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Progressives Are Making A Big Mistake Abandoning Freedom Of Speech

Just because conservatives are demanding free speech doesn't mean the concept should be jettisoned entirely.

12/21/2017 07:54 EST | Updated 12/21/2017 09:14 EST
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Jeff Barnes (left) of Alameda, Calif., invites people to sign a free speech sign during a pro-Donald Trump rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley, Calif., on April 27, 2017. The co-opting of the free speech mantle by conservatives has some progressives convinced that free speech itself is no longer worth defending.

I recently read a downright alarming opinion piece. It worried me in a multitude of ways.

It worried me, first of all, because of what it said about about the future of political discourse in our society; about the condition of our shared social values; and about the direction of the progressive movement.

In the piece, the author — a colleague of mine at HuffPost Canada — asserted that free speech is "not worth fighting for."

"Only the most privileged benefit from free speech," my colleague wrote, referring to a "necessary fight against a 'free speech' movement."

"'Free speech' is too costly for the disenfranchised, and this will never change when the system in power profits from this imbalance," my colleague concluded. Note the quotation marks around the words free speech.

On campuses across North America, a growing number of people on the left are turning against the very notion of freedom of speech, having grown convinced that it is yet another bludgeon used by "them" against "us."

It's true that we live in strange times, but I had not realized, until I read that sentence, that we are so far through the looking glass that we now inhabit a space where some people working in news media have actually stopped believing in free speech.

This opinion piece is not an isolated incident. On campuses across North America, a growing number of people on the left are turning against the very notion of freedom of speech, having grown convinced that it is yet another bludgeon used by "them" against "us." In the now-famous castigation of Lindsay Shepherd at Wilfrid Laurier University, university officials on three occasions likened free speech to Nazi ideology. Is this what academia has come to? The belief that freedom of speech is fascist?

To me, a student of history, this is bizarro world.

Free speech is key to any fight for rights


The first I ever came across the notion of free speech was in my teens, when I read about Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 1960s. Progressive students fought for the right to express their opinions on campus, paving the way for the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests that would spread to campuses around the continent.

Political activism is an integral part of campus life today; it's doubtful that would have happened had it not been for the '60s free speech movement. In that context, free speech was always about giving voice to those who have no voice, about giving some measure of power and influence to those who were deprived of it — and about sticking it to The Man.

Where would Martin Luther King, Jr. have been without the freedom to give the speeches he gave? Heck, would white people have ever even heard of Malcolm X were it not for freedom of speech? Or how about the role of gay pulp fiction in the early years of the fight for LGBTQ rights? Anywhere you look in history, you can see how freedom of speech — when it was seized by those who needed it most — empowered the downtrodden.

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The historical reality simply does not square up with my colleague's assertion that "free speech is too costly for the disenfranchised." A lack of free speech would have been much, much costlier.

Yet today, the progressive movement has come to see free speech as a threat. That is one element of what was so alarming about that anti-free speech opinion piece to me — it came from a perspective that is ignorant of the historical context, and importance, of freedom of expression. It ignores entirely the long history of those who have had to fight for the right to have a voice.

So why is the progressive movement turning away from free speech? It is without doubt a reaction to the successful co-opting of free-speech rhetoric by the social conservative and far-right movements. Over the past few decades, conservatives have adopted tactics of the left for their own purposes, including the use of the free-speech mantle to express their opinions. They have learned to use free speech as a moral bludgeon, to the frustration of the left.

The result is that now the "free speech movement" looks to many progressives like it belongs to the conservatives — if they see free speech being invoked, it's to further some conservative cause.

If you think marginalized groups have it bad in a world with free speech, just wait until you see what happens in a world without it.

And that is a failure of progressivism. The movement, in effect, lost control of the free-speech mantle to the right, so now it seeks to de-legitimize the entire concept; hence those quotation marks in my colleague's article.

But this is a trap that the progressive movement must not fall into. Nothing will make conservatives happier than watching progressives throw freedom of speech under the bus. Want to lose a political battle? Just look like the person who's trying to shut everyone else up.

Progressivism must retake the mantle of free speech. The alternative is sure to backfire in time. Any tool of for silencing a voice can be used to silence yours, too.

My colleague argued, in essence, that free speech is not worth defending because in a world with inequities, those with power will always have more access to the bully pulpit than those without.

That may be true. But if you think marginalized groups have it bad in a world with free speech, just wait until you see what happens in a world without it.

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