The Essential Role of Free Speech in Society

The founding of the United States of America was a remarkable experiment. Once and for all, it would answer the question of whether or not a government created to protect citizens’ own God-given rights could be successful. The answer to this question has been a strong affirmative for over 200 years. Fundamental to the success of this American “experiment” is the Constitution, which outlines these inalienable rights.

Our founders recognized that the right to express an opinion, particularly a dissenting one, is key to any society. This is especially true in a relatively civilized and flourishing society like the one Americans live in today as we face complex social and political issues. This recognition is embodied in the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from making any law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.

Now, although some (this author included) might argue that its inclusion in the Bill of Rights is justification enough for the protection of our right to free expression, there is also a clear societal advantage to protecting this right. Only through logical argumentation of opinions and data through an adversarial process can we ensure that we have reached the optimal solution to societal problems.

Human history has shown this to be the case. As an example, for hundreds of years scientists have relied on the scientific method to test new theories; at its heart is other scientists’ doubt and curiosity driving them to test the new theory for themselves. The same principle is evident in our court system, which is designed to allow each side to present opposing viewpoints, and for these points to be probed for validity through cross-examination.

Unfortunately, our Constitutional right to free speech has been distorted recently, particularly on some college campuses, by academics who seem to believe we have an essential right not to be offended by opposing views. (Examples: here, here, and here-there are many more.) To them, the true mark of a flourishing society is a culture where certain opinions are forced into the shadows because they may be offensive to a small group of individuals. In other words, they seem to believe that as society progresses, we are able to determine which opinions are suitable for public expression. This is a perversion of the American way.

Imagine a society where a new scientific theory is accepted as fact without any independent verification or testing by other scientists. Similarly, imagine a society where a few “enlightened” members have the authority to convict and sentence suspects, or award civil judgments, without being required to hear both sides of the argument or even verifying the truth of the original accusation.

As repulsive as it may seem, such a society makes sense if dissenting opinions can be silenced by a person simply because he believes them to be “offensive”.

On a larger scale, if relatively successful institutions like the scientific method and our judicial system rely on dissent to function properly, how can we expect our nation to function without it?

Our republic is on the road to failure if dissenting opinions are silenced, because it will result in disengagement of those holding dissenting views and the lack of an alternate viewpoint in our political discourse. In turn, this lack of opposing viewpoints can lead to the adoption of poor policies and thus poor societal and political outcomes.

Free expression through speech is therefore an essential element to any society that wishes to continue to flourish and prosper. It is important for us as Americans to fight to preserve this right on college campuses and elsewhere.