There is great ferment in contemporary American society over the idea and practice of freedom of speech. The history of the United States of America from 1788 to today could almost be derived from the history of interpretation and application of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Perhaps reading that history would reveal that from its institution until today, the right to freedom of speech has been prized most by groups with the least political and cultural power. The dominant culture has been less enthusiastic, because freedom of speech grants unearned power to those who do not have it and exposes those with power to criticism and threat of losing power. However, history demonstrates that once the formerly powerless groups gain power and themselves become the dominant political and cultural force, they become critics of freedom of speech. I know it sounds cynical, but I think most appeals to lofty ideals in defense of free speech turn out to be little more than clever rhetorical ploys.
As an example, consider the change that has occurred on American college campuses since the Berkeley Free Speech Movement that exploded onto public consciousness in 1964-65. At that time, left-leaning students demanded freedom of political speech on campus. The enemy was the old conservative establishment on campus and in the country as a whole. On college campuses today—and in many other centers of power–the political/cultural left is overwhelmingly dominant. Not surprisingly, the new leftist orthodoxy is as great a suppressor of dissent as the conservative establishment ever was, perhaps even greater. Speech defending conservative morality and politics and even speech advocating free speech is condemned as “hate speech” or “racism” or some other form of despicable speech. The list of ways to misspeak grows longer every day. It seems that hardly anyone really believes in free speech. They pretend to support it only when it is to their advantage.
I do not deny that there have been some true believers in free speech. Sincere free speech advocates past and present appeal to the value of truth. The appeal assumes that everyone can (or should) subordinate their private interests, beliefs, preconceived notions, and desires for wealth, power, and honor to the communal quest for truth and goodness. Allowing everyone to participate in public deliberations, whether we agree or disagree with them, serves the goal of getting a clearer picture of the actual state of affairs and of what is possible. And that makes us all better off in the long run. Or, so the argument goes.
These days, defenses of free speech come only from conservative circles with perhaps a few leftover liberals mixed in. Political leftists and postmodernists do not believe in truth, and they label all appeals to truth and fact as ideological defenses of the racist, sexist, homophobic, white, colonialist establishment. What matters to the political/cultural left is consolidation of its power. Free speech for conservatives would only hinder that consolidation.
Next Time: Consider the essay above an introduction. In future essays we will examine the idea of free speech in detail. What does it mean? Where does it apply? How do churches, Christian schools, and other religious non-profit institutions deal with demands for more freedom of speech within their spheres or for more restrictions on speech?