Chilling the hostility to free speech

Chilling the hostility to free speech
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Should you face fines or even jail time for having an unpopular opinion? In a country that enshrines the right to free speech, you would think not. But today a surprising number of Americans harbor hostility toward free speech.

New polling finds that 51 percent of Americans support rewriting the First Amendment, which secures the right to free speech, a free press, and freedom of religion, among other things. Worse, 48 percent would criminalize “hate speech” — however one defines that term — with most of those supporting possible jail time.

Americans are also souring on a free press.

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According to the same poll, 57 percent of Americans believe that governments should be able to take action against newspapers and television stations for their editorial content — and 36 percent of Americans support a government agency reviewing alternative media such as podcasts; less than half of Americans oppose this.

And the generational trend is more cause for concern. Millennials are the most hostile toward free speech. 

The results aren’t partisan. Conservatives would love to see CNN get its due; liberals feel likewise about Fox News. It’s a product of our polarized discourse.

We should all take a step back from the edge.

It’s easy to take what we have here in America for granted. But imagine you could be thrown in jail for giving your opinion on Facebook or a personal blog. Imagine that your local TV news could be sanctioned for reporting things that aren’t “approved” by the government.

Unfortunately, it’s a reality in other countries. And not just dictatorships like China. The UK and Canada do not have the same protections of free speech that we do. In those countries, controversial books that are printed in the U.S. may be held off the market due to publishers’ fears of lawsuits. One example is a book critical of the Church of Scientology — which is notoriously litigious — that was later turned into an HBO documentary.

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We have the ability to watch and read these and other controversial allegations and stories, and then make up our own minds. Other people don’t have this basic right.

This is what made America so unique when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written. Americans had the right to air their grievances, disagree with the government publicly, and the press had a right to freely speak their minds.

More than 200 years later, it’s just as vital as ever.

Today, however, some college campuses are stifling free speech rather than encouraging it, and cases that could forever alter the way free speech is addressed are heading through the court system.

This is why we are launching the Campaign for Free Speech, which brings together a bipartisan group of lawyers and other professionals that will work to push back against efforts to restrict speech and educate Americans about why free speech is vital to a free society. Without the ability to promote different ideas, we cannot have free minds.

Free speech does not mean there are no social consequences for speech. Certainly, people who spew odious things like racism will be condemned. But getting the government in the business of policing speech will only lead to silencing people.

What’s the solution to society’s hostility to free speech? It’s not a law. It’s us. The solution to speech we don’t like is more speech — not less.

Last month, the liberal Hollywood activist Alyssa Milano went to Washington, D.C. to meet with conservative U.S. Senator Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators at White House Senators confirm Erdoğan played 'propaganda' video in White House meeting MORE. The two discussed their differing views on gun control.

They didn’t change each other’s minds, but they did something better: Talk.

Reflecting on the discussion, Milano said: “[M]aybe we understand one another a little better. Here's what I came away with that I wasn't so sure of before the meeting: Ted Cruz is a human being… He isn't a villain in a movie.”

On both sides, we tend to villainize the other side. We tend to listen to news that reaffirms what we already believe instead of broadening our sources of information. With enough rancor and isolation, it leads to supporting restrictions on what the other side can say — whether we call it “fake news” or “hate speech.”

Free speech gives us the unique ability to have diversity of opinions at our fingertips, and to discern what’s true and what’s not for ourselves — Whatever we believe, let’s preserve that.

Robert D. Lystad has been a practicing First Amendment attorney for over 25 years and is the executive director of the Campaign for Free Speech.