by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
“Two things form the bedrock of any open society,” Salman Rushdie once noted, “freedom of expression and rule of law. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a free country.”
Well, in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, “How Free Speech Dogma Failed Us in Charlottesville,” Michael Signer, the former mayor of Charlottesville, makes the argument that restricting speech is necessary for the rule of law.
The first problem with Signer’s case is the premise itself. Sorry, but we have no uniquely pressing need to “keep pace” with violent or threatening “political disruptions.” Americans live in era of relatively little political violence. A person doesn’t even have to go back to the brutality of the1860s and 1870s to understand this; they can just look back at the 1960s and 1970s, or maybe even the 1990s. …
… Far-left demonstrators’ “vandalizing college campuses” in response to speakers they dislike are attempting to suppress speech, not engaging in speech. They are criminals whose actions make a great argument for free-speech absolutism and the rule of law. Does Signer believe that we should restrict speech to pacify the would-be criminal censor or placate the would-be bigot and murderer? That would set a destructive precedent for reasons beyond protecting speech. The Nazi who rammed his car into a crowd at the “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, murdering a woman and injuring dozens of others, was sentenced to over 400 years in jail, not given a say over how we mete out speech rights.
The bottom line is that once we start creating “rules” for speech — once we abandon the principled protection of content-neutral expression — our words will be subjected to the vagaries of politics, the biases of voters, and the interpretations of bureaucrats.