The First Amendment protects our freedom of speech for one reason: Free speech is necessary to sustain free thought and free action. It may seem obvious, but our ability to speak truth to power, point out injustices in the system, and engage with ideas is critical to our freedoms. Censorship threatens all that, but unfortunately—as in so many tumultuous eras in our country’s history—censorship is back in vogue.
The new culture of censorship is easiest to see on college campuses. Public universities have had speakers shouted down, lecturers asked to leave, and demonstrations turn violent. Recently, President Trump even signed an executive order adding free speech as a condition for campuses to receive federal grant money.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell satire from reality when campuses across the country are giving a pixilated middle finger to the First Amendment by attempting to use eminent domain to shut down speech critical of the administration, staging protests while chanting “free speech harms,” or designating tiny “free speech zones.”
At the center of this debate is the question: Are public institutions allowing a free exchange of ideas, or are they simply cracking down on speech they find intolerable, offensive, or just plain annoying?
The speech police aren’t confined to colleges. PLF represents clients like Jon Kotler, who is fighting the California DMV for the right to support his favorite soccer team, the Fulham Football Club, with a personalized license plate. If most of us saw the letters “COYW,” we’d struggle briefly to determine its meaning, shrug, and move on with our day. If we were Premier League fans, we’d know the letters stand for “Come on You Whites,” Fulham’s slogan and rallying cry, stemming from their white jerseys. If you worked at the California DMV, however, you would reject Mr. Kotler’s proposed license plate and claim it potentially has racial implications and could offend huge swaths of drivers.
Are California drivers aware of just what they’re being protected from? When PLF sent a daring correspondent to San Francisco on a fact-finding mission, it turned out that most California residents struggled to find the offensive or politically incorrect meanings in various DMV-rejected plates. If the average person can find nothing wrong with a phrase, why does the DMV go to such effort to protect the public from every imagined offense?
There will always be consequences to speech. Words have a price, and although we enjoy freedom of speech, we can never claim freedom from what that speech does. But offensive speech is the most important speech to protect. No one will ever protest an idea everyone agrees with; those objectionable ideas—even despicable ideas—are the ones that must be allowed to be heard and challenged. The way to defeat offensive speech is with better speech—not forced silence. We must never let the fear of offense keep us from speaking up in the first place.