NPR Trashes Free Speech. A Brief Response
In an irony only public radio could miss, "On the Media" hosts an hour on the perils of "free speech absolutism" without interviewing a defender of free speech.
The guests for NPR’s just-released On The Media episode about the dangers of free speech included Andrew Marantz, author of an article called, “Free Speech is Killing Us”; P.E. Moskowitz, author of “The Case Against Free Speech”; Susan Benesch, director of the “Dangerous Speech Project”; and Berkeley professor John Powell, whose contribution was to rip John Stuart Mill’s defense of free speech in On Liberty as “wrong.”
That’s about right for NPR, which for years now has regularly congratulated itself for being a beacon of diversity while expunging every conceivable alternative point of view.
I always liked Brooke Gladstone, but this episode of On The Media was shockingly dishonest. The show was a compendium of every neo-authoritarian argument for speech control one finds on Twitter, beginning with the blanket labeling of censorship critics as “speech absolutists” (most are not) and continuing with shameless revisions of the history of episodes like the ACLU’s mid-seventies defense of Nazi marchers at Skokie, Illinois.
The essence of arguments made by all of NPR’s guests is that the modern conception of speech rights is based upon John Stuart Mill’s outdated conception of harm, which they summarized as saying, “My freedom to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose.”
Because, they say, we now know that people can be harmed by something other than physical violence, Mill (whose thoughts NPR overlaid with harpsichord music, so we could be reminded how antiquated they are) was wrong, and we have to recalibrate our understanding of speech rights accordingly.
This was already an absurd and bizarre take, but what came next was worse. I was stunned by Marantz and Powell’s take on Brandenburg v. Ohio, our current legal standard for speech, which prevents the government from intervening except in cases of incitement to “imminent lawless action”:
MARANTZ: Neo-Nazi rhetoric about gassing Jews, that might inflict psychological harm on a Holocaust survivor, but as long as there’s no immediate incitement to physical violence, the government considers that protected… The village of Skokie tried to stop the Nazis from marching, but the ACLU took the case to the Supreme Court, and the court upheld the Nazis’ right to march.
POWELL: The speech absolutists try to say, “You can’t regulate speech…” Why? “Well, because it would harm the speaker. It would somehow truncate their expression and their self-determination.” And you say, okay, what’s the harm? “Well, the harm is, a psychological harm.” Wait a minute, I thought you said psychological harms did not count?
This is not remotely accurate as a description of what happened in Skokie. People like eventual ACLU chief Ira Glasser and lawyer David Goldberger had spent much of the sixties fighting for the civil rights movement. The entire justification of these activists and lawyers — Jewish activists and lawyers, incidentally, who despised what neo-Nazi plaintiff Frank Collin stood for — was based not upon a vague notion of preventing “psychological harm,” but on a desire to protect minority rights.
In fighting the battles of the civil rights movement, Glasser, Goldberger and others had repeatedly seen in the South tactics like the ones used by localities in and around Chicago with regard to those neo-Nazis, including such ostensibly “constitutional” ploys like requiring massive insurance bonds of would-be marchers and protesters.
Years later, Glasser would point to the efforts of Forsyth County, Georgia to prevent Atlanta city councilman and civil rights advocate Hosea Williams from marching there in 1987. “Do you want every little town to decide which speech is permitted?” Glasser asked. Anyone interested in hearing more should watch the documentary about the episode called Mighty Ira.
This was the essence of the ACLU’s argument, and it’s the same one made by people like Hugo Black and Benjamin Hooks and congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who said, “It is technically impossible to write an anti-speech code that cannot be twisted against speech nobody means to bar. It has been tried and tried and tried.”
The most important problem of speech regulation, as far as speech advocates have been concerned, has always been the identity of the people setting the rules. If there are going to be limits on speech, someone has to set those limits, which means some group is inherently going to wield extraordinary power over another. Speech rights are a political bulwark against such imbalances, defending the minority not only against government repression but against what Mill called “the tyranny of prevailing opinion.”
It’s unsurprising that NPR — whose tone these days is so precious and exclusive that five minutes of listening to any segment makes you feel like you’re wearing a cucumber mask at a Plaza spa — papers over this part of the equation, since it must seem a given to them that the intellectual vanguard setting limits would come from their audience. Who else is qualified?
By the end of the segment, Marantz and Gladstone seemed in cheerful agreement they’d demolished any arguments against “getting away from individual rights and the John Stuart Mill stuff.” They felt it more appropriate to embrace the thinking of a modern philosopher like Marantz favorite Richard Rorty, who believes in “replacing the whole framework” of society, which includes “not doing the individual rights thing anymore.”
It was all a near-perfect distillation of the pretensions of NPR’s current target audience, which clearly feels we’ve reached the blue-state version of the End of History, where all important truths are agreed upon, and there’s no longer need to indulge empty gestures to pluralism like the “marketplace of ideas.”
Mill ironically pointed out that “princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects.” Sound familiar? Yes, speech can be harmful, which is why journalists like me have always welcomed libel and incitement laws and myriad other restrictions, and why new rules will probably have to be concocted for some of the unique problems of the Internet age. But the most dangerous creatures in the speech landscape are always aristocrat know-it-alls who can’t wait to start scissoring out sections of the Bill of Rights. It’d be nice if public radio could find space for at least one voice willing to point that out.