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if freedom of speech is your best defense, you have a problem

21 January 2017

Let’s keep this short and sweet. I love freedom of speech at least as much as the next person. Possibly more. Back in high school my civics teacher would, between classes, slip me publications on the First Amendment to study, because she’d noticed it was one of the only topics that consistently captured my interest.

Freedom of speech is still close to my heart, but lately I’ve been noticing that in this position I have some unpleasant company. Certain ascendant voices in our media are citing freedom of speech like it’s some sort of talisman meant to protect them from criticism for the unmitigated vitriol they spew in every direction.

Let’s make something very clear: Freedom of speech is necessary to any healthy modern society. It is a cornerstone. But if someone challenges you on what you’re using it to say and your best response is, “I have freedom of speech!”, then you’re effectively saying you can’t think of any better defense for what you’re doing than “You can’t make me stop.”

This is not to say freedom of speech isn’t important. It is colossally important, and it is important precisely because if you are free to say whatever you want, then in principle nothing is stopping you from saying what you feel to be most valuable. Freedom of speech gives you a chance to put into the world just about anything can think of. The hope is that given this freedom you’ll try to find something positive to say and add something worthwhile to the world.

But, if in using this inalienable right you manage to get enough people mad at you that you have to defend yourself, and if when that happens all you can think of to say is, “well, it wasn’t illegal”, then you’ve got some bigger problems. To be specific: in the immortal words of the Dude,