Why free speech must be defended

Silencing others only strengthens the force of opponents

ON SATURDAY – and earlier this month – students around the country organized marches and staged a nationwide walkout to honor the lives of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and to press lawmakers to pass stricter gun control laws.

In doing so, they invoked one of the most powerful tools in our nation’s social justice toolbox – freedom of speech – and showed that debate about the Second Amendment is made possible only through the strength and power of the First Amendment.

The action of these students is a testament to the weight of freedom of speech: the right to raise our individual and collective voices, to assemble, and to petition our government for redress. The First Amendment is central to our democracy, and essential to expanding civil rights and civil liberties.

Around the world, forces of authoritarianism are on the rise. It’s no surprise, then, that freedom of speech is also under attack: Governments in China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt – and dozens more – are deploying Internet filters to promote the political dictates of their respective leaders, while targeting political views that are critical of their governments. Here in the US, President Trump has – among other acts or threats of suppression – encouraged team owners in the National Football League to fire players who protested police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem. In Alabama, Arizona, Texas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi, lawmakers have banned the positive portrayals of homosexuality in public schools.

Against this backdrop, defending freedom of speech has never been more important than it is today. Historically, the left has been the greatest defender of free speech – and for good reason. Freedom of speech is critical if we are to expand equal justice to everyone. Consider the abolitionist movement, the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement a decade later, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, #TimesUp – and today, the March for Our Lives to end gun violence.

Student activists – like those organizing in Parkland and raising their voices nationwide – can trace many of their modern traditions and practices to the “Free Speech Movement” nearly 60 years ago, when leftist students at the University of California Berkeley fought for the right to engage in anti-racist activism on the campus in defiance of restrictive university rules. At the time of this movement, Ronald Reagan was running for governor of California and campaigned on a promise to crack down on Berkeley’s “noisy, dissident minority.”

Despite what history – both long-ago and recent – shows us, a myth has grown stronger that the far-right supports free speech while activists on the left prefer intimidation and censorship. This myth had a face last August – and again in November – when alt-right organizers hosted a rally on Boston Common in the name of defending against “extreme hostility towards free speech” by left-leaning groups and organizations.

The truth is, we can’t afford to cede the First Amendment to the far-right. If censorship becomes the accepted norm, it will be used to silence those who are historically oppressed – rather than those with power and privilege. Indeed, some schools – like one high school in South Dakota – canceled its local student walkout after vocal opposition to the effort from parents and fervent Second Amendment supporters.

It’s time for students – those in middle school, high school, colleges, and universities – to rise up and take a stand for unrestricted activism: for free speech, free organizing, and free protest. But in raising their own voices, students can’t afford to use censorship to win their argument: Trying to silence or censor others is not strategic; it merely strengthens the force of opponents by turning them into martyrs and turning the spotlight on their hateful messages.

Think of it as a chess match: maybe you lose a pawn when someone with whom you disagree gets to speak. But if you give up your free speech rights, it’s like giving away your queen – and, without freedom of speech, it’s checkmate.

Meet the Author

Carol Rose

Guest Contributor

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

Free expression should be recognized as a principle that will overwhelmingly serve not to exclude or marginalize minority voices – but rather to amplify them. By itself, freedom of speech won’t create equality or justice for all. It won’t eliminate gun violence. But without freedom of speech, it’s hard to realize these goals.

 Carol Rose is the executive director of ACLU of Massachusetts.