(A quick rumination) on the First Amendment

I’m sure this has been said many times before, but not by me, so here goes nothing:

There is a terrifying trend in the United States to equate the First Amendment (which prevents state censorship) with the right to be listened to. I have been “called out” on social media countless times as a “social justice warrior” by those who see my condemnation of racist or fascist speech as somehow in conflict with my advocacy of free expression. Rest assured, there is no contradiction; rather, in condemning hateful speech, I am exercising counter speech and my own First Amendment rights.

Similarly, I sometimes encounter Europeans who think the First Amendment is too broad, that there is some speech that is beyond the pale. To them, I ask: Who, exactly, would you put in charge of deciding which speech is acceptable? Who would implement such a regulation? While (unlike Americans) they rarely refer to private companies as good arbiters of speech, their trust in the state to appropriately and evenly regulate the speech of individuals also scares me.

There is no perfect answer, and the First Amendment (or equivalent) does not guarantee that the state will treat all speech equally. We’ve seen that in the way that the United States government has treated Muslims, whistleblowers, and others. But this inequality of implementation is also no justification to flip the tables and ban hate speech either: What makes anyone think that a state authority would suddenly apply such a ruling evenly and correctly?

Counter speech is powerful, but not always enough. To victims of harassment, censorious solutions can be tempting, and I am not unsympathetic. But as someone who has experienced harassment aplenty on the Internet, I remain unconvinced that the game of whack-a-mole that is most social media’s strategy of dealing with harassers is ineffective. I remain convinced that censorship doesn’t solve society’s ills.

To those in the movement, fighting fascism, racism, authoritarianism, and imperialism, the idea of censoring hateful speech can also be tempting. Again, I am not unsympathetic, but I fear that driving such speech underground does little to rid us of these scum. Watching what’s happening on US college campuses has also led me to fear that when certain lefts come to power, they will be quick to censor criticism of their lot. History happens to back that up.

Lest this become a rant and not a quick rumination, I shall conclude with this: For each person, there is a line past which certain speech is unacceptable. For each person, that line differs. We will never as a society agree on what should or should not be acceptable speech, making the only just line no line at all. Let us deal with our problems as a society and not rely on authority to “solve” our problems for us.




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