2016 FIFTH PLACE ESSAY

Censorship: Intellectual Prohibition

by Rebekah Moots, Age 18
Submitting Teacher: Michelle Moots


Is the right to free speech a matter of eternal significance?  According to John Locke it is.  In his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) Locke championed the belief that men are rational beings with an eternal soul.  Dissenting religious opinions should be permitted so that a person can best reason out his own salvation.  Locke argued that disagreement enabled people to debate their ideas and thereby discover the truth about salvation.  Such disagreement and debate is essential for all other personal and public choices as well.  Our Founding Fathers, astute readers of Locke, realized that not only is free expression essential for the soul, it is no less important for matters of national significance.  

As a homeschooled high school student taking some college classes in my senior year, I was excited.  I anticipated vigorous academic debate and vibrant discussion.   After all, college is the incubator of America’s future leaders, right? Everyone there should be freely voicing their ideas, right?  But they are not.  What I discovered is that today’s young Americans are afraid of their own voice.  Often the teacher asks a question and silence smothers the room.  At first I could not figure out why my fellow students are as mute as old wooden cigar store Indians (sorry, “Native Americans”).  I eventually determined that the students are silent because they are fearful of offending anyone.  And I dare not ask them if the cat got their tongues.  I might violate animal rights.

College speech codes supposedly protect students from harmful ideas, but in John Stossel’s Fox News program “Censored in America” Ayaan Hirsi Ali declared that if parents want to protect their kids from reality, they should send them to a daycare center.  Some colleges create “safe spaces.” The safe space at Brown University is stocked with puppies and cookies to soothe injured feelings.  After college however, there will be very few puppies and cookies.  Instead, there will be differing opinions, deadlines, deadlocks, and conflict.  College is a place to learn and prepare for your life.  This means that college speech codes and safe spaces are not doing our students any favors.  They merely create students expecting a fabricated and unrealistic world.  

Ironically, banning free speech causes the very problems people are trying to avoid.  When Prohibition banned alcohol in an attempt to curb drunkenness, it caused a host of unseen and problematic side effects.  The most unanticipated outcome was the poisoning of alcohol.  The only alcohol produced was not meant to be consumed and the government ordered it poisoned with all sorts of things like lead, zinc, and furniture polish so that people would not drink it.  But people drank it anyway and became sick or died.  Just as alcohol needs to be openly sold and regulated by the market, so does free speech.  Free speech self-regulates.  If people do not like an idea, they can purify it with logical arguments.  Free speech works like a proper economy should: good and useful items are bought while bad or defective ones are shunned.  If someone buys into an idea and discovers that it is defective, he will find an alternative.  You cannot attempt to regulate an idea with laws or codes like you can other things, such as alcohol.  Speech is even harder to regulate than alcohol; alcohol is tangible and speech is not.  If a person is not allowed to say something in public, he will say it in his head or among friends where no competing ideas exist.   He will never have a chance to correct his errors. Also, unlike alcohol, free speech is essential to our health - the health of our society.

Why is free speech so important to the health of an enlightened and thoughtful society?  Frederick Douglass argued that “to suppress free speech is a double wrong.  It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”  People are entitled to hear both sides of the matter and decide for themselves.  Just as Locke argued in his Letter Concerning Toleration, a person needs to hear both sides of an issue so that he can reasonably come to his own conclusion.  We can never learn if we only hear one idea.  Therefore all free speech - even supposedly offensive words - need protection.  Provided you are not the Hulk, initial anger over a comment often leads to discussion and new insight.  John Stuart Mill contended that, “He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that.”  Therefore, a person can never truly understand anything until he has an understanding of the other side.  Locke was well aware of this and noted in his Letter that if someone truly believed something all the free speech in the world could neither sway nor wound him because once a person believed in something he would faithfully support it.  Therefore let us protect free speech and resist its suppression as vehemently as Locke resisted the suppression of religion.