There’s No Such Thing as Absolute Free Speech

The American Civil Liberties Union has once again thrust itself into controversy. This time the furor was caused by its plan to defend white supremacist and failed author Milo Yiannopoulos over the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s refusal to allow ads for his book be displayed on public transit. The ACLU has a long history of defending Nazi free speech and the case is consistent with their general purview. Indeed, it’s actually rather tame as far as the ACLU goes. Nonetheless, coming as it does at a time when fascism and white supremacy is more visible than has been the case since at least the 1960s, the ACLU appears highly misguided to many on the left.

The debate has tended to be framed as one side arguing we shouldn’t defend Nazi speech because it is hate speech and does real harm and the other side arguing in support of an ideal of absolute free speech. Glenn Greenwald, for example, takes this line in his discussion of the controversy. He summarizes the absolute free speech position in this way:

If you’re someone who cares about the free speech attacks on radical leftists, Muslims, and other marginalized groups, and tries to defend those rights in court, then you’re going to be genuinely afraid of allowing anti-free speech precedents to become entrenched that will then be used against you when it’s time to defend free speech rights. The ACLU is not defending white supremacist groups but instead is defending a principle.

Essentially, then, we must defend them because in doing so we also defend our own right to speech.

Unfortunately, I find the ACLU and Greenwald’s position on this issue to be hopelessly naïve at best and completely out of touch with the actual reality in which we live. Greenwald goes on to say:

It’s always those whose views are deemed most odious by the mainstream that are the initial targets of censorship efforts; it’s very rare that the state tries to censor the views held by the mainstream. If you allow those initial censorship efforts to succeed because of your distaste for those being targeted, then you lose the ability to defend the rights of those you like because the censorship principle has been enshrined.

There are two assumptions supporting this argument and, unfortunately, neither is true. The first is that fascism and white nationalism is marginal and politically irrelevant, which clearly does not correspond to reality. The fact is, the state does not discriminate equally against the right and the left. Under capitalism power will always favour the far right over even modest leftism because the far right does not undermine capital. The second problem with Greenwald’s argument is that it depends on the right to act in good faith. Unfortunately, in the real world the right does not care about protecting free speech or democratic values if doing so interferes with advancing right wing political objectives.

Moreover, free speech is already incredibly circumscribed and there will always be functional limitations to speech whether these restrictions be social, economic or legal. The ACLU argument is concerned only with defending against legal restrictions and does nothing to address the far more significant economic barriers to speech. As a socialist, what is far more important than defending absolute free speech is to focus on capitalist power structures and recognize whose speech is most vulnerable. Instead of expending resources on defending Nazis we must continue to attack the power structures that enable fascism. The reality is that attacking capitalist power includes denying speech to fascists. When Greenwald writes, “this overflowing naïveté is what I’ve always found most confounding about the left-wing case against universal free speech: this belief that state authorities will exercise this power of censorship magnanimously and responsibly,” he essentially misses the point. The state is an instrument of capital and these fights are not happening in the context of state power. The leftist opposition to fascist speech has little to no expectation that state authorities will be on our side. Indeed, the capitalist state is irredeemably the enemy.

To summarize, absolute free speech is not possible in the real world, which means there will always be certain factors impinging on individual free speech. Often this is a good thing because it is part of the basic social norms on which day-to-day social interactions depend. However, speech is also limited according to more problematic factors such as economic means. For instance, a wealthy person has greater resources to make their views known and less personal risk in doing so. Thus, the more important concern is to undo economic barriers as part of the primary socialist objective: destroying capitalism and establishing a classless society. We have to acknowledge that a classless society does not inherently mean a society with absolute free speech. There will almost certainly continue to be some degree of social, and likely legal, restrictions on speech, just these restrictions will no longer be defined by the interests of capital. The argument that we must defend Nazi speech because otherwise our speech is at risk too is absurd because left-wing and minority speech is already deeply circumscribed. Moreover, the entire argument depends on the good faith of the right when in reality the right does not give the slightest shit about protecting the left’s right to free speech. Ultimately when you are expending limited resources defending Nazi speech you aren’t defending free speech, you’re just defending Nazis.