Updated: Dec 31, 2020
In an overly dramatic rendition of a famous poem written about the Holocaust, Dennis Prager the owner of Prager University, promised before a senate judiciary committee that “one day you will say, first they came after conservatives, and I said nothing. And then they came after me—and there was no one left to speak up for me” (Binion, 2019). Comparing censorship today to the censorship seen during the Holocaust is very misleading, but the sentiment is still valid. Social media platforms are being universally criticized for their responses to the epidemic of “fake news.” These forces are undeniably harmful to the integrity of our democratic process; a representative democracy rests upon the premise that the population is informed, but a public cannot be informed if the information it has access to is wrong. Unfortunately, identifying what is “fake” and what is real news can be very difficult. In the process of removing fake news, conservative media groups like Prager University have been targeted on Facebook and YouTube for espousing extreme right wing ideas. These groups claim that the US government is censoring them unjustly and oppressing them by denying their right to free speech. As a result, we are forced to consider questions as old as America itself if not older: to what end can we tolerate any political view? Can we reasonably claim that some things, like human rights, are just facts which are outside of the political domain and cannot be disputed?
A plurality of viewpoints has always been a staple of American politics, and it will hopefully remain enshrined in our American values. Freedom of speech is supported generally in other nations, but its extent is more stringently regulated. Germany, for example, is known for criminalizing Nazi sympathy and any speech supporting that ideology. German citizens focus heavily on whether or not the laws that criminalize speech are just considering the social-historical context of the nation post World War II, but no one can deny that criminalizing speech or public political sympathy is a detriment to any full conception of free speech.
In the US, the right of the people to a free conscience is upheld to what some may define as a fault. White nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan are more or less allowed to exist and freely associate despite their hatefulness and history of violence. Historical action has been taken to end their violent actions during Reconstruction, but as far as the organization exists today, there are very few specific limits on the group itself (Hobbs, 2017). As long as a group does not break any laws, call for violence, or commit violent acts, the group is allowed to exist. This is in accordance with the Brandenburg v. Ohio Supreme Court ruling and the general standard of strict scrutiny which the US uses to evaluate rights to free speech. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the standard was set for free speech: speech that incites “imminent lawless action” can be regulated. Lawless action includes any threat of violence or a call to violence. Strict scrutiny means that the freedom to freely associate is only susceptible to be abridged in the most narrow ways when the government has a compelling interest and steps have been taken to minimize damage to free expression. Strict scrutiny means that the KKK as it exists today cannot be regulated. America’s past, however, has not been logically consistent in applying this maxim due to a policy bias: the Black Panther Party had a similar reputation as a violent terrorist organization, but the government response to them was significantly different. The FBI, to this day, claims that the party “advocated violence and the use of guerilla tactics to overthrow the US government” (FBI, 2010). Compared to the KKK which upheld a status quo of racism by and periodically even cooperating with law enforcement to enact violence, the elements of government which attempted to conserve authority through racial hierarchy were less threatened by the KKK than the Black Panthers.
In examples like this, the strong value of free speech which America was founded on perceivably falters and shows that free speech has not always been equally applied to people from all viewpoints. In times of immense political tension, the US government has a history of trying to conserve authority by suppressing dissent. Great thinkers like Emma Goldman, a female anarchist who wrote extensive critiques of American capitalism, were deported during the Cold War for voicing their criticisms of injustice in America. In this case, a person on the political left was literally exiled by the government for their viewpoints. This directly contradicts our conception of freedom of expression, a supposed guarantee given by the First Amendment. The Cold War was a catalyst for conservative action in cases of free speech like this and the Black Panthers. Marxist and communist rhetoric generally were treated as threats to national security due to possible exploitation by the Soviet Union. However, crimes against progressive free speech did not start during the Cold War. Even revered Founding Fathers committed their fair share of crimes against free expression. George Washington, a supposedly nonpartisan President, supported the Sedition Act in the late 18th century which prohibited publications from criticizing the Federalist regime.
The misapplication of free speech ideology in America’s history should not deter us from free speech in general. It is still a liberty that we ought to preserve and reestablish in accordance with our nation’s values. Many people will disagree with America and join the chorus of nations like Germany that err on the side of societal welfare before liberty. Liberals in the United States tend to contradict the values of their namesake and try to dispel all forms of offensive rhetoric which they see as a threat. According to early American philosophers like Alexis de Tocqueville, such thought is an inevitability of democracy: he famously said in his book, Democracy in America, “Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” The link between society and government in a representative democracy means that these social repercussions will seep into and corrupt the legal system to create legal repercussions for individualism. Punishing free speech through legal repercussions is an attack on individualism: the right to form a personal conscience on issues is fundamental to individualism. By censoring outlying ideologies, the government inherently imposes a normative culture of speech and does not allow ideas to enter the marketplace of ideas we lovingly call a democracy. In this paradox of democratization, our social conscience corrupts the liberty that theoretically accompanies democracy. The political right today has made this a focus of the modern culture wars. They detest what they call a “cancel culture” seen in universities and liberal circles. Students at universities will protest and harangue their universities’ staff for giving an alternative viewpoint a platform.
The inevitable democratization may not be a bad thing because it ensures our happiness and eventually cancels out our desire to even think in radical or nonconforming ways, but I could never approve of liberty’s sacrifice to achieve this goal. In Germany, their moral calculus decided that the happiness gained from a Nazi-free society was greater than the happiness gained from a free society as defined by Enlightenment principles. Freedom in Germany includes freedom from dehumanization through toxic rhetoric. American conceptions of freedom and specifically free speech conceptions tolerate toxic rhetoric with faith that moral truths will win out in the marketplace of ideas. These are the Enlightenment ideals passed down by famous authors like John Milton, John Stuart Mill, and Voltaire. Political and moral truths are powerful in and of themselves. They can persevere in a marketplace of ideas wherein more fallacious and poorly reasoned ideologies like white supremacy, communism, and fascism reside. Perhaps I am too optimistic, but I believe in America’s ability to resist the draw of attractive rhetoric and divine the truth from an array of options. Political and moral truths can only exist when a democratic population has unadulterated access to ideas, and they can form a consensus: moral truth is the resulting conclusion of a fair presentation of ideas. The US, like any other country, is not immune from hateful ideology. However, the very purpose of democracy is to allow for a public discussion on what is morally right. If we say that we believe in the democratic process as an effective means of enacting the best policy for a nation but are unable to trust that same democratic process to deal with social ideas in the same way, then we discredit our fundamental reasons for engaging with democracy in the first place. Public deliberation and discourse gives way to a strong, reasoned policy, so the likelihood of toxic ideology winning is low.
The final outlook of a society on free speech is wholly dependent on the historical context. In Germany, they share a value of free speech insofar as any democracy supports the basic right, but their modern nation state was formed in the ashes of fascist tyranny. Their first priority in the formation of government was preventing the corruption of government by radical ideologies. However, the United States was born from an era of liberal ideals. The inviolable natural rights we are bestowed as humans cannot be stolen by the government. As America’s founders conceived it, the right to free speech is meant to protect the progressive voices like Emma Goldman from conservative oppression, and any infraction against the freedom of speech, like a censure on social media, could set a dangerous precedent for a conservative government in the future to suppress progressive voices. Liberty, when absolute, elevates a society by empowering a citizenry with confidence in their government. If we censor Prager University today for espousing what we see as radical ideology, then we cannot be surprised when, in the future, the government censors our progressive voices for being too radical for their tastes. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Even if it means protecting the smallest voice in the smallest corner of the internet advocating for the most ill-informed policies known to man, we must prioritize the liberty we experience to form our own political conscience before we destroy it by threatening another group’s liberty.
Binion, Billy. “PragerU Does Not Understand Censorship.” Reason.com, Reason, 1 Aug. 2019, reason.com/2019/07/30/prageru-does-not-understand-censorship/.
“Black Panther Party.” FBI, FBI, 30 Nov. 2010, vault.fbi.gov/Black%20Panther%20Party%20#:~:text=The%20Black%20Panther%20Pa
Hobbs, Allyson. “The US Government Destroyed the Ku Klux Klan Once. It Could Do so Again| Allyson Hobbs.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 Aug. 2017,