On Free Speech
In his “Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston,” Frederick Douglass asserted his belief that the dominion of slavery could not withstand free speech: “Slavery cannot tolerate free speech. Five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South.” Douglass recognized that granting free speech to black men and women would quickly extinguish this inhuman practice, forcing slave-owners to relinquish their power and free black Americans. History proved Douglass prescient in his evaluation with the nation-wide abolition of slavery following five years after his plea. Douglass’s exercise of a right not yet granted to him reveals the powerful manifestation of free speech: the dynamism of America.
Despite the Federalists’ insistence that the Constitution would restrict rapid change due to factionism, the First Amendment creates unparalleled dynamism. The historian Thomas Ricks posits this paradigm: “America is a moving target, a goal that must always be pursued but never quite reached.” The movement within our American system is perpetual and progressive. With each new day, election, and generation, a novel set of values alters the direction of our nation towards a new, if unattainable, zenith. It is this principle that empowered the civil war, women’s suffrage, and the New Deal. Of course, this dynamism is not without fault, enabling many mistakes in American history. However, the symphony played by the sum of American decisions is positive, characterized by a progression to a more equal society. Still, freedom of speech does not permit us to stand by and enjoy the symphony unaware of its shortcomings. It forces us to move towards a more perfect version of America, recognizing our faults and working to fix them. It is this awareness and dynamism that has apprised America of the need for diversity and inclusion following the death of George Floyd in 2020. Like the rest of American history, the tool best fit for this goal is the same: free speech.
Not only is free speech necessary for advancing the cause of diversity in America, but it also reveals why diversity is so powerful. Alexander Meiklejohn, a foundational free speech advocate of the twentieth century, illustrates the purpose of the First Amendment: “The First Amendment… was written to clear the way for thinking which serves the general welfare. It offers defense to men who plan and advocate and incite towards corporate action for the common good.” The First Amendment protects individuals to advocate for a stronger community and better tomorrow. And in working for the advancement of social welfare, diversity offers the best opportunity to achieve “action for the common good.” John Stuart Mill, an English advocate for liberty, argues for the value of diversity of thought: “Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness.” Mill argues that individuals cannot reach a perfect truth on their own. However, it is possible to find truth in the individual beliefs of many. It is the reconciliation, the conglomeration of individual ideas to form a cohesive argument, in which we find wisdom. This reconciliation requires diverse opinions, finding truth in each individual perspective. It is because of this conglomeration of diverse opinions that Douglass stated that freedom of speech is “the great moral renovator of society.” It moves us towards publicly determined justice by displacing extremity of views and finding a new middle ground, acknowledging error in our past habits of thinking.
It is tempting to silence those who adhere to extreme modes of thinking, viewing those perspectives as hindering American progress. However, Mill criticizes this argument: “Our merely social intolerance… roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion.” Active debate reveals inadequacies in ideas and thus forces their reconstruction to better fit reality. Socially pressuring others to hide their beliefs in fear of ostracization hurts the American experiment. Diversity is only as valuable as it is expressed. Silencing unpopular opinions protects inaccurate perspectives from reformation, and it harms our own views in that we overlook evidence that others see. Standing up for what you believe in is daunting. However, debate with diverse views advances us towards a more cogent conclusion, alleviating the blur of our individual biases. Exercising free speech for the advancement of truth is a selfless act — it places the common good of our country above our own egos.
Free expression bolsters the dynamism that has moved us closer towards fulfilling the American promise of liberty and justice for all. Still, Mill concedes that even in the pursuit of truth through reconciling differing views, we are fallible: “Yet it is as evident in itself as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd.” The ideas we assert today will likely not stand the test of time. But by acknowledging our fallibility, we allow America’s progress to prevail: prioritizing diverse perspectives to identify and address our past mistakes, producing a more equal and just America in which every individual can flourish.
Kurt Lash and Frederick Douglass, “Frederick Douglass’s ‘Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston,’” Law and Liberty, last modified August 21, 2019, accessed December 31, 2021, https://lawliberty.org/frederick-douglass-plea-for-freedom-of-speech-in-boston/.
Thomas E. Ricks, First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2021).
Corey Lang Brettschneider, ed., Free Speech (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2021).