How We Can Restrict Free Speech and Be Just as Free as Canada

By Tom Gilson Published on December 31, 2017

Noah Berlatsky, writing for the NBC News page Think, says the First Amendment is probably too broad, and that there’s a case now for America to restrict free speech. It’s fine, he says: We can do that and be just as free as Germany, Sweden and Canada.

If that sounds good to you, keep reading.

What he seems to mean by freedom is that we can remain free to say things he and other progressives agree with. I’m okay with his advice that we stand up against white supremacists, for example. But how? If they use violence, we have ways to deal with that through the police and the courts. If they speak nonsense, should we respond the same way? And would the same rules apply to Antifa or Black Lives Matter? Is there some good reason he singles out white supremacists here?

Now, that’s real freedom! Just ask any leftist.

He objects to Milo Yiannopoulos’s harassing a trans student. Sure, Yiannopoulos’s behavior is abhorrent (language warning). No one should be treated that way. If Berlatsky had called him out for indecent treatment of a fellow human being he’d have been on the right track. He didn’t do that, though. He said instead that no trans student should be treated that way. Mere human dignity isn’t enough for leftists like Berlatsky.

Regulating “Hate Speech”?

I’d like to be able to see Berlatsky in a better light, if I could. But it sure sounds like he thinks certain opinions are out of bounds and should be regulated. “Many free speech advocates are willing to try to balance free speech harms and free speech goods” he says, “except, it seems, when it comes to hate speech against marginalized communities.”

But as every aware person knows, “hate speech” doesn’t really mean hate speech. It means speech that contradicts beliefs held among designated “marginalized communities,” including of course LGBTQ, and their practices.

Indeed, it’s not the First Amendment that’s too broad, it’s our culture’s current conception of “hate speech.” Tighten that up to include only speech that’s truly damaging (and broaden it to include speech affecting more than just the left’s favored groups), and I’d be willing to tighten up the First Amendment to restrict people from using it. Except as Berlatsky admits, we’re pretty much there already: we have laws and precedent on the books even now restricting truly damaging speech.

To Be Just as Free as Canada and Sweden!

And how would we enforce his proposed new restrictions on free speech? Wouldn’t our country start looking like Orwell’s 1984? No, says Berlatsky, calling upon a quote from Richard Delgado, co-author of a new book advocating limits on the First Amendment. Delgado says we’d “look like France, Germany, The Netherlands, Canada or Sweden, all of whom regulate hate speech but where the political climate is just as free and healthy as our own, if not more so.”

We could be just that free, too! More free than we are now, even! Free to express any opinion that Berlatsky and others like him find acceptable.

Ah, yes, Canada, where C16 provides legal penalties for “mis-gendering” another person. Where people with traditional views on marriage and morality are barred from adopting, and may soon be barred from practicing law. Where a pro-life politician was barred from chairing a commission because of her “outrageous” views. Where a government agency wants to force foster parents to tell children that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are real. Where religious liberty is fast eroding, in other words.

And just try home schooling in Sweden or Germany. (No, don’t. It doesn’t go over so well there.)

We could be just that free, too! More free than we are now, even! Free to express any opinion that Berlatsky and others like him find acceptable. And free to be fined for saying anything else. Or to have our foster kids taken away. Or to give up our hopes of following a profession like the law. Now, that’s real freedom! Just ask any leftist.

Better Our Imperfect World Than the Utopia He Imagines

Free speech isn’t protected in the Constitution to protect language judged “acceptable,” whether from the left’s perspective or the right’s, or from any other interest group’s point of view. It’s there to protect unpopular speech. It’s there to promote civil disagreement and fruitful controversy.

I get the sense that Berlatsky has a perfect world in view, where no one disagrees and everyone gets along. Of course that means no one disagrees with his preferred viewpoint. It’s a utopian vision, with a clearly totalitarian bent to it, despite his disclaimers.

But we have an imperfect world instead, so we have the First Amendment to promote the kind of disagreement and dialogue that can move us toward truth. And for my part I’d much rather live in this real, imperfect world of ours than his “perfect” one.


Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Christ, released in December 2017. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.

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