Why Liberals Have Flip-Flopped on Free Speech
In a remarkably honest exposé, the New York Times acknowledged Saturday that “liberals who once championed expansive First Amendment rights are now uneasy about them” ever since conservatives realized they should apply to them as well.
The Times cites First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams who noted that whereas the left once led support for First Amendment protections, they are now “at least skeptical and sometimes distraught at the level of First Amendment protection which is being afforded in cases brought by litigants on the right.”
The difference between then and now? Many of the ideas currently being protected by free speech rights run contrary to progressive ideology. Over the last 13 years, the Supreme Court “has been far more likely to embrace free-speech arguments concerning conservative speech than liberal speech,” the Times said.
One law professor at Georgetown, Louis Michael Seidman, who used to defend free speech now sees his prior position as a mistake.
“When I was younger, I had more of the standard liberal view of civil liberties,” Seidman said. “And I’ve gradually changed my mind about it. What I have come to see is that it’s a mistake to think of free speech as an effective means to accomplish a more just society.”
Catharine A. MacKinnon, a law professor at the University of Michigan, goes further still, declaring that free speech reinforces and amplifies injustice because it is now being used to defend ideas she finds distressing. “Once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful,” writes MacKinnon, who teaches such courses as “Evolution of Gender Crimes” and “Sex Equality.”
Whereas free speech used to be invoked to defend “radicals, artists and activists, socialists and pacifists, the excluded and the dispossessed,” MacKinnon laments, it has now become “a sword for authoritarians, racists and misogynists, Nazis and Klansmen, pornographers and corporations buying elections.”
In other words, the left was much quicker than the right to understand the power of free speech protections. In a curious irony, however, most conservatives today would be quick to defend even Ms. MacKinnon’s adolescent name-calling, which compensates for a lack of serious arguments.
Speech does not need to be intelligent or compelling to be worthy of protection.
In reading through the New York Times piece it becomes abundantly clear that many liberals really never cared about “free speech” as such, but rather sought protection specifically for progressive ideas and behaviors. As soon as conservatives started demanding the same protections for their speech, it no longer seemed like such a good idea.
The Times titled its article “How Conservatives Weaponized the First Amendment.” Perhaps a more accurate title would have been, “How Conservatives Learned from the Left and Started Using Their Own Weapons Against Them.”
Or, more simply, “What Goes Around, Comes Around.”
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