How to Recognize a Free-Speech Hero

Free speech has been in the news a lot recently. And lately it seems that we’ve had an unusually vigorous crop of utility monsters - the sort of professional complainers whose feelings are all too easily bruised, and who therefore demand that the rights of others be curtailed. 

In a climate like this, it’s important to distinguish the true heroes of free speech from the false ones. The latter are all too common. The key question to ask of public figures is simple: If you had all the power, how would you treat your opponents?

Meet Dutch politician Geert Wilders. He was a guest of honor at the recent Garland, Texas exhibition of cartoons of Mohammed, where two would-be terrorists armed with assault weapons were gunned down by a single heroic security guard armed only with a pistol. (Nice shooting, by the way.)

Wilders is now being hailed as a free-speech hero, at least in some circles. Unfortunately, he’s nothing of the kind. Besides criticizing Islam, Wilders has also repeatedly called for banning the Koran. The former is compatible with the principle of free speech. The latter is not.

A key move here is to distinguish the exercise of free speech from the principled defense of free speech. The two are not the same, as my colleague Adam Bates has ably pointed out.

Exercises of free speech can be completely one-sided. As an example, here’s me exercising my free speech: I happen to think Islam is a false religion. I have no belief whatsoever that Mohammed’s prophecies are true. They’re not even all that interesting. I mean, if you think the Bible is dull…well…have I got a book for you. I speak only for myself here, but I disagree with Islam. (And probably with your religion, too, because I’m a skeptic about all of them.) My saying so is an exercise of free speech. 

Defenses of free speech are different. Properly speaking, they must not be one-sided. A principled defense of free speech means giving your opponents in any particular issue the exact same rights that you would claim for yourself: If you would offend them with words, then they must be allowed to offend you with words, too. Say what you like about them, and they must be allowed to say what they like about you. 

No, we’re not all going to agree. And that’s actually the point: Given that agreement on so many issues is simply impossible in our modern, interconnected world, how shall we proceed? With violence and repression? Or with toleration, even for views that we find reprehensible? 

If you had all the power, how would you treat your opponents?