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Why Free Speech?

Illustration by Signe Wilkinson

Why another book on free speech? And what’s with the cartoons?

I’ve been asked these questions many times in the weeks since the publication of my new book, Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn (City of Light Press, 2021), which is illustrated by cartoonist Signe Wilkinson. And the best way to answer is with a story that appears in the book’s opening pages.

A few years ago, I invited Mary Beth Tinker to meet with my undergraduate class on the history of American education. Tinker herself is an important figure in that history, because she was one of the students who wore black armbands to school in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1965 to protest America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Sent home as a punishment, she sued her school district on free-speech grounds. Tinker v. Des Moines made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor in 1969. In a ringing decision, the Court declared that neither students nor teachers need to “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

My students loved Tinker’s story, and who doesn’t? Adorable seventh grader confronts Big Bad Authority. Adorable seventh grader wins. Cut to the credits.

But when our class discussion turned to the present, the mood changed. Students insisted that schools and universities should prohibit hate speech, which hurts innocent people. Mary Beth Tinker was fighting the good fight, against the war in Vietnam. But racists and sexists and homophobes and transphobes are different, my students said. They cause harm, offense, and even trauma in their victims. We need to shut them down.

Tinker wasn’t having it. At her middle school in Des Moines, she said, there were students who had fathers, uncles, and brothers who were fighting in Southeast Asia. Don’t you think they were offended and hurt by a snot-nosed kid whose armband suggested that their loved ones were risking their lives for a lie?

Of course they were. Speech hurts, which is why censors across time have tried to stamp it out. So if you’re going to bar speech that hurts someone, well, forget about Tinker’s armband. Forget about free speech, period.

My students took this in, and then they tried another tack. Wasn’t free speech really just a tool of the powerful? That’s why white men like it so much, of course. It lets them have their say while it harms (there’s that word again) people with less status and influence in society.

Mary Beth Tinker wasn’t having that, either. In 1965, she told the class, she was a 13-year-old girl. Free speech was the only power she had! Take that away, and she would have nothing at all.

That brief exchange planted the seed of my modest little book. My students saw free speech as hateful, or at least as “conservative,” something that helped people at the top maintain their power and privilege. So I resolved to write a book that would look backward, to remind them about the liberal, and even radical, role that free speech has played in America.

Indeed, every great campaign for justice in our history was powered by free speech. Frederick Douglass called it “the great moral renovator of society,” because nobody could challenge oppression if you also silenced their tongues. The first mass censorship campaign in American history was engineered by slaveholders in the South, who sought to ban abolitionist literature from the U.S. mail and even from the floor of Congress. Like all censors, in all times and places, they were afraid that readers would get the wrong idea.

But Douglass wanted them to hear his idea: that slavery was a moral and political abomination, a violation of America’s best ideals, and a sin before God. And that would never happen without freedom of speech.

So my book tells his story, alongside those of Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and, yes, Mary Beth Tinker. All of them wanted to get the word out about the horrors of war (and, in Sanger’s case, about the need for birth control). All of them faced censors, who wanted to keep things the way they were. And all of them kept speaking, because they understood that free speech was the only way to change the world.

Have evil people harnessed speech to evil purposes? Of course. At the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, for example, some protesters wore Nazi and Confederate regalia. But the answer to hateful speakers is to raise your voice against them, which is a vital exercise of free speech in its own right. Trying to muzzle them will simply make them into martyrs, providing precisely the publicity that they crave. And whatever restrictions you establish to silence them will eventually be used to silence others—and maybe you.

Witness the now-famous 1987 speech code at the University of Michigan, which barred “any behavior, verbal or physical, that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap, or Vietnam-era veteran status.” Sounds good, right? Wrong. Over the next 18 months, whites charged Blacks with violating the code in 20 cases. One African American student was punished for using the term “white trash.”

So when we censor speech, even with the best of anti-racist intentions, racial minorities will lose out. And so will the rest of us, because we won’t get to listen to what they have to say.

That’s what I tried to say in my new book. But I also knew that few people would hear the message if I wrote it in a traditional academic voice. My other books have been read mostly by a small set of specialists, who share my interests and expertise. I wanted a wider audience for this one.

Hence its pocket-style length and breezy, informal prose. By using jargon like “instantiate” and “unpack” (except to describe the end of a vacation), academic authors effectively put up a sign that says: Regular Readers Keep Out. And I wanted to invite them in.

That’s also why I wanted illustrations, on the cover and throughout the text. And not just any illustrations, mind you. A true master of her craft, Signe Wilkinson was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning. Her drawings capture ideas in ways that my words simply can’t.

I’m especially partial to her depiction of Martin Luther King Jr. holding an equal rights poster, while sniffling white policemen complain that his speech is hurtful to them (see illustration at the beginning of this piece). There’s the argument of the book in a nutshell. All speech is going to hurt someone, as Mary Beth Tinker reminded my class. So shutting it down will hurt everyone.

Why free speech? And why the cartoons? See for yourself, and have your say. Just don’t say that there are things we can’t say. That never ends well for anyone, including the people you’re trying to protect. And if you think otherwise, watch out! Someday soon, the censors will be coming for you. It’s happened before.

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