What is the range of free speech that makes it free speech?

The American Civil Liberties Union, of which I am a member, has a broad view about free speech, on the premise that it is only through freedom to speak as one chooses that flawed views can be effectively discredited. However, I do believe that the “Antifa” movement or the anarchistic groups against globalization who have mobilized groups and individuals to engage in destructive acts are a challenge to deal with. The idea that one has the right to oppose an abhorrent view with violence is contrary to the basic right of free speech, even where the abhorrent view is itself against that right. It is frustrating that these groups and/or individuals have infiltrated peaceful protests. Seattle in 1999 comes to mind, but also Geneva in 2004 among protestors against the G7 Summit in nearby Evian that year, or the G20 protestors in Hamburg this year. On the other hand, these are not advocates of the kind of racist, xenophobic and neo-Nazi views that we have heard from the groups that marched so aggressively in Charlottesville.

Is there, then, a “precious and necessary taboo”, as Jonathan Freedland has argued in The Guardian? Is there a category of off-limits ideas that have proven their evil scope? Is there a danger that allowing freedom of speech to express these views simply increases the numbers of people who might be swayed to agree? Is it the implicit endorsement of the “fine people” among these racists that gives them additional but unjustifiable credibility?

I don’t have an answer here. I do know that repression can also be a feeling of limitations to free speech. I have felt it in years past, riding an overnight bus from Washington, DC to Burlington, NC to spend a weekend with my fiancé. I could feel the pillows coming down around me, making me feel like there was no space to breathe. The bus riders were not segregated, but one could feel the racial tension, even on the bus, but certainly in the towns and rural areas that we visited. I was eventually elected to represent a North Carolina district in the State Senate but only because it was a multi-member district where the black vote gave me the edge. Later, when the Supreme Court ruled against multi-member districts, I was long gone from the political world of North Carolina but knew that I would never have been elected in either a predominantly white (too liberal) or a predominantly black (too white) district.

Again, after 9-11, I could feel the pillows coming down, but this time I even felt it in Boston and New York. It was the sound of the voice on the public address system or the light chatter of the morning shows on TV. There is an implicit range, it said to me, of views that are OK. Go beyond that range and you are betraying something – the very fabric of this not-so-free democracy. This particular set of pillows seems to have lifted a bit in recent visits to the US – definitely sitting up there above my head and ready to come tumbling down but with a sense of quietness for now. I haven’t been back yet under the presidency of the one we will not name, but I fear that the world of the “politically correct” has narrowed even more. Soon to test this.


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