Why I Support Free Speech Absolutism (Even After Charlottesville)

Why I Support Free Speech Absolutism (Even After Charlottesville)

A defense of an unobstructed first amendment
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The previous semester, I had the good fortune to take a class on constitutional law, specifically the first amendment. In that class, I garnered the nickname ‘Justice Black’ after Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, a major figure in first amendment law. Justice Black achieved his immense stature in first amendment law by articulating the idea of free speech absolutism or the idea that there should be as few restraints as possible on the exercise of the first amendment. As I learned more within the class, I quickly saw the wisdom in absolutism and became its staunchest defender in the class.

Now the reasons I support and continue to believe in free speech absolutism are divided between the ideological abstract and inherently practical.

The banner of free speech has long been the bulwark to which advocates for social change and critics of the government have rallied. Forces of both good and ill have used it as a beacon to promote their cause and attract new members. They have also used it as a shield to protect themselves when their actions draw the ire of authorities. It’s the unevenness of this protection that has so captivated critics of the first amendment. It is indeed true the first amendment is not a perfect defense against tyranny. Its paper armor gives poor protection from police clubs and assassins bullets. Nor are its judicial foot soldiers the fiercest or most heroic of defenders. Far too often their help has come far too late for those fighting on the front lines for a cause.

But while these are tragic moments they do not detract from the power of the first amendment largely because it does not come from the arena of the streets, but in the court of public opinion. An excellent demonstration of this is the case of MLK and the civil rights movement. Civil rights protestors used the first amendment strategically as one of their primary methods of challenging segregation and resisting attempts at silencing them. Now, this did not spare them from the fire hoses and attack dogs that harassed them, or from the police forces and Klan gangs that intimidated them, nor did it stop the shot that ultimately killed MLK. But, when America tuned in to watch protestors peacefully marching being treated in such a callous and spiteful manner, the court of public opinion swiftly found for the protestors. In an era where protestors still come under intense assault for activism, these lessons serve as an important road map for success.

I will be among the first to admit that neo-Nazis and other white nationalists have nothing meaningful to really contribute to political life save one thing. They make an excellent canary in the coalmine as to the status of free speech and other civil liberties in society. On the surface it seems impossible that Nazis of all people could be the ones who preform this vital social function, but when one factor in their almost mystical ability to piss off virtually everyone it begins to make sense. Considering white supremacists constant tirades against minorities, our government, and virtually every aspect of civilization it’s a miracle that they are allowed to speak at all, indeed in many countries, they would be silenced, yet we allow them to speak anyway. We do this because the positive from allowing them to speak, allowing a reasonable person to make legitimate criticisms, far out weighs the negative of their worthless rhetoric.

In considering the merits of allowing some opinions to be voiced and others to be silenced, it's important to reflect on what a fear of criticism reveals about a movement. A group that is confident in itself and its ideals does not need to shy away from opponents; it trusts that it is right and that its arguments are strong enough to weather any storm of opposition. Nazis and other authoritarians stifle criticism because at their heart they are all fundamentally weak and they cannot have the truth of their unbearable weakness revealed to the world. The truth, of course, comes out anyway because there reaches a point when their weakness becomes so great that no amount of intimidating, torturing, or disappearing can hide it any longer. As satisfying as shutting up opponents is it is still the most immature form of social discourse. True moral and political strength comes from trusting that your side is right and that you will be vindicated by history.

If abstract theorizing is not your style in deciding on a course of political action then allow me to present a set of a more practical reason for supporting free speech absolutism.

On the practical side of things, it would do activists a great deal of benefit if they were to take pause and fully consider who would be in charge of censoring speech if they go their way. Currently, that burden would fall to one Donald J. Trump, a man who virtually every liberal in the country despises and fears. It would not be just Trump that would have this awesome power to silence people though, Jeff Sessions, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the legion of other right wing leaders would have this immense power and they have not been shy in implying who they would use it on. It is a serious question to consider how long liberal groups such as BLM would last if the full power of government authority was let loose.

Finally, if none of the above reasons both abstract and practical are enough to convince you of the merits of free speech absolutism, then let me issue this last chilling response. My opponents argue that the threat Nazis pose to free society renders them beyond the protection of free speech but I ask you a question “Which is more dangerous a Nazi marching on the street or a Nazi in hiding?” A Nazi on the street is a terrible and disturbing thing, but it is visible, it is a known threat you can watch and gauge how strong they are while developing a course of action. A Nazi in hiding, on the other hand, is an unknown, you have no way of knowing how strong they are or what they are up to as they plot in basements and lurk on internet forums until it’s too late.

Nazis and their ilk are the ultimate tests of our civil liberties as they force us to confront the darkest parts of ourselves, but we shall always be stronger if we force those parts out in to the open and expose them for all their worth.

Cover Image Credit: Chet Strange

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Austin Alexander Burridge, Volunteer Advocate, Shares 3 Great Reasons to Volunteer and Help Others

Austin Alexander Burridge is an avid academic who studies Environmental Science at Winona State University and believes that work in the service of others is a key pillar to personal development.

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Sometimes it's easy for someone to adopt a "me, me, me" attitude. While focusing on oneself, a person may feel nice in the moment, but serving and helping others will bring lasting benefits. While there are many great reasons to serve and help others, there are three universal truths that resonate with volunteers around the globe.

Austin Alexander Burridge's 3 Reasons to Volunteer:

1. Accomplishment

Often, people fall into a trap of focusing on themselves when they are feeling down. Maybe someone did not get a job they wanted. Or perhaps a person gets dumped by an expected lifelong companion. Maybe someone feels they have underachieved after looking at Facebook and seeing great things a high school classmate has accomplished. When feeling down, helping others is a proven way to improve one's mood and attitude, and it can provide a sense of pride and accomplishment. The act of giving to those in need is an inherently good action and leaves people with a wonderful feeling of joy.

2. Gratitude

One can become more appreciative of life by serving others that have less. Whether volunteering at a soup kitchen, visiting the elderly at an assisted living center, or helping families after a natural disaster, service enables people to be grateful for what they have. Seeing people who have fewer advantages, especially those who are spirited and thankful for small things, allows one to realize just how fortunate he/she is in life.

3. Friendships

Volunteering is a great way to build meaningful friendships, not only with other volunteers but also with those who are served. One of the most profound and fascinating aspects of these relationships is how volunteers will learn from those served and vice versa. As these special bonds are built, they lead to impactful connections that last for years to come.

Of course, these are just a few reasons to volunteer and serve others. One can never go wrong by helping others as opposed to merely focusing on oneself. Volunteering invariably and inevitably contributes to personal growth, development, and satisfaction.

About Austin Alexander Burridge: Helping others has been of paramount importance to Austin, and as a part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), Austin gave back to the community around him. He also has participated in annual peanut butter drives, The Minnesota Sandwich Project for the Homeless and collected canned goods for local food shelters. Additionally, Austin has a passion for the environment, which he pursued when visiting the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, and the Amazon Rain Forest while studying at the School of Environment Studies, which investigates ecological systems and their sustainability

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Saying You "Don't Take Political Stances" IS A Political Stance

All you're doing by saying this is revealing your privilege to not care politically, and here's why that's a problem.

bethkrat
bethkrat
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I'm sure all of us know at least one person who refuses to engage in political discussions - sure, you can make the argument that there is a time and a place to bring up the political happenings of our world today, but you can't possibly ignore it all the time. You bring up the last ridiculous tweet our president sent or you try to discuss your feelings on the new reproductive regulation bills that are rising throughout the states, and they find any excuse to dip out as quickly as possible. They say I don't talk about politics, or I'm apolitical. Well everyone, I'm here to tell you why that's complete bullsh*t.

Many people don't have the luxury and privilege of ignoring the political climate and sitting complacent while terrible things happen in our country. So many issues remain a constant battle for so many, be it the systematic racism that persists in nearly every aspect of our society, the fact that Flint still doesn't have clean water, the thousands of children that have been killed due to gun violence, those drowning in debt from unreasonable medical bills, kids fighting for their rights as citizens while their families are deported and separated from them... you get the point. So many people have to fight every single day because they don't have any other choice. If you have the ability to say that you just don't want to have anything to do with politics, it's because you aren't affected by any failing systems. You have a privilege and it is important to recognize it.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."

We recognize that bad people exist in this world, and we recognize that they bring forth the systems that fail so many people every single day, but what is even more important to recognize are the silent majority - the people who, by engaging in neutrality, enable and purvey the side of the oppressors by doing nothing for their brothers and sisters on the front lines.

Maybe we think being neutral and not causing conflict is supposed to be about peacekeeping and in some way benefits the political discussion if we don't try to argue. But if we don't call out those who purvey failing systems, even if it's our best friend who says something homophobic, even if it's our representatives who support bills like the abortion ban in Alabama, even if it's our president who denies the fact that climate change is killing our planet faster than we can hope to reverse it, do we not, in essence, by all accounts of technicality side with those pushing the issues forward? If we let our best friend get away with saying something homophobic, will he ever start to change his ways, or will he ever be forced to realize that what he's said isn't something that we can just brush aside? If we let our representatives get away with ratifying abortion bans, how far will the laws go until women have no safe and reasonable control over their own bodily decisions? If we let our president continue to deny climate change, will we not lose our ability to live on this planet by choosing to do nothing?

We cannot pander to people who think that being neutral in times of injustice is a reasonable stance to take. We cannot have sympathy for people who decide they don't want to care about the political climate we're in today. Your attempts at avoiding conflict only make the conflict worse - your silence in this aspect is deafening. You've given ammunition for the oppressors who take your silence and apathy and continue to carry forth their oppression. If you want to be a good person, you need to suck it up and take a stand, or else nothing is going to change. We need to raise the voices of those who struggle to be heard by giving them the support they need to succeed against the opposition.

With all this in mind, just remember for the next time someone tells you that they're apolitical: you know exactly which side they're on.

bethkrat
bethkrat

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