Conservatives are as much of a threat to free speech as radical progressives.
When alt-right agitator Jason Kessler took to 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 with the drafting and passing of the First Amendment by Charlottesville native James Madison in 1789. The Amendment, which stipulates, among other things, that the federal government is disallowed from making law “abridging the freedom of speech,” has a lengthy record of defending controversial groups in the country.
Many, including figures on the libertarian right, 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 in a moment of bathos, “The First Amendment is finished it seems.”
It’s difficult to disagree that some progressives and self-styled liberals have staged challenges to the unlimited freedom of speech — examples are becoming uncomfortably plentiful. The sheer scale of violence from left-leaning students at the University of California, Berkeley, earlier this year in response to conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’s campus speaking gig alone is enough to cast aspersions on the left’s attempts to limit hateful speech.
But it’s both inaccurate and harmful to suggest that this is the only or even the most dangerous threat posed to the continued survival of free speech in the United States. Those on the right — both those who, like Kessler, propagate hateful speech, and those who condone and defend it—present a far more existential challenge to free speech’s survival than a college student asking for a safe space. And if they want to keep it, conservatives need to step up to the plate.
For the vast majority of conservatives who don’t espouse a neo-Nazi or white supremacist ideology, the argument for allowing hateful far-right 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 model, a fascist’s message will die out not because the government is forcibly placing a hand over their mouth, but rather because extremists’ opinions will fail in rhetorical competition with ideas like tolerance and peace.
The marketplace of ideas assumes several conditions as given, not least of which is forceful and meaningful rhetorical opposition to extremism. But what happens when this opposition is lacking?
From the moment the President declared his candidacy in June 2015, the Republicans’ national leadership have offered little in response to his consistently bigoted remarks that could rightly be called meaningful opposition.
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-Utah) tempered their professed disagreement with the statement with 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 said. “You betcha, all day.”
Others—like Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence (R-Ind.)—flat-out denied that the president had made bigoted statements at all, totally absolving him of responsibility for his words.
Conservatives often portray this reluctance to hold the President accountable for his speech as an act of defiance against a vaguely-defined “political correctness.” But it’s worth wondering why Republicans 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.
Regardless of motive, conservatives’ inability or refusal to distinguish between freedom of discourse and quality of discourse is increasingly detrimental to the former’s long-term survival. 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.
The distinction between offensive speech that is nevertheless protected under the First Amendment and directly threatening hate speech that is not is a difficult one to maintain.
What’s more, this distinction becomes harder and harder to maintain the more frequently the former is used as a pretext for acts of atrocity like what occurred this past weekend 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.
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 — and the severity of the damage is easily over-exaggerated — so-called academic censorship has yet to kill anyone. The same cannot be said of free speech “advocate” Jason Kessler and the violently racist speech he and his followers profess.
If conservatives want to act to truly defend the 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.
Whatever the reason for their reluctance to oppose extremists on the right, Republicans should be much more robust in publicly opposing the hateful ideologies that have arisen from this policy of non-condemnation. If they aren’t willing to do even that, then just keep free speech out of it.