Julian Sanchez Hits the Nail on the Head: Why Shouting Down an Anti-Gay Speaker at Smith College Isn’t Something to Be Proud Of
May 2, 2008
In his post—which sports the excellent (and astute) title Surely Lucy Won't Yank the Football Away This Time!—Sanchez wisely points out that the heckler's veto is not only wrong on principle, it's lousy from a tactical point of view. As Sanchez writes: "How many times does this scenario have to play out before people start to recognize that it always ends up as a PR coup for the supporters of the silenced speaker?"
In reviewing responses to the incident posted elsewhere, Sanchez encounters the usual litany of defenses of censorship for "hate speech"—and answers them with skill and aplomb. He writes that the most common argument he received was "some variant of the idea that free speech and open debate are wonderful, but this particular fellow is so hateful or so irrational or so beyond the pale that his remarks don't count." In response, Sanchez gets it exactly right:
But the value of endorsing "free speech" as a general principle is precisely to avoid having to make these kinds of decisions about the merits of the speech, barring some very specific exceptions like "incitement to riot." Speech that isn't controversial, that isn't going to occasion protest, will never require us to invoke free speech as an ideal. Conversely, speech that is controversial—the kind of speech that might actually need the protection of that principle—is always going to be regarded as "beyond the pale" or "too much" by somebody... Everyone thinks they're right, and so everyone feels entitled to drown out the speech they dislike. You end up with the meaningless principle: "Free speech, except when we feel strongly enough about how terrible and wrong it is."
Speaking personally, as someone who considers himself politically liberal, and as someone who does not hesitate to defend the rights of people politically opposite to me, it makes me want to pull out my hair when people I might agree with on other political topics attempt to justify censorship of speech they abhor or merely dislike.
Supporting free speech used to be virtually synonymous with being a liberal. But too often nowadays even the crudest repression is justified in the name of tolerance, diversity, or other nice-sounding-but-nonetheless-repressive rationales. Free speech is more important than a game of simple self-interest—but I have to say that I suspect these same pro-censorship advocates would protest vociferously if they encountered similarly bankrupt justifying rationales in the hands of their political adversaries.
Thank you, Julian, for defending free speech for what it must be: a principle bigger than partisan politics.