The freedoms to speak and criticize public officials are crucial to ensuring that government serves the people. But must this include the freedom to propound evil, hateful beliefs? Free speech has always faced criticism but has recently come under considerable scholarly attack.
Let’s consider difficult cases for free speech absolutism, starting with the Nazis. Nazi antisemitism did not materialize out of thin air; numerous learned voices articulated antisemitism for decades. These writings shaped Hitler’s views and prepared the ground for his hate, contributing to the Holocaust.
Another example is the Human Extinction Movement, the belief that humanity should exterminate itself for the good of the Earth. Some advocates add “voluntary” to its title, but nonetheless believe that humans should not exist.
Must a commitment to free speech and free dialogue embrace such views? John Stuart Mill offered a classic defense of free speech, free dialogue, and a marketplace of ideas in On Liberty. We can distinguish three arguments for free speech.
- First, discovering truth requires freedom of speech and expression in both public and scholarly discourse. Identifying truth requires the freedom to challenge current beliefs and theories, as challenges identify errors and inconsistencies. Validating knowledge necessarily has a social element; we know that two plus two equals four because no one has demonstrated otherwise.
- Second, suppressing ideas is often ineffective. People infer that a speaker ignoring his critics cannot answer them, or that only truthful ideas are dangerous enough to be suppressed. Ideas can never be completely erased.
- Finally, governments will censor to benefit themselves. Criticism is crucial in making governments serve the people. Even if suppressing certain ideas at certain times could improve public discourse, censorial powers will not be used for this. This potential for misuse is sometimes called a public choice problem.
Suppressing arguments also disrespects our fellow citizens. Consider criminalizing Holocaust denial. Those who believe that the Holocaust cannot be reasonably denied have examined the evidence and reached their own conclusion. Criminalizing Holocaust denial prevents other citizens from hearing – and evaluating – this argument themselves.
Let’s apply these arguments to human extinction. Further debate and discussion are unnecessary to establish truth. My standard of value is human life; human extinction seeks to destroy the source of value. I cannot imagine any argument or evidence overturning this conclusion.
Might suppression further spread this view? Perhaps, but I suspect that very few people will find the self-hating idea of eliminating humanity attractive. But considerable space exists between total suppression and full tolerance. We can let people post evil manifestos on the internet without legitimating and promoting their views with university professorships.
Finally, can we not instruct government to only censor the human extinction movement and not political opponents? This seems simple when we can point out the individuals and arguments to suppress. Yet Racketeer Influenced, Corrupt Organization (RICO) laws introduced to fight organized crime are being used against the Trump Campaign.
How does this happen? A law (or constitutional amendment) must detail what government can do and to whom. A list of individuals, views, and organizations to silence could easily be evaded. Human extinction could relabel itself and new organizations replace the banned ones.
Alternatively, we could try to define who can be censored. Our definition might inadvertently include people we do not want censored or be stretched by judges looking to silence opponents. A government official empowered to declare a rebranded group part of the human extinction movement could lump MAGA Republicans as well.
The public choice problem is never easily resolved!
Eventually we must consider costs and benefits. John Milton wrote that “truth was never put to the worse in a free and open encounter” with falsehood. This suggests small benefits from suppressing ideas we are 100 percent sure are false and evil. The cost of a government silencing its opponents is enormous. Even if some ideas might usefully be suppressed, the consequences of misuse of censorship are too enormous to risk.