The Free Speech Trade-off

by Harley Voogd

FT_15.11.19_speechAccording to this 2015 Pew Research article, 40% of U.S. millennials are in favour of the government having the authority to censor offensive speech about minorities.

Thomas Sowell has said: “Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good.”

It sounds like a good idea to limit “hate speech”. Who would be against that? But if we stop at only what sounds good we create future trouble for ourselves. We have to ask questions and thoughtfully follow through on what these “good” ideas would actually create. Questions like: Who decides what “hate speech” is? Given the government has the authority to limit hate speech, would the government abuse that authority in the future?

I am in an interracial marriage. I’m a white Canadian, while my wife is a brown Cambodian. (Are you offended that I called her brown?) Suppose, while planning our marriage in Canada, we went to a bakery which was owned by a white supremacist. And suppose he refused to bake our wedding cake because he is against interracial marriage. I would be annoyed and a little offended at that. But, the most I would do is tell my friends and family about it and stop there. I’m not going to call the media. I’m not going to sue. I’m not going to boycott his bakery (although I can understand why others would). I’m not going to fight to give the government the power to shut him down. As much I wouldn’t like what he had done, I wouldn’t fight to take away his right to run his business as he wants. Because, if I take away his freedom, I take away everyone else’s freedom too.*

If the KKK comes marching through your town’s public square spewing hate speech against blacks and Jews, you have two options: you can ignore them or you can speak against them. One option you don’t have is to silence them. Even the KKK is protected by free speech**. However, if the KKK comes into your restaurant and decide to hold an impromptu rally, you can silence them by kicking them out of your business.

Thomas Sowell also often says: “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.” What is the free speech trade-off? Do we want the government to silence anyone who might offend us now, and, consequently, give the government the ability to abuse that authority in the future when our children and grandchildren are adults? (And if you don’t think that will happen, you just need to study history. Right now in certain Asian countries a person can be imprisoned for criticizing the government on Facebook. Do we want that in western society?) Or, we can grow a thicker skin and allow everyone to speak freely, even when it offends us, and ensure future generations will not have to live in fear that if they say the wrong thing, arbitrarily decided by government, they won’t end up in prison for ten years.

*I realize that there are already anti-discrimination laws in place, and I am not necessarily against those laws. This is just an example. 

**Free Speech: The right to speak without censorship or restraint by the government.

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