A Refresher on Free Speech for Conservatives

Milo Yiannopoulis had a really bad day on Monday. After a video surfaced in which he defended pedophilia, his invitation to speak at CPAC was rescinded, then his book deal was canceled, and finally Breitbart employees threatened to quit if he is not fired. It was a long time coming, but we have finally discovered the line that cannot be crossed. The backlash has been swift and so far unambiguous, but it should never have had to come to this.


Milo, skilled provocateur, alt-right offender of the left, was a star to too many conservatives. The half-baked proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” proved a poor substitute for real conservative principles, which include such things as public decency. No doubt he will still have fringe defenders saying that he was taken out of context, or demolishing political correctness, or — most offensive in its ignorance — that he has a right to free speech.

It looks like conservatives need a refresher on free speech, considering they aided and abetted Milo and his behavior for so long, and while every movement needs a rejuvenation of its principles from time to time, it is saddening how far from the tree the apple has fallen.The American Conservative Union, usually given to providing a platform for the latest meteoric conservative star they happen to catch within his five minutes of fame, at least insists that the temporary celebrities spout some caricaturistic conservative talking points.

But going from, say, Joe the Plumber to Milo is more than a simple gradation. To tout someone with no qualifications because he embarrassed the other party’s president is qualitatively different than calling someone who actively flouts conservative values one of our own. The first is just silly, but the second is harmful, because it was embarked upon by misguided people who actually think this is how to defend free speech.

The “conservative” position to defend any insensitive statement that proceeds out of the mouths of Yiannopoulis, President Trump and others is really just a reaction to the liberal desire to silence speech they find offensive. The reasoning, if there is any, appears to be that to defend the right to free speech necessarily is to defend the speech itself. More likely is that so-called conservatives just like to see how offended liberals can be. (Jay Caruso called this out as phony conservatism.)


Both liberals and conservatives are confused. There is no reason to secure the freedom of speech in the constitution of a government if it is only to protect approved speech, as approved speech by definition is not in any danger of censorship.

More and more liberals were ranging from a reluctance to defend speech of which they disapproved to exhibiting an outright hostility to it. Conservatives have begun to respond not simply by defending the right to free speech, but leaping to assume that if some liberal was trying to silence the speech, that speech was inherently worthwhile. Therein lies the trouble.

So are conservative and liberals, along with everyone, just supposed to accept a culture in which crass and pointlessly provocative speech predominates? Some who call the right their home have been answering with a resounding “yes!” — much in the way of any liberal who applaud anything Lena Dunham says.

The correct answer, however, is “no,” but the solution is not found in governments or censorship, but in virtue — that word that falls on the ear like the voice of a bygone era. Yet, though it is often associated with societies in which liberty in a modern sense is suppressed, virtue is part of a long tradition to which conservatives have adhered their philosophies, which understands that liberty unleashes the true propensities of people. It is only good to the extent that the people are good and are capable of making good of it.

Edmund Burke, in his characteristic eloquence, put it this way:

“But what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths.”


The American founders concurred. John Adams wrote the following:

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Matt Walsh expresses this same idea in modern vernacular in this tweet: 

To quote a recent president, let me be clear: neither Milo, nor the Donald, nor Lena Dunham individually is a sign that the morals of American society are disintegrating. Irving Kristol, speaking of the expansion of casinos to areas of the United States outside of Las Vegas, explained that a little vice is not harmful to society so long as it is limited and separated in such a way that it is obvious that it is vice. The problem begins when the line is blurred.

In the same way, offensive comedians, movies, music and art are not, on their own, the real problem, provided that they are seen as anomalies to polite society. What is dangerous is the idea that all speech is equal. Just because one has the right to free speech does not mean one’s speech is right.

Perhaps today this seems to many people like splitting hairs. Self-described conservatives who call Milo Yiannopoulis conservative as well, simply because he uses his right to free speech to offend liberals, are making the distinction less clear. It really is not that complicated. My colleague at The Resurgent, Josh Hammer, puts it as clear as anyone in this tweet:



There is one other element of freedom that many people prefer to ignore: personal responsibility. That is, one owns the consequences of one’s actions. The consequences are beginning to manifest for Milo — and it’s about time.


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