Free Speech, the Victim


Oftentimes the question at hand becomes forgotten in the process with free speech ending up as the victim.

The year was 1917 – or, in H.L. Mencken’s words, “time of war when more serious writing was impossible,” when he wrote the infamous “Bathtub hoax.” A story in its entirety as false as it can be, became widely accepted, reprinted, and quoted for years to come. Mencken invented the history of the bathtub jokingly and till the day he died, he was shocked by its acceptance into the American way of living.

Albeit with a different purpose, the same can be said about the carrots-eyesight relationship myth. Although carrots contain vitamin A which helps maintain eyesight, they do not improve vision whatsoever nor do they help you see in the dark. And yet, in hope of hiding the new Airborne Interception Radar from the Nazis during the 1940 Blitz, the British invented the myth that haunts us to this day.

History is littered with many such “fake news” stories. The stories range from non-existent peace reports between France and Great Britain during the Napoleonic wars which pushed the stock market to rise five percent, to reported life on the Moon in 1835, to the stories of African-Americans spontaneously turning white (link 2) in antebellum America. Alas, let’s not forget the cherry on the top, that is, the Nazi regime state propaganda.

Of course, the fake news stories neither start nor end here. These are just a few examples of our recent history, whereas fake stories have littered the realm of men for centuries. Some of the stories are born out of fun. Some have the simple profit motive lurking behind them. The worst. vile as they can be, are born in hatred at its core. Which begs the question: even if we are to agree that free speech is a moral imperative, should it have limits?

As it always is, it depends on who you ask. However, after the Great War Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s paraphrased phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” put some limits on freedom of speech which took forty long years to be partially overturned stating that although speech is limited, it is only speech that would be directed to and likely to incite imminent lawless action. This way, the right to freedom of (political) speech was made almost absolute, coming ever closer to John Stuart Mill’s vision of “fullest liberty of expression.”

Even though free speech is indeed protected, all is not well with the ‘spirit’ of free speech. A new low was reached when universities barred high-profile commentators and scholars from (link 1link 2link 3) speaking at their campuses. This is a new low precisely because free speech is crucial for universities to function properly using the scientific method of inquiry. On the other hand, UC Berkley’s Free Speech Movement was the example and an inspiration for decades to come. What adds insult to injury is not that the students didn’t stand for free speech but instead that they played a key role in the decision to censor.

The battles over speech in the past were simpler. Back then, you at least knew where the attacks were coming from – busybodies wrapped in their capes of moral superiority. In the 1940s and 1950s, they came for the comic books. In the 1980s a group of well-connected “Washington wives” was poking at the music industry. Today, the power of the internet and social media allows an angry mob that disagrees with you to cancel you. This happens to movie stars like Gina Carano over their political views, but also to editors like Alexi McCammond for something they have said a long time ago, in their teenage years – views which they have abandoned and already apologized for. This begs the question – is this the society we want to live in? Because if so, by today’s standards, everybody can get easily canceled for which we won’t even be needing a magic wand – all we’d need would be for our browsing history to be set public.

Freedom of speech is tricky, to say the least. The founding fathers knew that and when the first amendment saw the light of day for the very first time, they had no clue where the new inventions will lead humanity. They could not have foreseen the radio, its impact on politics, and the fruition of the worst ideas in the 1920s and 1930s. No one living in the days of the American Revolution imagined a world with something called “a computer and the internet,” let alone social media. Limited with the knowledge they had at their disposal, they only knew of the potential messiness of it all. And yet, they stood their ground holding to first principles, opting for the freedom of speech.

The above-mentioned examples are only a few instances of the past decade, none of which are free speech abridgments. After all, it was the private sector using its right to censor. The big picture problem is not the censoring itself, but the culture of censoring (everything you disagree with) over debating; of being offended by practically everything, not understanding that by the very same definition you potentially offend with every word you utter; of asking the government to intervene against the very 1st amendment (the famous case when a religious baker refused to bake a cake for a homosexual wedding).

In the words of Ronald Reagan, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” The problems we have had with the discourse of freedom of speech in the past decade show us how much this generation has failed on this important issue. If you follow politics closely, you can easily see people climbing on the party-line bandwagon, finding excuses all over the place. What’s worse, oftentimes the question at hand becomes forgotten in the process with free speech ending up as the victim. The sooner we kill the spirit of freedom of private speech is the moment we open the gates for the government to kill free speech as we know it.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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