Conservatives don’t recognize real threat to free speech

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Conservatives don’t recognize real threat to free speech

Neo-nazis and white supremacists prepare to enter Emancipation Park during a

Neo-nazis and white supremacists prepare to enter Emancipation Park during a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, VA earlier this month. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Neo-nazis and white supremacists prepare to enter Emancipation Park during a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, VA earlier this month. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Neo-nazis and white supremacists prepare to enter Emancipation Park during a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, VA earlier this month. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

By Henry Glitz | Opinions Editor

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When far-right agitator Jason Kessler took to the stage outside the city hall in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month, he made reference to a political tradition born centuries ago in that very city.

That tradition — freedom of speech — gained official legal status in the United States when Charlottesville native James Madison drafted the First Amendment in 1789. The amendment, which, among other things, ensures that the federal government can’t make law “abridging the freedom of speech,” has a lengthy record of defending controversial groups in the country.

Many on the right, including Pitt’s own College Republicans, have come to use the amendment and its repercussions as a sort of rallying cry in a struggle against the left — especially in the wake of violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that Kessler organized. Kessler himself, after being heckled and booed off stage during his speech at the Charlottesville city hall, later tweeted melodramatically, “The First Amendment is finished it seems.”

It’s apparent that some progressives and self-styled liberals have staged challenges to unlimited freedom of speech — examples are becoming uncomfortably plentiful. But it’s both inaccurate and harmful to suggest that this is the most dangerous threat posed to the survival of free speech in the United States.

Those on the right — both those who, like Kessler, propagate hateful speech, and those who condone it — present a far more existential challenge to free speech’s survival than a college student asking for a safe space.

For the vast majority of conservatives who don’t espouse a neo-Nazi ideology, the argument for allowing hateful rhetoric in the public sphere often boils down to the so-called “marketplace of ideas” coming to the rescue of public decency. In this idealized world, fascist ideas will die out not because the government forcibly places a hand over their mouth, but because extremist opinions will lose any argument with ideas like tolerance and peace.

The marketplace of ideas assumes several givens, not least of which is forceful and meaningful rhetorical opposition to extremism. But what happens when this opposition is lacking?

From the moment President Donald Trump declared his candidacy in June 2015, Republican leaders nationally have offered little that could rightly be called meaningful opposition to Trump’s unabashed prejudice.

When Trump suggested that federal judge Gonzalo Curiel was incapable of doing his job because of his ethnicity, party leaders like Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-UT, tempered their professed disagreement with the statement by showing unwavering support for the man responsible.

“I disagree with the statements he made [regarding Curiel], but do I think he would be a much better candidate and much better president than Hillary Clinton?” Chaffetz told a Fox News host last June. “You betcha, all day.”

Others — like Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, R-IN., — flat-out denied that the president had made bigoted statements at all, totally absolving him of responsibility for his words.

Some portray this reluctance to hold the president accountable for his speech as an act of defiance against “political correctness.” But it’s worth wondering why some conservatives seem less concerned with the quality of speech in public discourse than with simply being allowed to say every outrageous thought that pops into their heads.

Freedom of speech isn’t a social end, but a means. If it is to survive, freedom of speech must produce quality speech — otherwise extremist ideologies like those on display at Charlottesville will forcibly end it.

It’s difficult to maintain the distinction between what offensive speech the First Amendment protects and what it doesn’t. And the difference between the two becomes harder and harder to preserve the more frequently the former is used as a pretext for acts of atrocity like what occurred earlier this month in Virginia.

If conservatives value free speech as much as they say they do, they will take care to distinguish their support for it from support for extremists’ ideas themselves. Here, at least, there is considerable room for conservatives and their leadership to improve.

It should be easy, for example, for the President of the United States to issue something more forceful than a half-hearted “condemnation” of a group as heinous as white supremacists without proposing a violation of their right to free speech. And while most other conservatives denounced the actions of the fringe right at Charlottesville, reactions equating the harm done to free speech by neo-nazis and liberal college students who support safe spaces are absurd.

For as much harm as campus progressives may or may not have done to the First Amendment by limiting the freedom of speech in certain areas, so-called academic censorship has yet to kill anyone. When Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak on Pitt’s campus in 2016, students met his vicious address with nothing more violent than rhetorical opposition to his viewpoint. The same cannot be said of free speech “advocate” Jason Kessler and the violently racist speech he and his followers profess.

Simply because neo-Nazis land on the right side of the aisle shouldn’t mean other conservatives take them any less seriously than those on the left who want to limit speech.

If conservatives want to truly defend freedom of speech, they will stop the absurdity of equating free speech with consequence-free speech. To condemn a hate group is not the same as to violate their First Amendment rights, and to act as if it is the same is to discredit the right to free speech in the eyes of society at large.


Henry is the Opinions Editor of The Pitt News. Write to Henry at

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