Gobbling Up Speech

Jewish Light Editorial

“It is a paradox that every dictator has climbed to power on the ladder of free speech. Immediately on attaining power each dictator has suppressed all free speech except his own.”  — Herbert Hoover

The dark shadow of restrictions upon free speech has been under severe pressure in a number of contexts, among them regressive regimes abroad, and a presidential campaign here at home. Do these seemingly distinct contexts have common threads? 

Let’s see.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has once again been in world news, his authoritarian bent on full public display. His most recent restrictive acts involve putting several opposition newspapers of the Feza media group under government trusteeship.

This is hardly the first time Erdogan has sought to stifle dissent, and his government also this week jailed several senior executives of a Turkish-based business conglomerate who oppose the government. Erdogan has been blatant in his oppressive tactics and views, referring to Twitter, for example, as “the worst menace to society.” No surprise, as he witnessed from close range the impact social media had to topple regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond.

Erdogan is a fairly easy guy to despise — a ruler who has become progressively more authoritarian under the guise of maintaining public order. By controlling many media outlets and jailing dissidents, he purports to create a public environment in which opposition is eliminated, or so threatened that the penalties for exercising same are too severe for most to think about facing.

The Erdogan example is suppression writ large, but halfway around the world and perhaps not as meaningful to some in America. That kind of suppression couldn’t possibly happen here, could it?

Well, nothing is for sure, and when we don’t take free speech as a seriously sacred principle, then risk ensues, and yes, even here.

We live in an era of great contradictions, and one of them is that we’ve never had so many different ways to communicate, yet there seems in many ways to be significantly reduced tolerance for opposing viewpoints. People flock to media outlets that validate their own views. Collegial and respectful disagreement seems on the wane; even our members of Congress, who used to value their relationships across the aisle, now won’t even share a lunch table with the opposition for fear of being accused as traitors by their hardcore constituents.

So with this backdrop, it’s a challenge for us to pass down free speech principles to future generations, right? But we’re not doing so well with our youth on many college campuses, either, which raises great questions for how constructive, engaged dialogue will persevere. 

Too often, the standard in academia on all sorts of matters, from race to BDS and beyond, is to drown out or claim protection from the words of others. Those who advocate for one position are so utterly insistent on their righteousness that there couldn’t possibly be another reasonable viewpoint. That’s an audacity built perhaps initially of well-meaning social criticism, but one which can devolve quite quickly to rabid intolerance.

There are exceptions, of course, and they ought to be praised and encouraged. Yale’s recent Intelligence Squared debate on whether free speech on campus is being threatened is a notable example of an open and fair dialogue on the subject (intelligencesquaredus.org). The debaters set a great example for how students ought to consider disparate viewpoints.

Enter the current presidential campaign, which can and should be the ultimate marketplace of ideas. In other words, a haven for free speech by candidates and supporters alike. Yet in this election, the issue of restrictions on speech has reared its ugly head.

We’re not in the business of opposing or supporting candidates, but being a media outlet, we do find the discussion of free speech in the campaign fair game. So when a candidate — in this case Republican Donald Trump (alone in this among the major candidates of both parties) — has indicated he’d broaden libel laws to make it easier to sue media, has shown a propensity to deny speech to protestors, and has often issued veiled threats about litigation against those who oppose him, it worries us greatly.

But it worries us primarily for what it says about the general perception of free speech in today’s society, as reflected through his supporters. If there are enough people out there willing to back a candidate for whom free speech is to be protected only when it bolsters his own views, there’s a serious disconnect occurring about the true meaning of free speech.

When we draw a line through Erdogan, our college campuses, and the current campaign, we see some real serious threats to open and vigorous discussion both abroad and here. We’ve valued our society as one in which speech has served as an outlet valve that allows for vigorous but peaceful discussion and dissension, for protest and progress. When the right is taken away from those who disagree with the ones making the rules, the potential for really bad stuff emerges. We’d rather not go there.