Until his death earlier this year, Nat Hentoff was arguably the most prominent advocate for free speech in the U.S. Decades worth of essays, lectures, and books, including Free Speech for Me — but Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other, established Mr. Hentoff’s reputation as a consistent and ferocious defender of this cherished right.
The passing of Nat Hentoff, the author, journalist, jazz critic and civil libertarian, has left a void in the free speech movement.
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Mr. Hentoff trod a fine ideological line with agility and precision. He was able to condemn the messages of groups he found offensive, while simultaneously advocating for their right to express those messages.
But Mr. Hentoff’s passing has created a void in the free speech movement. What is more important, that void comes at a critical moment in the future of free speech advocacy in this country, defined by a combination of ignorance, indifference, and continuing challenges to the First Amendment.
The results of a recent survey conducted by the Brookings Institute indicate that many students have “an overly narrow view of the extent of freedom of expression.” Specifically, the survey indicates 40 percent of students surveyed believe “hate speech” is not protected by the First Amendment, 50 percent believe upsetting speech should be shut down, and another 19 percent believe violence is an acceptable response to unfavorable speech.
However, students are not the only group in American society that lack an understanding of the First Amendment.
The Newseum Institute’s 2017 State of the First Amendment survey found that 43 percent of Americans believe colleges should have the right to ban controversial speakers. The survey found that 31 percent of Americans believe the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.
“It’s troubling that almost one in four think that we have too much freedom,” said Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center. “It’s also troubling that even people who support the First Amendment in the abstract often dislike it when it’s applied in real life.”
What is to blame for this downturn in support for such a critical freedom?
A large part of the problem can be attributed to the confusion created by the ideologically inconsistent provocateurs of our present political moment. Individuals like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer have repeatedly used free speech as a shield, proclaiming their right to speak while announcing that others should sit down and shut up.
The damage this has done can be seen in headlines from the past year. Events like Mr. Yiannopoulos’ cancelled “Free Speech Week” in Berkeley, which was set to feature a cadre of speakers discussing topics like “the compatibility of Islam and Western values,” were constructed to promote one-sided political conversation under the guise of free speech. More to the point, thanks to their media savvy, agitators like Mr. Yiannopoulos and Mr. Spencer have endeavored to lodge themselves in the public’s mind when debates over free speech now erupt.
Mr. Yiannopoulos, Mr. Spencer, and their political compatriots are clearly entitled to First Amendment protections. But posing as advocates of free speech confuses the issue of the First Amendment at a time when the evidence suggests we need clarification, not confusion.
The results of the studies by Brookings and the Newseum suggest that the best remedy is greater emphasis on civics and principles of government in our schools, but we also need a true champion of free speech, someone to fill the role played for several decades by Mr. Hentoff. The good news is that there are at least several people capable of taking up the mantle.
What about Ms. Nott? She hosts a terrific podcast on First Amendment issues and carefully walks listeners through complicated legal issues pertaining to free speech. “You don’t have to love the First Amendment,” Ms. Nott wrote earlier this year. “Just acknowledge that we all need it.”
Or how about Clay Hansen? Mr. Hansen, the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, was recently profiled in a HuffPost piece entitled “The Ugly Business of Defending Free Speech in 2017.” In the article, Mr. Hansen discusses his group’s defense of everyone from neo-Nazis to Colin Kaepernick. He points out that “if we don’t defend these people now, it could be you next.”
And let’s not forget Dave Rubin. Mr. Rubin, a former comedian and host of YouTube show “The Rubin Report,” has made a name for himself by engaging with people from all across the political spectrum, including those with whom he vehemently disagrees. Guests have included Mr. Yiannopoulos, actor Stephen Fry, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, and feminist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Through all his interviews, Mr. Rubin has consistently taken the approach that more dialogue is better than less.
“To me there is nothing more important in a democracy than free speech and debate,” Mr. Rubin once said. “We should debate everything, we should talk about everything, we should engage ideas we aren't comfortable with, and we should let the best ideas win. That's how a healthy society based on rational ideas and a secular government should work.”
Do any of these candidates have the acuity, the tenacity, or the courage needed to be the champion that Nat Hentoff was? That’s not clear.
What is clear, however, is that as long as vitriolic agitators masquerading as advocates dominate the conversation, the public’s understanding of the First Amendment — the right Mr. Hentoff described as “the right from which all others flow” — will suffer in the court of public opinion. And as George Orwell argued, without free speech protections and support for those protections, “inconvenient minorities will be prosecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”
Who will step into the breach? Who will take Nat Hentoff’s place?
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