Lamps: Liberals need to support free speech

Joseph Lamps, Columnist

According to a 2013 survey, 51 percent of incoming Northwestern freshmen identified as either liberal or far left, while only 11.4 percent identified as conservative or far right.

It’s not surprising that NU students generally support the liberal principle of freedom from government trying to legislate morality.

However, polls show Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support censoring offensive speech, and this is problematic. Support for freedom of speech follows directly from the aforementioned liberal principle.

Because us liberals want to be accepting and avoid offending people, it is easy for us to support censoring offensive language. However, this is not the best way to counter hateful speech. Rather, we should respond to offensive ideas with rational rebuttals. If we are confident that we have rational arguments on our side, we should support allowing people to voice offensive opinions in order to show why those opinions are mistaken. Censorship suggests we have something to hide and that we may be wrong, but don’t want people to know.

Censorship is a method used by authoritarian regimes worldwide when regimes know free speech would result in the people speaking out against the government. Freedom to express unpopular ideas is a key indicator of a free society. If liberals truly oppose the government legislating morality, censoring offensive language should be seen as contrary to liberal principles.

It could be argued that, even if most speech should be protected, some hateful and harmful speech should still be censored. This sounds like a good position in theory, but when it comes to censorship there are very sharp boundaries which would be too easy to cross. For censorship laws aimed at protecting minorities to spill over into censoring criticism of ideas, such as religious or political beliefs, would be tragic for individual rights. This is easy to imagine happening; those with discretion over how to carry out even a cautious speech censorship law have personal biases and may be tempted to censor speech they happen to dislike.

Furthermore, enforcement of censorship laws would be almost impossible. Having the government come after you for something you say or post online sounds like something out of a George Orwell novel. However, there is no other way to enforce hate speech laws.

It could be argued that holding free speech as an absolute right with no gray area is irrational. However, support for the right to voice controversial and offensive opinions does not mean free speech is absolute. It should still be illegal to directly threaten somebody or directly harm them with falsehoods. Overall though, speech needs to be free insofar as it does not directly hurt an individual. Speech, even when offensive, is an inherently nonviolent act and therefore should not be limited by governments.

Furthermore, nobody is in a position to judge for an entire populace which opinions are worthy of being censored. Views considered by many to be very harmful are often espoused by large sections of the population. To ensure that no valid opinions are censored, and to avoid marginalizing views of sections of the public, it is necessary to refrain from censoring any opinion.

Joseph Lamps is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.