Editorial: Free expression is solution to problems, not the cause

Last modified: Friday, January 01, 2016

The new year brings a heightened sense of possibility, a wash of new ideas, a hope rooted in the freedom to think in fresh ways. As we enter 2016, however, a countervailing force threatens that renewing energy — a push to clamp down on free expression.

Last year, students at Smith College and the University of Missouri who were staging public protests against racism tried to carve out “safe spaces” where journalists could not operate with the independence guaranteed by the First Amendment. The success the Islamic State and other terrorists have had in using the Internet to recruit would-be jihadists has recently prompted calls from American presidential candidates and even some legal scholars for new limits on its use.

The impulse to censor has roots in legitimate complaints and fears. The protests by students about racism’s lingering toll and their elders’ failure to address it ring important and true. And the way terrorists have used the Web to recruit or inspire would-be jihadists to slaughter innocent people from Syria to San Bernardino provides legitimate cause for alarm.

Rather than trying to shut down the flow of evil expression, we should remember the words written in 1927 by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Brandeis wrote these words in a California case that helped build a body of law that justifies suppressing speech only in the rare cases where such speech creates a “clear imminent danger.” To cite the famous example, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater is speech unworthy of protection because it might set off a deadly stampede. But operating a website to celebrate theater disruption is, however ill-advised, permissible — just as building a website to point out the folly of such thinking is permissible.

In the wake of the recent spasms of violence inspired by the Islamic State, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said the government should recruit Bill Gates to shut down portions of the Internet; Democrat Hillary Clinton took a more moderate stance, saying government officials should press web hosting companies to shutter jihadist sites.

The politicians found some unlikely support from legal scholars including University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner. Writing in Slate, Posner argued not only for companies like Facebook and YouTube to censor terrorist propaganda, but also for the government to make it illegal for web surfers to even look at sites carrying such hateful talk.

Such proposals have a gut-level appeal; why make it easy for terrorists to poison the minds of the naive and the disaffected? The key question is whether, and how, the government should use its enormous power to intervene.

Web companies can and should voluntarily limit content they deem harmful. But it’s a step down a slippery slope to have the government require such censorship, or to practice it. Similarly, college students, professors and administrators should think hard before trying to shut down the free flows of ideas — even, and perhaps especially, those they find offensive. If students want to brainstorm in private, fine. But if they are acting in public and seeking attention through the media, they must allow unfettered and independent news coverage.

It wasn’t so long ago that people in positions of power might have wanted to exclude reporters from campus protests against the Vietnam War. Surely today’s protesters would agree that kind of “space” would be the opposite of safe.

As Justice Brandeis noted, the surest way to fight destructive speech is with constructive speech. Speak out against racism, and the voices of bigotry will find themselves overwhelmed. Address the injustices that foment terrorism and the calls for jihad will fall on uncaring ears. Ring in the new year with speech that is not always perfect, but is vigorous and free.


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