Abraham Lincoln—arguably the wisest president we’ve ever had—once said that America will never be destroyed from the outside. “If we falter and lose our freedoms,” he added, “it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Today, in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascendance to the highest office in the land, that statement seems truer than ever. I say this for a wide variety of reasons, from his reckless comments on the international stage to his hate-mongering at home. When he’s not advancing dangerous policies, moreover, he’s revealing astonishing and frightening ignorance. (“Who knew health care was so complicated?”) But there is one reason above all that I think Trump is the most dangerous president of my lifetime, and that is his blatant hostility to the First Amendment. It was evident at his rallies when he responded to protestors by calling on the crowd to “get ‘em outta here,” and it has been evident since the election with his repeated attacks on the news media as “the enemy of the people.”
Indeed, I will not be surprised if Trump—given a chance—attempts to push through a new version of The Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a crime to "willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States …" The act was used to convict at least 877 people in 1919 and 1920, according to a report by the attorney general.
The problem, however, neither begins nor ends with Trump. If there ever comes a time when we lose our First Amendment rights, the responsibility will lie with us. The First Amendment, after all, is not just the law of the land. It is an expression of the very soul of America. It is therefore important that we defend not only the letter of the law but its spirit.
Alas, the American people have not always been vigorous in its defense. In the months following 9/11, for example, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans believed that the First Amendment “went too far.” Support for our first freedoms eventually rebounded to some degree. Nevertheless, it remains clear that many Americans are all too willing to tolerate—if not advocate—censorship of speech or writing that offends them.
The impulse, I’m sorry to say, appears to be as strong on the left as it is on the right.
This has become abundantly clear in recent months, as college students on campuses across the country have pressured administrators to disinvite right-wing speakers like Ann Coulter. In many cases, moreover, when such people have been allowed to proceed, they have been shouted down.
As the great public intellectual Noam Chomsky once said, “If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.”
I couldn’t agree more—although I’ll acknowledge that adhering to this principle can sometimes be difficult.
Take, for example, the 1978 Supreme Court case that pitted the National Socialist Party of America (i.e., neo-Nazis) against the Village of Skokie, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. The conflict erupted when the neo-Nazi group made plans to march through the town where many Holocaust survivors were living.
It’s hard to think of anything more offensive. But The American Civil Liberties Union—which many people misperceive as a leftwing group—went to court in defense of the neo-Nazis. The ACLU lawyers understood that any threat to First Amendment rights is potentially a threat to all First Amendment rights. Some of the laws they cited in the group’s defense, in fact, were the very same laws the organization had cited in defense of civil rights marches.
As it happened, 1978 was the year I graduated from college and began working as a newspaper reporter in New York. When I learned about the case, I immediately joined the ACLU and have been a card-carrying member ever since. The virtue of the principle on which the organization stood was as clear to me then as it is now.
For this reason, I spend a lot of time in my classes at Old Dominion University talking about the history and importance of the First Amendment.
I find it unsettling that some college professors around the nation disagree with this point of view. To them, “hate speech” should not be tolerated.
Sometimes such people even target speech—and writing—that isn’t actually hate speech. Late last year, for example, the Accomack Public Schools temporarily suspended use of Huckleberry Finn in classrooms and libraries after a parent complained about the frequent appearance of the word “nigger” in the novel. This has happened many times before in other school districts, and it is always a reflection of ignorance. Huck Finn is actually one of the most important books about the evils of racism ever written in America.
The urgency of educating young people about such matters has never been more pressing, since the value of open debate and inquiry seems to have been lost on many young adults. In 2015, for example, a Pew Research poll found that four-in-10 millennials believed that “the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups …”
As I indicated earlier, I understand the impulse—these days, especially. Donald Trump’s rise to power has emboldened all manner of bigoted groups that hear the words “make America great again” as “make America white again”—white and “Christian.”
It is essential that we combat this hatred and scapegoating with every ounce of energy we can muster. But censorship is not the answer. On the contrary, if censorship of such speech were successful it would only serve to make it more powerful and seething by driving it underground. Sunlight, after all, is the best disinfectant. And what do we do once it’s out in the open? Simple: We counter speech with speech. That, after all, is our Constitutional right as well.