February 24, 2020
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Meeting speech with speech, not silence

Andree Kehn | Sun Journal via AP
Andree Kehn | Sun Journal via AP
Conservative political commentator Michelle Malkin greets supporters at the Sabattus Town Hall on Friday in Sabattus.

The controversy last week surrounding conservative commentator Michelle Malkin’s appearance in Maine should be concerning — and instructive — to anyone who values the freedoms provided by the First Amendment.

Call us old-fashioned, but we still subscribe to the idea that the best response to objectionable speech is more speech, not silence.

“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence,” Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis argued in 1927.

The ways in which we share information are almost unrecognizable compared to 1927, and Brandeis was discussing government regulation of speech, but his overall point should hold true for all of us: when we are met with ideas and language we find to be inaccurate, offensive or even hateful, the best response is to speak up ourselves rather than limit the speech of others.

The three venues that canceled on Malkin and the college Republicans last week exercised their freedom of association, and the people reportedly putting pressure on those venues to cancel were exercising their own freedom of speech. But we find ourselves uneasy about how this all went down.

Individual attempts to pressure or boycott a group into silence don’t necessarily violate the First Amendment, but they do fail to match its spirit. And this tactic also plays right into the hands of provocateurs like Malkin, who have made censorship a central part of their argument. What we observed here in Maine last week makes that point for them.

In a February 2018 speech, ACLU attorney Lee Rowland pointed to how conservative flamethrowers Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter emerged stronger after having speaking events canceled at the University of California at Berkeley in 2017. Rowland discussed how Yiannopoulos and Coulter went on to identify “as victims of liberal censorship” and ultimately “got more attention for being silenced than they did for trying to peddle actual substantive views.”

There’s not only a First Amendment lesson here, but a strategic one as well.

“A goal of professional provocateurs is to provoke the campus community into trying to silence them. Think of campus trolls as schoolyard bullies. Oh, their words definitely hurt. But the real question is: How do we respond to that hurt?” Rowland said. “A troll wants you to censor them. It feeds into their power and gives them something to sell. You don’t have to play that role.”

Rather than feeding into a narrative of censorship, people can push back with speech of their own.

“Quote me,” Malkin said at her event last Friday, which as reported by the Sun Journal, eventually took place at Sabattus Town Hall. “It is not racist, it is not anti-immigration, it is not xenophobic for American citizens to stand up for their homes.”

The First Amendment allows Malkin, the daughter of immigrants, to say that Lewiston is a “refugee dumping ground” on Twitter. It also allows us to point out that such language strongly implies a “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners,” which is Merriam-Webster’s definition of xenophobia.

We see a dangerous hypocrisy here from Malkin, and we’re free to point that out in a free society. Conservative groups were similarly free to distance themselves from Malkin given her defense of Nick Fuentes, who has questioned the number of Jewish people killed in the Holocaust (that’s Holocaust denial, folks) and has unconvincingly claimed he was just joking. But attempting to silence Malkin or any other provocateur outright only adds fuel to the fire.

“When I tell you trying to silence or censor political enemies is wrong, it’s not because I think it’s weak. It’s because I think it’s unstrategic and strengthens the force of your opponents,” Rowland, the ACLU attorney, continued in her speech.

That, ultimately, is our takeaway from the brief saga surrounding Malkin’s event here in Maine. She and her views received a week of media attention (which we are admittedly extending to make this point), and she ended up speaking to a packed room with no reports of protesting. Essentially, the efforts to shut her down only strengthened her.

The First Amendment affords us all the right to protest speech with which we disagree, and to disassociate ourselves from any person or group espousing such speech. But it matters how we exercise those rights, and how we recognize and respect the rights of others.

We all should strive to stop feeding the outrage beast, and to meet objectionable speech with responsible speech rather than demanding that others be silenced.

 


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