When historians look back, I fear they’ll view the events of Charlottesville, Va., as a turning point, a crossing-the-Rubicon moment that preceded the inevitable fall of a great civil right.

Free speech is a right—a privilege, really—with an uncertain fate. The outcropping of press clippings questioning the efficacy and morality of unencumbered expression are a portentous sign.

The protection guaranteed by the First Amendment has always been threatened, or curtailed, in our country’s history. What transpired on the streets of Charlottesville is different. The gratuitous killing of Heather Heyer was awful enough–but it also provided plenty of fodder for those looking to curtail problematic political opinions.

This wouldn’t normally be an issue. But the general malaise that has beset the U.S., like a thick gray fog of discontent, has robbed the country of a robust defense of civic duty. The average American, it seems, is too distracted or burned out to take interest in the larger challenge of defining the public good. So it’s been left to the crazies, whose combined lack of volume control and employment make them perfect activists.

The First Amendment takes for granted a nation that implicitly supports it. Laws don’t matter when the larger society ignores them. As Scott Alexander writes, “Having free speech laws on the books is a necessary precondition, but it’s useless in the absence of social norms that support it.”

And as we’ve seen following Charlottesville, the country’s biggest and most dedicated institutions to the free flow of ideas and information are turning their backs on free speech. Facebook and Twitter announced a new wave of crackdowns on “hate speech” on their respective platforms. Google—whose power to shape public perception is unmatched—is wiping extremist websites from its logs. Paypal is cutting its indispensable service to distasteful groups.

The media has turned on itself, running commentary pieces questioning the need for open and free expression. The Washington Post ran an op-ed by Skidmore College professor Jennifer Delton supporting the silencing of controversial conservative speakers on college campuses. The New York Times printed a breathless tired by K-Sue Park (someone’s actual name) urging the American Civil Liberties Union to reconsider its stance on free speech.

Most alarmingly, the ACLU has taken the criticism to heart and is now questioning its foundational principle. After defending the right of white supremacists to gather in Charlottesville, the civil advocacy group is asking for forgiveness. One board member of the Virginia branch resigned in protest of the organization’s actions, tweeting, “What’s legal and what’s right are sometimes different.”

Taken together, these broadsides don’t bode well for the future of free expression in America. The cultural winds are blowing us closer toward Europe, where speech deemed hateful is proscribed and offenders are jailed. A U.K. man was just jailed for posting critical messages about Islam on Facebook.

Is there any doubt, after Charlottesville, that the left would eagerly embrace such Orwellian law enforcement?

Free speech stands on wobbly legs because some individuals chose to exercise their right for an evil. The swastika-clad marchers in Charlottesville knew their tiki torch promenade would be provocative. They were well within their rights to demonstrate; but, being within one’s rights doesn’t necessarily justify one’s actions. Feelings of racial superiority are a sin–that is especially so for white supremacy. The white race might have created the modern world, but it came pretty damn close to exterminating it.

That said, it doesn’t warrant the deep digs at free speech, and the growing movement to overhaul our understanding of what expression is protected and what isn’t. The sociologist Philip Rieff said societies are defined by a list of “thou shalt nots;” conventions and mores are usually the provenance of laws. In America, speech has never been totally free, not even in private conversation. As the great Roger Scruton has written, “In everyday conversation, it is not as a rule advisable that all aspects of a question be openly discussed, and laws of libel, public order, and sedition protect people from hurtful or provocative language.”

Those sensible limits present an opportunity to speech skeptics. Liberals want to expand the sphere of proscribed talk. Their efforts are destined to backfire, much like how the Communist Party U.S.A. backed the use of the Smith Act to persecute a Trotsky-aligned group during World War II, only to be convicted themselves years later under the same law.

History is a great teacher when you listen. Sadly, liberals are more attuned to their gut feelings than the struggles of their forebearers. It was once understood that giving your opponents the benefit of the law was reciprocal–they in turn would allow you the same benefit. As Robert Bolt’s Thomas More famously replied asked if he would give the Devil the benefit of the law, “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide….Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”

The anti-fascist left has ditched mutual benefit. Self-righteousness has infiltrated their ranks, divinizing their mission. In their holy crusade, cool reasoning is not a convincing force.

Does that mean the right should embrace free speech absolutism?

Conservatives are supposed to be wary of philosophical absolutes. The mini-bursts of hysteria displayed by the left at the hint of Nazism shows the dangers of ideological zealotry. Like a Hegelian dialectic gone awry, self-styled “antifa” must follow the inexorable logic of eliminating hatred, root and branch, from the world. So they cold-cock Trump supporters in the street and call it freedom fighting.

Lawful absolutes have a tendency to be taken too far, to the point of absurdity. But we’re living in absurd times right now, where speech is violence, facts are relative, biology is fake, and common ground recedes under our feet. Free speech absolutism may be necessary for the time being. Whether it’ll be enough to stem the tide of liberalism’s new illiberality is another question.

When historians look back, I fear they’ll view the events of Charlottesville, Va., as a turning point, a crossing-the-Rubicon moment that preceded the inevitable fall of a great civil right.

Free speech is a right—a privilege, really—with an uncertain fate. The outcropping of press clippings questioning the efficacy and morality of unencumbered expression are a portentous sign.

The protection guaranteed by the First Amendment has always been threatened, or curtailed, in our country’s history. What transpired on the streets of Charlottesville is different. The gratuitous killing of Heather Heyer was awful enough–but it also provided plenty of fodder for those looking to curtail problematic political opinions.

This wouldn’t normally be an issue. But the general malaise that has beset the U.S., like a thick gray fog of discontent, has robbed the country of a robust defense of civic duty. The average American, it seems, is too distracted or burned out to take interest in the larger challenge of defining the public good. So it’s been left to the crazies, whose combined lack of volume control and employment make them perfect activists.

The First Amendment takes for granted a nation that implicitly supports it. Laws don’t matter when the larger society ignores them. As Scott Alexander writes, “Having free speech laws on the books is a necessary precondition, but it’s useless in the absence of social norms that support it.”

And as we’ve seen following Charlottesville, the country’s biggest and most dedicated institutions to the free flow of ideas and information are turning their backs on free speech. Facebook and Twitter announced a new wave of crackdowns on “hate speech” on their respective platforms. Google—whose power to shape public perception is unmatched—is wiping extremist websites from its logs. Paypal is cutting its indispensable service to distasteful groups.

The media has turned on itself, running commentary pieces questioning the need for open and free expression. The Washington Post ran an op-ed by Skidmore College professor Jennifer Delton supporting the silencing of controversial conservative speakers on college campuses. The New York Times printed a breathless tired by K-Sue Park (someone’s actual name) urging the American Civil Liberties Union to reconsider its stance on free speech.

Most alarmingly, the ACLU has taken the criticism to heart and is now questioning its foundational principle. After defending the right of white supremacists to gather in Charlottesville, the civil advocacy group is asking for forgiveness. One board member of the Virginia branch resigned in protest of the organization’s actions, tweeting, “What’s legal and what’s right are sometimes different.”

Taken together, these broadsides don’t bode well for the future of free expression in America. The cultural winds are blowing us closer toward Europe, where speech deemed hateful is proscribed and offenders are jailed. A U.K. man was just jailed for posting critical messages about Islam on Facebook.

Is there any doubt, after Charlottesville, that the left would eagerly embrace such Orwellian law enforcement?

Free speech stands on wobbly legs because some individuals chose to exercise their right for an evil. The swastika-clad marchers in Charlottesville knew their tiki torch promenade would be provocative. They were well within their rights to demonstrate; but, being within one’s rights doesn’t necessarily justify one’s actions. Feelings of racial superiority are a sin–that is especially so for white supremacy. The white race might have created the modern world, but it came pretty damn close to exterminating it.

That said, it doesn’t warrant the deep digs at free speech, and the growing movement to overhaul our understanding of what expression is protected and what isn’t. The sociologist Philip Rieff said societies are defined by a list of “thou shalt nots;” conventions and mores are usually the provenance of laws. In America, speech has never been totally free, not even in private conversation. As the great Roger Scruton has written, “In everyday conversation, it is not as a rule advisable that all aspects of a question be openly discussed, and laws of libel, public order, and sedition protect people from hurtful or provocative language.”

Those sensible limits present an opportunity to speech skeptics. Liberals want to expand the sphere of proscribed talk. Their efforts are destined to backfire, much like how the Communist Party U.S.A. backed the use of the Smith Act to persecute a Trotsky-aligned group during World War II, only to be convicted themselves years later under the same law.

History is a great teacher when you listen. Sadly, liberals are more attuned to their gut feelings than the struggles of their forebearers. It was once understood that giving your opponents the benefit of the law was reciprocal–they in turn would allow you the same benefit. As Robert Bolt’s Thomas More famously replied asked if he would give the Devil the benefit of the law, “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide….Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”

The anti-fascist left has ditched mutual benefit. Self-righteousness has infiltrated their ranks, divinizing their mission. In their holy crusade, cool reasoning is not a convincing force.

Does that mean the right should embrace free speech absolutism?

Conservatives are supposed to be wary of philosophical absolutes. The mini-bursts of hysteria displayed by the left at the hint of Nazism shows the dangers of ideological zealotry. Like a Hegelian dialectic gone awry, self-styled “antifa” must follow the inexorable logic of eliminating hatred, root and branch, from the world. So they cold-cock Trump supporters in the street and call it freedom fighting.

Lawful absolutes have a tendency to be taken too far, to the point of absurdity. But we’re living in absurd times right now, where speech is violence, facts are relative, biology is fake, and common ground recedes under our feet. Free speech absolutism may be necessary for the time being. Whether it’ll be enough to stem the tide of liberalism’s new illiberality is another question.



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