2016 FIRST PLACE ESSAY

by Collin Lehmann, Age 17
Submitting Teacher: Michelle Lehmann


Dystopian fiction has proven itself an enduringly popular genre of literature: from classics like 1984 to the recent Hunger Games series, depictions of brutal, totalitarian societies seem to viscerally capture our imaginations. While some details vary with the authors’ political ideologies, one thing remains constant: a pronounced absence of free speech. We seem to know instinctively that if any society is to become such a totalitarian horror, free speech is one of the first things that must go. It should be profoundly unsettling, therefore, that every day free speech protections in America grow weaker and weaker.

            To be fair, the American experience with free speech has always been rocky.  The First Amendment’s protections, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, have not always been sufficient to fend off attacks to free speech. Within twelve years of its establishment, congress passed the first Sedition Act, allowing the government to prosecute false statements criticizing it. Fortunately, outrage triggered by the Sedition Act added fuel to Jefferson’s presidential campaign, culminating in John Adams’ defeat and the Act’s expiration.

            The same principle reared its head again during World War I with the passage of the Sedition Act of 1919, prohibiting “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” towards the government. While it is difficult to determine how many convictions occurred, estimates suggest approximately 1500 prosecutions and 1000 convictions. The Act was ruled constitutional in a 1919 Supreme Court case and was not repealed until a year later. It was not until the 1960s, particularly the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio, that our modern free speech protections were established. In this decision, the court ruled that inflammatory speech could not be punished unless it attempts and is likely to incite imminent lawless action.

            One could be forgiven for thinking that this decision settled the issue once and for all, and as recently as 2006, this would seem plausible. Former-Speaker Newt Gingrich openly advocated curbing free speech to fight terrorism, including restricting ‘capacity to use the internet’ and publication of recruitment materials. Even as the Bush administration employed increasingly radical anti-terrorism methods, Gingrich’s proposal was not taken especially seriously, quickly disappearing from political discussion.

Today, the idea has been rejuvenated by the hysteria surrounding the Islamic State with the support of law professor Eric Posner. To his credit, Posner admits that the standing interpretation of the First Amendment would give judges justification to strike down any such law, but points to measures in both World Wars and the Civil War (prosecution of enemy sympathizers and draft evaders) as precedent for restrictions of free speech in deference to national security. Posner suggests that ISIS’ sophisticated techniques warrant speech restrictions. What value does ISIS’ ideology bring to the intellectual market place anyway? Where is the harm in restricting access to such an obviously noxious set of ideas?

            While Posner condemns the imprisonment of war protesters under the Sedition Act of 1918, he blithely dismisses such concerns about civil liberties today (evidently the hobgoblin of small minds) and follows up with more alarmist rhetoric about the dangers of ISIS’ propaganda machine. Perhaps the most chilling line in his article is the closing one: “[such restrictions] would also protect American Muslims… from the virus of ISIS’s ideology.”

            Herein lies the greatest threat to free speech in America today. From restrictions of websites supporting ISIS to silencing dissent on college campuses, the common thread is this single attitude: that people must be protected from exposure to bad ideas.

Why should the government decide which ideas are good or bad? While activists today cry for government restriction of hate speech against same-sex couples, they are quick to forget that this is the same government that, as Mr. Stossel points out in his special, used to run anti-gay PSAs on television. If we give government the right to prescribe the “right way” to talk or the “right way” to think, we cannot fairly be surprised when some of our own convictions become taboo. Those who believe that the State should regulate what people say and think must come to terms with the likelihood that this power will eventually be wielded by an administration with opposing convictions.

During the Cold War, the American Right attempted to stifle political opposition through the red scare and investigations of so-called ‘Anti-American activities.’ Today, the tides have turned and the beleaguered Left has emerged as the speech-totalitarians of the new millennium. Silencing dissent to create “safe-spaces” and destroying careers over off-hand jokes and racy shirts has become par for the course in American politics. The oppressed of yesterday have become the oppressors of today, keeping the cycle spinning ad infinitum. Dishearteningly, proposals to fight ISIS by trampling free speech rights seems to have attracted bipartisan support.

This pervasive attitude that people, not just children, but full, legal adults, need to be protected from bad ideas is deeply disturbing. We are told that we must evade confrontation with ‘bad ideas.’ This suggestion can be met only with incredulity. Are we really to coddle our minds by shutting down opposing beliefs? This infantilization of the American citizen is at the heart of the all-too-common position that the most appropriate response to disagreement is to silence the opposition.

The issue at stake is this: free speech is an indispensable element of our liberty. No matter how wrong we think someone is, he should be free to speak as he chooses. To deny this is to deny one of the cornerstones of human liberty and civilization. Ultimately, hatred and intolerance will not be rooted out by ‘safe spaces’ or mobs of protestors: but by the beacon of truth and reason through free and open discourse. Likewise, cliché as it may be, the terrorists have won only when they have frightened us into abandoning our fundamental values. The flame of liberty is the heart of American culture, but even here it must be tended vigilantly. All that is needed to extinguish this flame is for the defenders of liberty to remain silent.