Is Speech Violence?

Marchers in Berkeley, California recently invoked a favorite tactic among would-be censors by muddying the distinction between words and physical force. “Speech is violence!” they screamed in protest of a speaker whose views they disliked.

Adapted from Liberty’s First Crisis:

When it comes to free speech, the Supreme Court has wrestled with the infinitely complex question of just where those boundaries lie—giving us terms such as “fighting words” and “clear and present danger” to determine when speech truly goes too far.

But there is one thing that cannot coexist with freedom, and that is declaring that people have a right against being offended, even deeply offended, by someone else’s words. Such a declaration automatically transfers the right of speech from the speaker to the listener, who now enjoys the power not just to say, “I don’t like your opinion,” but “I won’t allow you to say that.”

Ignorance and hatefulness can and should be confronted and shot down, with reason and with better words. Yet if we wish to remain free, we must resist the strong temptation to call the police. The fact is that everyone who voices a controversial opinion is bound to give offense to someone. In a regulated climate, speech ceases to be a right and becomes a political privilege. The trick isn’t to avoid giving offense; rather, it is to avoid offending the wrong people.

Times change. Most of the concerns that inflame us today will one day be regarded as historical footnotes. What remains as the measure of a generation is not the restrictions it imposes on its most repugnant voices. The true measure of greatness of any generation is the wisdom it shows in looking beyond the moment and handing down liberty, intact and unfettered, to the next.