The Collegian
Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Liberal Case for Free Expression

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

Over the past four years, I have been fighting for the University of Richmond to produce a statement that broadly protects expressive rights for all members of our campus community. The administration convened a committee to address the issue and this Task Force on Freedom of Expression recently developed a draft statement on free expression. I think that the statement is an excellent articulation of our values as a liberal arts institution and I strongly encourage the campus community to read and adopt the statement. 

The proposed statement has not gone unchallenged. For example, some argue that we should not broadly protect speech on the grounds that it can pose an acute threat to the sense of belonging of minority groups and may even harm social justice initiatives. The argument is that speech has power and with that power comes the capacity to inflict harm on others. Moreover, there is a power imbalance with certain dominant groups and perspectives being able to control conversations and narratives while marginalized groups are left to bear the burden of defending their identities and place on campus. In short, this argument says free speech disadvantages minority groups more than it advantages them.

This argument deserves to be taken seriously and leaves us to ask whether a culture of free expression is able to realize the values of social justice and our institutional values of inclusivity. I argue that it can, and I agree with Donald Downs, who wrote in his book “Free Speech and Liberal Education” that “social justice without liberal rights is oxymoronic.” Free speech and inclusion are necessarily interdependent, and we cannot have one without the other. Here are some claims about why threats to free speech are threats to social justice.

The power to censor speech on the basis of who is in power allows policies to be used against minorities or those who express unorthodox views.

The key aim of promoting free speech in law is to reduce institutional authority to punish speech violations. In other words, this ideal seeks to decentralize power and place power in the hands of everyone who is entitled to speak. 

U.S. history has left us with pervasive structures of institutionalized racism, sexism, classism and homophobia where government power has historically been directed against traditionally marginalized perspectives to silence them. It is dangerous to concentrate the power to regulate speech in the hands of authorities who may have explicit or implicit biases and are inculcated with institutional biases. For example, legal scholar Maleiha Malik in her article “Extreme Speech and Liberalism” writes that legislation of hate speech can actually pose a threat to minority groups. Malik notes that certain speech regulations are “used more frequently to criminalize the speech of minorities rather than protect them from hate speech.” 

This concern has been realized on college campuses. The University of Michigan implemented a speech code to limit hate speech and other types of expressive activity. Predictably, the policy was turned against minority students, with 20 cases of Black students being charged by white students for offensive speech. The ACLU found that a Black student was actually charged and punished for using the term “white trash” in conversation with a white student, according to The Atlantic. Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, points out, “It’s risky to assume that institutional authorities can be empowered to suppress the expression of odious views on issues such as race and gender, without that license someday being used to stamp out the views of those advocating social justice, challenging officialdom or demanding reform.”

Free speech supports civil rights more than censorship.

Free speech was the bastion of the Civil Rights Movement. Courageous leaders expressed views that posed a deep threat to the evil status quo. If those in power had had the ability to censor these types of opinions then they would have and would have obstructed moral progress. This is a major reason why Civil Rights leaders were some of the strongest proponents of free speech. 

Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” 

John Lewis powerfully said, “If it had not been for the press, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.” 

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These men were fully aware of the abusive nature of speech. They weathered vile epithets and the expression of repugnant views that offended human dignity. Yet, they knew that their just cause would only be secure when their speech and the speech of their opponents was protected.

Censoring in the name of social justice can become narrowly and dogmatically focused and end up consuming liberals and liberal causes.

When the power to censor opinions we find distasteful is on the table, we should immediately worry about the natural tendency of overreach to harm allies. For instance,  David Shor was an analyst at Civis Analytics, a progressive consulting firm. He tweeted an article by a Princeton professor that found that race riots reduced the Democratic vote share. Shor was criticized on Twitter for simply sharing the article and was later fired from his job. 

People have different conceptions of social justice, and when censoring speech broadly in the name of social justice is conceded as justifiable there will be the natural tendency to narrow more dogmatically the range of orthodox opinion. Last year, Tulane canceled a talk by an esteemed author about anti-racism that focused on anti-racism and confronting the harmful legacy of white supremacy. The cancellation was influenced by pressure from students who labeled the event as “violent towards the experience of Black people in the Tulane community and our country,” as reported in Reason.  The drive toward orthodoxy is a threat to social justice because individuals are fallible and censorship will likely lead to censorship of ideas that advance social justice causes.

Censoring the speech of those opposed to liberal causes does nothing to change their positions or educate them.

I have never met or heard of a single person who changed their beliefs through censorship. However, I have met many people who have changed their beliefs, myself included, through dialogue. In fact, I see speech regulations as working to harden misguided positions and entrench a perspective of “us versus them” while contributing to an atmosphere of increased polarization. 

It is too easy to dismiss the ideas of others that are offensive, immoral and repugnant. It is much harder to engage in dialogue to challenge and educate those with whom we disagree in a way that does not lecture them.

A university is supposed to educate its students and prepare them to enter a democratic society. If UR regulates speech, we are sacrificing both an opportunity to educate and practice the crucial skill of dialogue. 

In his book Kindly Inquisitors, Jonathan Rauch writes: “Our greatest enemy is not irrational hate, which is pretty uncommon. It is rational hate, hate premised upon falsehood. (If you believe homosexuality poses a threat to your children, you will hate it.) The main way we eliminate hate is not to legislate or inveigh against it, but to replace it – with knowledge, empirical and ethical.” This is the true path to social justice, the convincing of others to join a more rational and moral society.

An effective way to pursue this course is through deep canvassing or engaging with individuals in deep conversations that build a shared sense of empathy. This video shows deep canvassing at work and offers a standard we should all strive to realize when trying to convince others.

Although these arguments all help to illustrate how the causes of free speech and social justice are intertwined, they do not claim that free speech is without its costs. While free speech advances moral progress over time it does not do so instantaneously. We must always remember that there are real people who suffer harm from speech as we strive to realize a more just society. 

Additionally, the burden of advancing social justice and deep canvassing with people usually falls on minority groups themselves, who historically have had to bear the burdens relating to systemic oppression. These are not reasons to give up on free speech, because that would be giving up on the cause of social justice. However, these concerns do provide an obligation for the majority to step in and share the burdens. We have the responsibility to elevate marginalized voices and make sure that they are heard and sharpen our skills in persuasion so that we can realize a more just and moral world. Therefore, passing the statement on free expression is an excellent starting point on a longer road I hope our whole campus community is willing to travel.

Contact opinions writer Alec Greven at

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