capital offense. Now, needless religious, cultural or ideological insensitivity and offensiveness do, however, constitute abuse of a right reserved to promote honest dialogue without fear of thought-crime, a right purposed to create space for honest discourse in “good faith” – with nothing checked in at the door.

This is why I lost Cates when she mentioned Rushdie. I wrote on Rushdie’s commencement earlier this semester  and maintain that his lack of decorum was unacceptable in a rational, professional and civil discourse. I cannot appreciate that a man of Rushdie’s supposed academic caliber would say, in a professional setting, that ” … people seem ready to believe almost anything … God, for instance,” and then would add, chuckling patronizingly, “Shocking how many Americans swallow that old story.”

I’m incredulous that such a thing would be defended. If Rushdie had said this about transgenderism or rape culture, calling it an “ancient fiction,” he would have been crucified. His statement neither affirms nor acknowledges any theist’s dignity as a human being. It does not concede interest in dialogue nor in the pursuit of truth.

But in defense of people like Rushdie, maybe we have to exercise the furthest limits of our rights to remind ourselves that we really are free. Maybe that’s what it takes to wake us up to the reality of free speech: a grown, educated man spitting on those who think differently.

Maybe it takes someone we respect giving voice not only to controversial ideas, but also doing so in a manner calculated to incite offense and belittlement. All this goes to show us exactly how far our rights to free speech extend. Yet this isn’t something to be celebrated or “proud” of, as Cates writes. When it takes someone of Rushdie’s regard to remind us that free speech includes unproductive condescension, we should be sobered, reminded of how fragile and fleeting our sense of freedom must have grown to garner this reminder.

So yes, there are and need be restrictions on free speech. Some legal, but most self-imposed, in the interest of civil, rational discourse and the pursuit of truth – as we affirm each other’s worth as human beings, stepping outside ourselves in an attempt to understand the other. This must not be conflated with censorship of ideas nor of the self; only when we are truly committed to ours and others’ ideas and selves will we embrace this limitation on our legal rights.

When I Googled “offensive free speech” over the course of writing this article, Google autosuggested “offensive French words.” This, to me, illustrates very well our free speech predicament: people are going out of their way to needlessly offend people. Worse, people are going out of their way to be offended. As my high school civics teacher summarized, free speech was not created for the kindergartener intent on screaming “poop” in the classroom; it’s for the once martyr, the man or woman who no longer faces death and persecution in being true to his or her convictions – but within the confines of an empathetic and dialogical pursuit of truth.

Jonathan Warkentine is a College senior from Almaty, Kazakhstan.