David Frum

09.26.12

History's Vilest #SlatePitch Asks: Why Do We Bitterly Cling to Free Speech?

You'll notice yourself doing a double-take when you read this because it sounds like an elaborate prank from the Onion. Sadly, I assure you it is not.

University of Chicago Law Professor Eric Posner is baffled (baffled!) at Americans and their weird belief that free speech should be a nearly absolute right, even if it offends people who care less about liberal democracy. And yes, he immediately goes where you'd expect.

Americans have not always been so paralyzed by constitutional symbolism. During the Cold War, the U.S. foreign policy establishment urged civil rights reform in order to counter Soviet propagandists’ gleeful reports that Americans fire-hosed black protesters and state police arrested African diplomats who violated Jim Crow laws. Rather than tell the rest of the world to respect states’ rights—an ideal as sacred in its day as free speech is now—the national government assured foreigners that it sought to correct a serious but deeply entrenched problem. It is useful if discomfiting to consider that many people around the world may see America’s official indifference to Muslim (or any religious) sensibilities as similar to its indifference to racial discrimination before the civil rights era.

Reread that paragraph. A published article compares state sponsored police brutality to the individual actions of a two-bit huckster on Youtube. Goodness, it makes President Obama's "bitter clingers" line seem benign by comparison. Just like we once clung to the right to savagely beat African-American citizens for wanting to vote, today we cling to the right to express our views, even when they're offensive.

Professor Posner tosses out the doozy that "Americans need to learn that the rest of the world—and not just Muslims—see no sense in the First Amendment." (And Kant rolls over in his grave.)

Absolutely, Professor, let's meet them halfway. While we're at it, let's tell women, "sorry, but not everyone understands why you should be allowed to vote. It offends a few uneducated zealots in premodern societies that you are allowed to be full members of society, and we wouldn't want to offend." And what about homosexuals? Isn't it offensive that we've come to believe they deserve recognition as human beings?

And there's more.

Despite its 18th-century constitutional provenance, the First Amendment did not play a significant role in U.S. law until the second half of the 20th century. The First Amendment did not protect anarchists, socialists, Communists, pacifists, and various other dissenters when the U.S. government cracked down on them, as it regularly did during times of war and stress.

Yes, granting more rights to people who would criticize their government is a bad thing, right? I very much wish those anarchists, socialists, Communists, pacificists, and other dissenters had been accorded full and proper free speech rights. The fact that we now believe such rights must be respected is a sign of positive progress, not a lamentable occurrence worthy of apology.

Thanks, professor, you finally ruined #slatepitches for everyone.

P.S. I've assumed the entire time Posner is lampooning everyone who is enraged by his story. This angry response was just in case I'm wrong.