A Brief Defense of Free Speech

by matthew manotti

Free speech is an essential part of American society because it is the basis on which any dialogue can occur. Dialogue, as any Johnnie knows, is not merely the grounds upon which democracy functions but is especially the foundation for any sort of intellectual activity. To quote Jordan Peterson,“[It] is the right and maybe the obligation to conduct discourse in a manner that is aimed at addressing and solving serious problems.” The philosopher is dragged from the cave and into the light of the Good by means of dialogue. Just as Socrates enlightened Athens by means of peaceful conversation which questioned the fundamentals of his polis, we too engage in dialogue so that we may encounter ideas which question the foundation of our worldviews. Only through this painful encounter can we gain any sort of genuine wisdom. After all, the philosopher must be dragged from the cave. The process hardly sounds enjoyable.

As such, the purpose of free speech is dialogue. Any action that prevents dialogue prevents free speech. This activity can be anything from the protesting of a speaker such that the speaker is unable to give his speech to the prevention of such a protest such that dissenting voices cannot be heard. While I do not think that St. John’s College is in danger of either extreme, the former is becoming increasingly common at other colleges throughout the nation. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in 2016 alone there were 42 incidents in which the speakers were disinvited from the colleges, compared to only 21 incidents in 2015. These incidents do not merely include disinviting firebrand speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, but also genuine intellectuals such as Charles Murray or Jordan Peterson. This is not particularly surprising. According to a recent Pew survey, 40% of millennials support censoring offensive statements about minorities -- a marked increase compared to the 27% of Gen X who support the same thing. While I cannot persuade anyone from their given political positions by means of a column (nor do I mean to), I do wish to make the point that the sort of open dialogue we promote at St. John’s College is also the foundation of any sort of peaceful political existence. If one person controls the speech of another person, the only act of rebellion can be a violent act. If we are incapable of listening to criticisms of our ideas, we will find that the criticisms increasingly come in the form of the fist rather than words. After all, there are two ways to solve a problem: discourse or fighting. Free speech therefore makes a peaceful existence possible because it is the best means to avoid physical conflict. If the trend against free speech continues, not only will the nation’s colleges become the echo-chambers of sophists, but the nation will divide itself by means of violence.

The consequences for not standing up in favor of free speech -- especially speech that you disagree with -- are significantly worse than the consequences of taking a stand and saying what you believe to be true, even if it means facing serious criticism. To not stand for something that is right for fear of criticism is to submit to a rule by a master whom we regard as not caring for what is right or just. This hardly fitting for a free society. We must be courageous enough to say whatever we regard as being true, and be willing to change our minds under the influence of a stronger argument. If we do not do this, any violence that occurs in the nation which could have been solved by dialogue will be, in part, our fault. We ought to defend freedom of speech for the same reason that Tocqueville defended freedom of the press: “...from consideration of the evils it prevents than for the good things that it does.” (Part II, Ch. 3)

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