America

The Constitution Does Not Protect Freedom of Speech


- May 17th, 2019
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Around the inner rotunda of the Rhode Island state capitol stands this quotation from Tacitus: Rara temporum felicitas ubi sentire quae velis et quae sentias dicere licet. “Rare happiness of the times,” said the sardonic republican, “when it is permitted to think what you will and speak what you think.” Rare indeed.

Let us concede for the sake of argument that freedom of political speech in the broadest sense is a good thing, speech that bears not only upon whom we should elect to public office and what laws they should pass, but upon what is good and bad, true and false, wise and foolish.

Americans believe that that freedom is secured by constitutional provisions. They are wrong. Such freedom, such latitude for seeking the truth and securing the common good, must live within the hearts, the minds, and the cultural habits of a people. Otherwise it is dead, even while the constitutional provisions continue, like soulless automata, or the living dead.

The provisions march on, blindly and aimlessly, granting liberty to pornographers on principle, a mistaken principle as I believe, while ordinary people are ever more forbidden to think what they will and speak what they think, even about such ordinary things as what a marriage is, or what a man or a woman is and what they are for.

The phenomenon is, strangely enough, nowhere more evident than when the word “community” is invoked, like a talisman; and the undead shakes the dirt from his grave.

Where are true communities to be found? A communitas implies a place and identifiable members, sharing duties and benefits in common: think of a commons, or a town hall, or a public ball field. The community chest gathers donations from everyone in town, to disburse them to individual charities or to the poor according to their needs and the capacity of the whole. A Greek polis is a community, but a community need not be “political” in that specific sense. Your local parish is a community, or it should be. People who come together to build and operate a school form a community. An old-fashioned guild of shoemakers, ensuring quality of work, honoring their patron on Saint Crispin’s Day, and providing for their widows and orphans, form a community.

Such communities may require the awkwardly put “community standards” from their members, and these may be helpful or harmful, sensible or merely self-righteous and snobbish, as the case may be, and if you don’t like East Podunk, whose zoning laws will not permit bright orange houses, you may move to West Podunk, land of the garish. But in the absence of a real community, to call upon “community standards” is to establish an excuse for censoriousness, intolerance, and mendacity.

When I was a professor at Providence College, we used to receive messages from the administration, containing the words “Providence College community.” Mostly I ignored the phrase, as one of those pleasant fictions that the bureaucratic among us have enjoyed since the days of Orwell. The word “community” added nothing to the meaning. It was a smiley face in the margins, suggesting, “Here you are to have a feeling,” a tenth of a degree warmer than usual. For there were 4,000 students, transient of course, 250 professors, hundreds of staff members, at least 100 adjuncts, also transient, and nobody could know even a small percentage of all those people, by face or by reputation or by family.

Even so, you might attain some measure of community if you all shared a fundamental belief in God, regardless if you worshiped together; or if you all believed that the point of education was to discover the truth, regardless of what you thought the truth to be. But the school, like most others, was stocked with atheists and agnostics, some professed, some so by the sheer acedia of a life devoted to avarice, prestige, and hedonism. And the very idea that there is a truth to discover outside of the province of the slide-rule and the microscope was not only controversial but condemned by many as downright oppressive and wicked.

So there was no community. Why appeal to it, then, other than as a psychological hiccup? To shut down the expression of beliefs that those in power do not like. Hence it was that a professor of politics, while students nodded like puppets, delivered herself of the remarkable opinion that although the object of her public loathing (me) enjoyed academic freedom, that freedom must be used “responsibly,” according to community standards. The inversion was complete. Someone who does not believe in objective moral truth, and who therefore in moral debates cannot use her academic freedom “responsibly,” condemns someone else who does believe in objective moral truth, who seeks it, who declares what he believes he has seen, and who therefore can have cause to speak of what is responsibly or irresponsibly done.

Recently, four people, one of them an enfant terrible of conservative discourse, Milo Yiannopoulos, were banned from the public space provided by the Piranha Brothers, controllers of Facebook, for violating the unwritten law. Again, “community standards” were invoked. But there is no community. Facebook has become a gigantic public utility, like the telephone companies. There is no Facebook jamboree. Facebook has no fish-fry and clam bake. Facebook does not gather funds from little faces everywhere to succor the faceless. There are many thousands of what we might call notional Facebook commons, whereby people who are far-flung in geography write to one another about the topics of the times. These notional communities have little or nothing to do with one another, and nothing at all to do with Facebook, no more than conference calls have to do with Skype.

What can the Piranha Brothers possibly mean to convey, then, when they nailed Yiannapoulos’ head to the floor? It can have nothing to do with a “community.” It has to do instead with a desire that certain kinds of notional communities should be constrained or should not exist at all.

Hence the Piranha Brothers will permit you to put your ignorance of religion and your contempt for religious people on full display, all day long and every day of the week; the spike will never penetrate your temple. But they will not permit you to say, bluntly, that a man who believes he is a woman is in the grip of a delusion. If someone complains, out you go, and out goes your “community” or your portion thereof.

We must expect more of this in the future: people whose intolerance and censoriousness rises in proportion as their faith fades and their longing for the truth grows dull. We will hear the word “community” every day, and never see the real and living thing. We will have the Constitution, neither alive nor dead, but undead, and people who are afraid to let slip the wrong truth at work will continue to believe that they live in a free nation.

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