The local media recently reported on a controversy at Purdue, where a professor had posted anti-gay opinions on his private website. Not long afterward, I had a call from a student who was curious about my opinion of the situation. She knew me as a strong proponent of equal rights, so she wanted to know what I thought about Purdue’s decision to do nothing about this expression of anti-gay animus.
As I told her, Purdue was exactly right.
The posting was not to an official Purdue site; there was no likelihood that the sentiments would be attributed to the University. It was a private opinion, expressed by someone with whom I strongly disagree. Purdue is a government entity; the whole point of the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause is to prohibit government from censoring or punishing people who say unpopular or disagreeable things.
To put it more bluntly, even jerks have First Amendment rights.
I spent six years as the Executive Director of the Indiana ACLU battling similar efforts to make the government control what others can read, hear or download. During that time, I attended a public meeting in Valparaiso, Indiana, where an angry proponent of an ordinance to “clean up” local video stores called me “a whore.” I was accused of abetting racism for upholding the right of the KKK to demonstrate at the Statehouse. I was criticized for failure to care about children when we objected to a proposal restricting minors’ access to library materials. In each of these cases, and dozens of others, the people who wanted to suppress materials generally had the best of motives: they wanted to protect others from ideas they believed to be dangerous. To them, I appeared oblivious to the clear potential for evil. At best, they considered me a naïve First Amendment “purist;” at worst, a moral degenerate.
Most of us, I hope, cringe when someone uses a racial or religious insult, or otherwise denigrates people based upon their race, religion or sexual orientation. But in a free society, the appropriate response is education, not suppression. It is more and better speech—not censorship.
Well-intentioned as some of these efforts may be, what they signal is a profound lack of respect for the rights of others to hold wrong opinions, or opinions contrary to our own.
When we are faced with expression that offends us—that is uncivil or unfair or hateful—we have an unfortunate tendency to confuse a defense of the speaker’s right to free speech with an endorsement of the contents of that speech. So an argument that government cannot—and should not—ban offensive videos, or the Klan’s despicable rhetoric, or hate speech directed at marginalized groups, is seen as an endorsement of the pornography or racism or other hateful sentiments. It isn’t.
America’s founders understood that ideas have consequences. They also understood a profound truth: giving government the power to decide what ideas are acceptable is much more dangerous than even the most dangerous idea.