The column below originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 2016 edition of the Herald Weekly. Funny thing, when my editor emailed to inform me my columns would no longer run in the Herald she actually wrote, “I’m all for freedom of speech and opinions, but not when it affects our funding that enables us to write those opinions.” I like to think her parting words were an intentional homage to my rigorous defense of free speech a month earlier, but I have my doubts.
Since this column appeared I’ve been following the plight of Dr. Jordan Peterson in Canada. If you’re interested in the free speech debate, I would encourage you to follow him on twitter (@jordanbpeterson) or you can watch the free speech debate he participated in back in November on his youtube channel. Protections against compelled speech may be stronger in America than in Canada, but remember, the protections afforded by the First Amendment will only last as long as the majority of citizens (and judges) think in terms of free speech absolutism.
Have you ever heard someone say something along the lines of “I’m all for free speech, but …” during a two-minute hate over the latest outrage of the day? Do you know anyone who thinks it is a criminal offense (it isn’t) to engage in “hate speech”? Or have you ever seen anyone on your social media platform of choice place blame a speaker for acts of violence done by others in response to mere words uttered by that speaker? Unless you live a life of quiet solitude in a houseboat on Lake Norman, the likely answer to all three is Yes.
I am a free speech absolutist. I do not believe there is any line that can be drawn between speech that is acceptable and unacceptable because, ultimately, that would mean someone should be given power to decide when that line is crossed; I have yet to meet a person I would trust with such power.
I am also not a child and do not need to be protected from the words or ideas of other adults no matter how much I may disagree with them. But, I do realize my outlook on speech is shaped by my own experience, which differs greatly from the safe-space seeking, trigger-warning needing, constantly offended group of future leaders currently being churned out by our high schools and colleges. The protections afforded by the First Amendment will only last as long as the majority of citizens (and judges) think as I do.
Laws prohibiting certain speech are unnecessary when violence or threats of violence are enough to silence a speaker. From Socrates to Galileo to civil rights protesters to Salman Rushdie to Charlie Hebdo in France, there have always been those willing to use violence or the threat of violence to silence their opposition rather than face them in the arena of ideas. We can now add Huntersville to this ignominious list.
Longtime Huntersville residents Ashley and Sean McMillan live on Beatties Ford Road and have had a hay bale on their property facing the road for the past five or six years that they often decorate. They decided this year to show their support for the Trump/Pence campaign by painting “Vote Trump 2016” on the hay bale. Ashley said this is the first time they have decorated the hay bale with any political message,. On the morning of Friday, Sept. 30, they awoke to find their car broken into with Ashley’s gun and other items stolen, and the hay bale vandalized with a red slash through the Trump sign.
Ashley told me she immediately repainted “Vote Trump 2016” onto the hay bale the morning of the vandalism, but later the same day decided to paint over it with a simple heart since the family was about to leave town for a few days leaving the house unattended. She is still supporting the Trump/Pence ticket but made the decision against taking a public stance again to avoid subjecting her family to further criminal acts. Her message to Herald readers, “We need to come together as a community and not judge each other on political beliefs alone.”
Please contact the Huntersville Police Department at (704) 464-5400 if you have any information that could lead to an arrest in this matter.
Our public discourse suffers whenever people like the McMillans are forced into silence by violence or engage in self-censorship to avoid criticism because they hold less than popular opinions. This applies equally to all you miscreants who steal or destroy campaign signs every election cycle. It’s against the law, and it’s only indicative of your inability to engage in reasoned debate so just stop with the sign-stealing.
Nothing I have said here in defense of free speech is new or unique, but these things bear repeating from time to time. You can read John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (specifically Chap. II) or “Kindly Inquisitors” by Jonathan Rauch, or search “Hitchens Freedom of Speech” on your podcast app, for a much more eloquent commentary on the virtues of open debate and unfiltered discussion.