Speech cannot always be free because context determines meaning. Allow me to explain.
In a recent post, titled “True Freedom,” I wrote the following:
“Indeed, true freedom is not free, nor is it always convenient. The root of the word should never delude any of us because true freedom is always costly.
Free speech is certainly an ideal, but that often means hearing things you would rather not hear, and dealing with people whom you would rather not deal with. In the end, everyone should simply get over it because when others are “free” to say what they want, you also become “free” to say what you want. Political correctness only shields the wolves who prance around in sheep costumes.
Possessing a free mind is one of the greatest gifts God ever bestowed on humankind, and He intended for all of us to use it. So, if we, as subordinate human beings, are able to reject God, then who gives humans the right to mandate what other humans must and must not reject? Certainly, for the sake of communal well-being, individual freedom must be sacrificed for the collective whole, but that should never involve thought preference, prescribed behavior, or the selective application of the said freedom. If freedom were sacrificed in these ways, then what you’d be left with wouldn’t be freedom at all, but the greatest trick that democracy and progressivism had ever played: the relinquishment of liberty under the pretense of tolerance and under the guise of ‘egalitarianism,’ the modern euphemism for ‘coercion.'”
Yes, but herein lies the problem: What happens if the restriction of free speech serves a good that is not only lawful but is also increasingly more profitable to a large group of people? And I don’t mean profitable in the sense of what a dictatorial majority subjectively deems appropriate for the common good. I mean profitable in terms of the objective standards of natural law—life, liberty, and property. I wonder if, in select cases, the limitation of liberty actually results in the promulgation of liberty. If your frame of reference is the individual, then this perspective fails; but if your perspective is communal, then it is worth consideration.
Take, for example, the case of two former Oklahoma University students who were also members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Both students were expelled after videos were posted online depicting them (and other members of the fraternity) chanting a song that featured racial slurs, referred to lynching, and proclaimed that a person of color would never be a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. The video was recorded while the fraternity members were riding a bus to an event.
Oklahoma University President, David L. Boren, justified the expulsion based on the fact that the two individuals had created a “hostile educational environment.” The national office of Sigma Alpha Epsilon expressed its intent to expel all the members of the Oklahoma chapter from the national organization and affirmed that it was in favor of the university’s decision.
In this case, it was the video taken on the bus and not the speech itself that changed matters. As I expect happens all the time all around the world, people make prejudicial comments in private settings, and everyone else is none the wiser. In private settings, then, speech is always and irrevocably free—as long as no one has a device that will turn a private moment into a public spectacle.
If we analyze free speech as an isolated part, separate from a community of people with common collective interests, then we champion the component at the expense of the whole, not realizing that natural rights are only relevant as they pertain to interpersonal interactions. In The Law, Frederic Bastiat says, “It is not because men have made laws, that life, liberty, and property exist. On the contrary, it is because life, liberty, and property exist beforehand, that men make laws.” Men (plural) make laws. The person is a part. The community is the whole. Laws, rights, or privileges only become relevant when the whole exists, for if a man were an island, why would he need the law? A part finds its identity as part of the whole, and the whole consists of a series of parts, each serving a unique and fundamental purpose. If that paradigm is abandoned, then someone can say, “I’ll keep on saying the N-word to every black person I see. It’s my right,” or “Red lights are an oppressive form of state power. I run all of them,” or “Others are getting in the way of my liberty. They are expendable and must be eliminated.” In such extreme cases, the libertarian becomes one of his/her own worst nightmares: a politician treading upon others.
Consequently, if we think of free speech as an innate freedom in the context of a whole set of natural rights in a community, then the free speech of one man, two students, or three women subjugates itself in the context of an educational institution. People go to college in order to learn, develop skills, and improve themselves. The school derives its identity through the students that it serves. The students derive their identity from their attendance of the institution. Both parties absolutely need each other in order to be productive, so why should the productive community be inhibited from achieving its admirable goals by a few bad apples whose ignorant and racist behavior offers no tangible dividends? If I were running a corporation, the racist song singers would hurt my bottom line and threaten the company’s primary aim. My response would be to eliminate the non-performing parties. If I were leading a church, the bad apples would turn the congregation toward sin. My response would be to discipline them accordingly. In either case, the bad apples would be “free” to say whatever they wanted, but uninhibited freedom would be costly and ignorance would not be tolerated where illumination was being nurtured.
The fact remains that the First Amendment protects people who use hateful and racist speech. The issue then becomes how we ought to use that freedom. Should we use it for the edification of the self or for the edification of the whole? If we choose the former, we risk losing the whole that makes liberty so attractive in the first place. For what is liberty if I am free to do what is lawful in my eyes while everyone else bears the burden of my freedom? That sounds exactly like authoritarianism to me.
So, I applaud Mr. Boren for taking responsibility as the leader of an institution and assuming accountability for the educational welfare of his students—these are two very mature and manly forms of behavior in a society that would rather turn a blind eye to the iniquity of others in the name of independence.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal