Liberals, Conservatives, and Free Speech

Libertarians sometimes say that they are “liberal on free speech but conservative on economic freedom,” or that “liberals believe in free speech and personal freedom, while conservatives believe in economic freedom.” That proposition got another test in the Supreme Court yesterday. Conservatives and liberals split sharply on two free-speech cases.

And let’s see … in two 5-4 decisions, the Court’s conservative majority struck down some of the McCain-Feingold law’s restrictions on campaign speech and upheld a high-school principal’s right to suspend a student for displaying a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner. Liberals disagreed in both cases.

So the liberals strongly defend a student’s right to engage in nonsensical speech that might be perceived as pro-drug, but they approve a ban on speech criticizing political candidates in the 60 days before an election.

Now I’m for free speech in both these cases. But if you had to choose, which is more important–the right of a high-school student to display silly signs at school-sponsored events, or the right of citizen groups to criticize politicians at the time voters are paying attention? Political speech is at the core of the First Amendment, and conservatives are more inclined to protect it than are liberals. That’s a sad reflection on today’s liberals.

The liberal attitude toward speech is also on display on the front pages of our leading liberal newspapers. A banner headline in the Washington Post reads “5-4 Supreme Court Weakens Curbs on Pre-Election TV Ads/Ruling on McCain-Feingold Law Opens Door for Interest Groups in ‘o8.” This long headline mentions “TV Ads” and “Interest Groups” but never uses the words “speech” or “First Amendment.” But the sidebar on the high-school case is headed “Restrictions on Student Speech Upheld.” For that issue, a straightforward understanding that speech is involved. And the New York Times website leads with “Justices Loosen Ad Restrictions in Campaign Finance Law,” while the sidebar on the school case reads, “Vote against Banner Shows Divide on Speech in Schools.” Though I should note that the old-fashioned, tree-destroying version of the Times does have a subhead reading “Political Speech Rights.”

Maybe libertarians should try to describe their philosophy by saying “libertarians believe in the free speech that liberals used to believe in, and the economic freedom that conservatives used to believe in.”