Is Free Speech an Absolute Right, or Does Context Matter? – New York Times

Posted: August 25, 2017 at 3:52 am

Recent events in the United States have only reaffirmed the wisdom of this liberal compromise. If there was ever a group whose speech appears to me to be obviously evil and dangerous, it is the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville earlier this month. But the president of the United States is sympathetic to white supremacists; to him, it is the (mythical) alt-left that presents the real threat. If he had the power to suppress freedom of speech, he would use it to silence the people I agree with. It is better for me for no one to possess that power than to entrust it to someone who might regard me as an enemy.

Campus leftists who believe they are serving the cause of goodness and truth by silencing right-wing (or even not-so-right-wing) speakers are living in a fools paradise, because they temporarily inhabit an environment where they are in the majority. When they graduate into Trumps America, they will find that many people, including people in power, think they are the ones who are wrong and dangerous. Then the principle of free speech will become their shield, as it has long shielded dissidents and radicals in America. Without it, politics becomes a war of all against all, and as we have learned since last November, there is no guarantee that the right side will win.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and a critic. His most recent book is The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century.

By Francine Prose

What could free speech possibly mean when a mob is bullying and beating people with whom they dont agree?

Lately, Ive been thinking about The Emperors New Clothes. What a deeply felt and personal story it must have been for Hans Christian Andersen, whose work is full of plucky honest children. Awkward and painfully unable to pick up on basic social cues, he chose, as his fairy-tale hero, the outspoken innocent who delivers an unwelcome truth.

The emperor is naked! Was Andersen also alluding to one role of the writer: to say the thing that everyone knows but fears to say? Even the emperor realizes that the boy is right. No one punishes or contradicts the young truth-teller. But naked or not, no one is owning up. The procession must go on, so the emperor held himself stiffer than ever, and the chamberlain held up the invisible train.

Had the story been set here, we might say that the little boys right to call attention to the emperors nudity was protected by the First Amendment. But doesnt context matter? Wasnt the boy discouraged by his parents from embarrassing their leader? Shouldnt he have waited for a private moment, or asked the chamberlain to explain the emperors intention?

Not according to the United States Supreme Court. On the basis of past decisions, we can imagine that the justices would have decided in favor of the boy. Not only would he be allowed to say what hed observed, but he could have hurled insults racial, religious, sexual, political at the emperor, and still he would have been within his constitutional rights. In order for the boy to exceed the limits of protected free speech, he would have had to exhort the crowd to attack their naked ruler.

Traditionally, the courts have defended the freedom to express the thought that we hate; the law doesnt ban words that wound egos or hurt feelings. Its concerned not with psychological harm but with physical action, injury and risk with real and present danger.

Though when violence does occur, as it did in Charlottesville, we want to be very clear about what constitutes exhortation and incitement. Its regrettable that the phrase free speech should have been co-opted by white supremacists, as if the only kind of free speech worth rallying around is hate speech. And what could free speech possibly mean when a mob is bullying and beating people with whom they dont agree?

Obviously, context is important. Just because youre legally permitted to say what you want doesnt mean its socially or morally acceptable to subject other humans to racist rants. Yet almost daily one can see, on social media, someone doing just that, losing it on a plane or at the checkout counter. I think the ranters are reprehensible, but I dont want to see them locked up unless theyre trying to goad their fellow passengers or shoppers to mob violence.

Democracy depends on the civil, healthy and open exchange of ideas, on the chance to be persuaded by opposing opinions, to reasonably consider variant arguments and explanations. Freedom of speech, free expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press those guarantees have helped keep us from sliding into dictatorship, a fate that has befallen countries with formerly democratic governments and levels of education and prosperity not unlike our own.

We need to be clear about what those protections are, and about why we need them a need that seems to grow more intense each time Donald Trump attacks the press; when the former chief of staff Reince Priebus floated a plan to change libel laws (and by extension the First Amendment) in some vague but ominous way; and each time someone brings an automatic weapon to a free and open political demonstration.

Our democracy may have its flaws, but the alternative the repression that exists right now in so many countries is worse. That is a different fairy tale, less like the work of Andersen than like some modern-day Brothers Grimm. That is the story that ends with the little boy being arrested, jailed and killed for the crime of daring to say out loud what the emperor isnt wearing.

Francine Prose is the author of more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, among them the novel Blue Angel, a National Book Award nominee, and the guide Reading Like a Writer, a New York Times best seller. Her most recent novel is Mister Monkey. Currently a distinguished visiting writer at Bard College, she is the recipient of numerous grants and awards; a contributing editor at Harpers, Saveur and Bomb; a former president of the PEN American Center; and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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Is Free Speech an Absolute Right, or Does Context Matter? - New York Times

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