What is ‘free speech?’

By TIMOTHY P. CARNEY
Posted 5/3/22

Hypocrisy is the constant in all politics, and politicians who preach principles (such as free speech) typically wield those principles instrumentally rather than adhere to them …

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What is ‘free speech?’

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Hypocrisy is the constant in all politics, and politicians who preach principles (such as free speech) typically wield those principles instrumentally rather than adhere to them religiously.

It’s expected, then, that the American left would object to the charge of censoriousness. Yes, many on that side have been open about disliking free speech. The ironically named American Civil Liberties Union, a venerable institution of the left, fretted about Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter because of his expressed “free-speech absolutism.”

“When billionaires like Musk justify their motives by using the word ‘freedom,’” warned liberal columnist Robert Reich, “beware. What they actually seek is freedom from accountability.”

“Hate speech” and “misinformation” are labels constantly hurled from the left, along with the ominous chant that conservative opinions put black people in danger. These are all efforts to curtail speech. Calling whole classes of opinion incitement or misinformation is an attempt to put those opinions and facts outside the safe harbor of free speech.

These have been the justifications for social media platforms to cut off reports harmful to Democratic nominees and to censor opinions that clash with the cutting-edge ideologies on gender, sexuality and race.

But Republicans are just as bad, or worse, the media suggest. State legislators are passing bills regulating classroom “discussions.” Legislators and school boards are also barring many books (some reasonable, some not) from school libraries and curricula to the consternation of teachers and librarians.

So is it just another story of neither side adhering to norms, but both sides wanting speech for themselves but not for others?

Not quite. Look closely at the different efforts to control what is said and where.

The conservative “book bans” are “bans” only in the sense that this phrase is typically overused: removing books from curricula. No Republican is stopping anyone from buying Beloved, writing a book report on it, or borrowing it from a public library. Republicans may be picking the wrong book, and state officials are often taking the prerogative from local school officials.

The “critical race theory bans” are similarly debates about who should write school curricula.

The left’s infringements on free speech are different. They want to keep certain ideas and people and media outlets off of Twitter and Facebook and newspaper op-ed pages. They want the wide-open platforms removed from internet servers.

Put another way, when the left demands free speech, it wants the government to teach children stuff that parents don’t want to be taught to their children; when the right demands free speech, it is asking for the right to express opinions and relay facts that clash with elite teaching.

It’s not a matter that is not one of hypocrisy. It’s all about whether free speech is for the power elite or for the dissidents.

Mr. Carney is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (aie.org) in Washington. This article first appeared in the Washington Examiner where Mr. Carney is also the senior political columnist.

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