Dear Millennials, Stop Trying To Control Free Speech

by John Haltiwanger
Guille Faingold

Dear Millennials,

We need to talk.

I'd like to start by saying I'm proud to count myself a member of not only the largest and most diverse generation in US history but also one of the most socially conscious.

We're an optimistic generation caring deeply about the world and, particularly, equality and justice. It's inspiring to be a part of such a dynamic and passionate group.

But, sometimes, people take their passions for causes, even good ones, too far. I'm very concerned so many Millennials are seemingly supportive of limiting free speech as this could have immense consequences for public discourse and the education of future generations.

According to Pew Research Center, 40 percent of Millennials believe the government should be allowed to prevent speech offensive to minorities.

Comparatively, only 27 percent of people aged 35 to 50 agree such a policy should be implemented, and support for it diminishes even further with older generations.

On college campuses, these sentiments appear to be even stronger. Catherine Rampell of The Washington Post recently stated,

Today's students are indeed both more left wing and more openly hostile to free speech than earlier generations of collegians.

For 50 years, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles surveyed incoming college freshmen about their majors and political perspectives. The 2015 survey looked at 141,189 full-time first year students at nearly 200 public and private baccalaureate institutions around the country.

Of the freshmen surveyed this past fall, around 71 percent expressed support for the notion "colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus.”

Students were asked to give their views on this issue in the past, but this is the highest level of support ever recorded for such a policy.

It seems this generation is more comfortable with policing free speech than any that came before it.

For those of you who might think banning offensive speech would be beneficial, I understand where you're coming from as I too would like to live in a tolerant and progressive society where people are not oppressed and ostracized via hurtful language.

But, I'm not sure if you're considering the broader implications of supporting limits on free speech and how treacherous a road it can be.

Protecting free speech is essential to the health of any democracy, and just because we don't like what someone is saying doesn't mean we can or should prevent him or her from saying it.

In the late 1970s, the American Civil Liberties Union, among the most respected non-partisan organizations in the US, took one of the most controversial stances in its history.

The ACLU is known for its unwavering defense of individual rights and liberties, particularly those of minorities. In 1977, it shocked the country when it made the bold decision to defend the rights of a neo-Nazi group that wanted to march through Skokie, Illinois, a Chicago suburb where a large population of Holocaust survivors lived.

Why would the ACLU stand in defense of such an abhorrent cause? It did for one simple yet profound reason: It believed free speech (and the right to assembly) should not be limited under any circumstances.

The residents of Skokie attempted to prevent the march, arguing it would "incite or promote hatred against persons of Jewish faith or ancestry" and could lead to violent backlash.

Ultimately, the ACLU won the case, which went all the way to the US Supreme Court, but the neo-Nazis never marched through Skokie. Regardless, this stands as one of the most powerful defenses of free speech in US history.

The ACLU defended the neo-Nazis by invoking laws it cited during the Civil Rights era on behalf of protestors when cities in the American South attempted to prevent civil rights marches by arguing these events would instigate violence and public disruption.

In doing so, the ACLU reminded the country if you prevent one group from marching because you don't like what it stands for, you set a precedent in which all groups are in danger of being silenced and denied fundamental rights.

Geoffrey R. Stone is currently the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Back in the late '70s, when he was a young law professor, he assisted the ACLU with the Skokie case.

In an article for Huffington Post, he explained,

If the village of Skokie had won... then southern communities who wanted to prosecute civil rights marchers in Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham could equally do so, on the plea that such demonstrations would trigger 'uncontrollable violence.' Moreover, once government gives in to such threats of violence it effectively invites a 'heckler's veto,' empowering any group of people who want to silence others to do so simply by threatening to violate the law.

What's deemed appropriate in terms of public expression is often determined by those in power.

Throughout history, those with power oppressed countless groups by contending their languages or forms of expression were dangerous to the public good.

Indeed, limiting free speech has long been a tool of totalitarian regimes, used to quell opposition and dissent. But such actions only served to stifle the intellectual development of societies and force people to live in fear of being their truest selves.

Correspondingly, we must note the surest means of preventing recurrences of past atrocities are via education. This inevitably involves discussing hateful words and rhetoric.

Students might find such language offensive, but their personal feelings are ultimately not as important as ensuring we all fully comprehend the horrors of such institutions as enslavement in the US or such abhorrent events as the Holocaust.

The most well-known political phrase surrounding the Holocaust is "never forget" as remembrance (education) is the world's most powerful weapon against future instances of genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Progress is impossible without bearing a certain level of pain and discomfort -- no one ever said it would be easy.

Hate speech is, indeed, despicable, and it would be nice to live in a society in which all people spoke to each other with dignity and respect.

But when you begin banning certain phrases or words from public discussion, you risk going down a path of alienating and oppressing large segments of society.

Simply put, by attempting to enforce absolute tolerance, you become a perpetrator of intolerance.

We live in an exceptionally diverse country -- not just demographically but also in terms of viewpoints.

A lot of Americans have different values and simply don't see eye to eye on many issues. But, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that; it makes us a stronger and more balanced society.

America progresses when people from drastically different backgrounds come together, acknowledge their differences and work toward compromise.

Limiting free speech is the antithesis of compromise and collaboration. It's based on disagreement and is inherently regressive.

The US Constitution protects freedom of speech. It's perhaps the most fundamental American right and value. We shouldn't seek to impose our own convictions upon it as we're all only human and tremendously flawed.

You might disagree, but your viewpoints aren't sacrosanct, and there's nothing more important than open dialogue if we have any hope of establishing a truly free and tolerant society.

Embrace communication. It's easy to talk to people who agree with you. It's much more difficult yet far more beneficial to find a way to talk to those with whom you disagree.


A concerned (but hopeful) fellow member of your generation

Citations: 40% of Millennials OK with limiting speech offensive to minorities (Pew Research Center), Liberal intolerance is on the rise on America's college campuses (The Washington Post), CIRP Freshman Survey Results for 2015 (Higher Education Research Institute), Remembering the Nazis in Skokie (Huffington Post)