Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Free Speech and Limited Government

As I said in an earlier post, I defend Ward Churchill's right to speak his mind, just as I defend the right of Hamilton College to decide whom to invite and disinvite to its campus. By the same token, it is my right to say that Ward Churchill is a despicable person and an obtuse moral relativist who seems bent on undermining the system that enables him to spew his vile opinions. (See for yourself.)

With that out of the way, I want to take up this statement by Minnie Quaich, writing at FIRE's The Torch:
Again and again, we find that anything that can be offensive, inappropriate, and counterproductive ravings to some might very well be provocative, useful, and critical discourse to others. The widely differing and competing reactions to even the most controversial expression like Churchill’s prove how vital it is to protect freedom of speech in this country, on campus, and beyond.
Wonderful. But what about speech that fosters the restriction of speech,* if not the wholesale suppression of liberty? Suppose that a compelling speaker is able to convince a supermajority of the populace that it's dangerous to have people running around saying certain things in public? Suppose that supermajority is able to pass a constitutional amendment that restricts speech? Or just suppose that government -- acting at the behest of "the people" -- effectively does the same thing by statutorily restricting certain forms of speech (as in campaign-finance "reform")?

In other words: Free speech cannot flourish unless government is restricted to its "nightwatchman" role. Yet free speech seems inevitably to produce an intrusive government.** And an intrusive government seem inevitably to issue restrictions on speech, among other forms of liberty.

Before you draw the wrong conclusion, consider this: If government could declare certain topics (e.g., the role of government) off-limits in the name of liberty, I have no doubt that government would be even more intrusive and restrictive of liberty.
*To be clear about it, I don't consider the following to be improper restrictions of speech:
  • non-governmental criticism of speech
  • non-governmental ostracism of persons or entities whose speech is disagreeable
  • the owner of private property dictating what may be said on his property
  • disciplining an employee for saying things that may damage the employer's business
  • prosecuting directly injurious speech (e.g., slander, libel, and intimidation).
** The existence of a written constitution that is supposed to restrict the scope of government seems to be ineffectual in the face of free speech. It is easy to coax the genie of big government out of the bottle, but damnably difficult to coax him back into the bottle.

Favorite Posts: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech