April Fools! Learn Liberty is back in charge, and everything the Department of Careful Communications (DCC) said about censoring and redacting our content is moot.

The DCC targeted us because it was worried that some of our communications might offend or misrepresent some people—or lead to confusion or disorder. Specifically, the DCC criticized:

  • Our Speak Freely campaign, for potentially enabling some students to offend others.
  • A blog post about liberty and feminism, for making assumptions and possibly stereotyping.
  • A program about how we can fix America’s health care system, for pointing out the flaws in government-run healthcare and therefore undermining honest, if ineffective, work.

Wouldn’t it be great if all attempts to limit free speech were just an April Fool’s joke?

Unfortunately, they’re not. Many well-intentioned groups and individuals are trying to limit free speech, especially on college campuses. And the claims they make about free speech do contain an element of truth. Whether these claims by themselves tell the whole story is an entirely different matter.

Claim 1: People who speak freely make assumptions.

It’s just a human thing. No one person knows everything, so everyone is going to make some assumptions or foster some thought patterns that may be incorrect or even offensive (That goes for even the most powerful individuals in government too, by the way).

The best way to get people to correct their assumptions is to let them speak their minds. When their ideas are aired out in public, they’re going to have to defend them, to sharpen them, to substantiate them. This process is a little messier, but way healthier, than just having individual authorities in government pick a set of assumptions that everyone must agree to adopt.

Claim 2: Free speech can be offensive.  

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Whoever first coined that phrase is just wrong. Words are a powerful weapon that can be used for evil or for good, and there’s no doubt that offensive speech is unpleasant, and even hurtful. But as Professor Tom Bell notes:

You don’t have to like offensive speech. In fact, you should feel free to vigorously denounce and criticize speech that you see is wrong, but when people resort to force to prevent or restrict expressions that they disagree with, they undermine the very principles of freedom and tolerance that they claim to defend. When we allow the open expression of hateful opinions, we create opportunities to publicly refute them.

Bell adds:

When authority sees the power to silence offensive views, they also have necessity sees the power to silence dissenting and minority views. In effect, censors pursue a policy of ignorance by design, that’s why smart societies respect freedom of expression, even when, especially when it causes discomfort and offense.

Wouldn’t you rather be engaging in the public dialogue, contributing to the evolution of ideas, and advocating for what you believe in—instead of letting an outside authority set all of the rules?

Claim 3: Free speech impacts the listener.

We talk about free speech all the time as though the listener was just some passive observer who gets hit with assertions. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. The person on the receiving end is taking that information, processing it, and coming to his or her own judgement.

And just as we fight for the privilege to speak, we should also fight for that right to hear, process, and challenge the ideas we are exposed to. We have a right to use that new information to sharpen what we already believe or to change our minds based on the information we are receiving.

Claim 4: Free speech requires commitment to critical thinking.

It’s really concerning that free speech is being challenged so strongly at college campuses right now. The academic world isn’t supposed to be “safe;” they’re supposed to be where the best ideas emerge. And that means discussing the ideas that matter as if they matter.

Claim 5: Free speech is dangerous and disorderly.

When people speak out against the problems that they see around them, it doesn’t exactly guarantee an orderly society, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee a society where the government’s always in control.

But then again, who wants to just settle for doing things the way they’ve always been done? Growing pains are uncomfortable, but necessary..

So let’s all engage in respectful but frank dialogue—one in which we are open to the perspectives of others, no matter how much we might disagree.