A friend of mine once summed up the purpose of Bill of Rights by analogy; as he put it, "Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind changes." The best reason for refusing to allow government to suppress bad ideas is that tomorrow, government may use that authority to suppress good ones. Our legal and economic systems are based upon our belief in the marketplace–if I make a better widget, it will beat out the competition; if I have a better idea, it will eventually emerge victorious.
Every so often, we must remind ourselves that the First Amendment was intended to protect all ideas, not just good ideas, or those with which a majority or substantial minority may agree. As Supreme Court opinions often remind us, the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment was meant to protect the idea we hate.
A friend of mine once summed up the purpose of Bill of Rights by analogy; as he put it, “Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind changes.” The best reason for refusing to allow government to suppress bad ideas is that tomorrow, government may use that authority to suppress good ones. Our legal and economic systems are based upon our belief in the marketplace—if I make a better widget, it will beat out the competition; if I have a better idea, it will eventually emerge victorious.
If there is any cause that has been immeasurably advanced by free expression, it is the cause of gay and lesbian equality. If government had the right to suppress “deviant” or “dangerous” ideas, there would be no public discussions of coming out, safe sex, sodomy laws or gay marriage. There would certainly be no Will and Grace or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Gay relationships would still be “the love that dare not speak its name.”
It’s important to remind progressive folks why free speech is important because from time to time, we are tempted to do some censoring of our own. It has been such a time at Indiana University, where a business school professor has posted homophobic remarks on his website, and some gay students have called upon the University to shut the site down. The students have argued that while the postings were made to the Professor’s personal page, University servers “host” personal pages for faculty and are thus supporting the messages posted to them.
Whatever the technical merits of that argument, I would suggest that trying to censor the offending page is absolutely the worst approach—both practically and constitutionally. Such attempts fuel the right-wing’s accusations about “political correctness” in academia without engaging the message itself.
Sometimes, when I am teaching about free speech, I compare ideas with leftovers in the refrigerator. (Okay, it’s a reach. But hang in here with me.) We all know that if we stick some leftover meatloaf in the back corner of the refrigerator and forget about it for a couple of weeks, it will get moldy and begin to smell up the whole refrigerator. But if we take that same leftover and put it in strong sunlight, it dries out and loses its odor—it is no longer able to pollute the air around it. The marketplace of ideas is like that. If we suppress a bad idea—push it into the corner of the refrigerator, so to speak—it starts to stink up the political process. If we take it into the sunlight, we can “dry it out” so that it no longer smells things up. But—and this is a very important “but”—the sunlight is us. Citizens in a free society are obliged to participate in the marketplace of ideas, obliged to contend with bad ideas and counter them with better ones.
So what does this paragraph of very mixed metaphors mean in the context of the homophobic professor?
· First, it means that those of us who find his reasoning specious and his ideas offensive must respect his right to hold them. We must recognize that he is as entitled to his opinions as we are to ours.
· Second, it means that we insist on a similar respect for those of us who disagree with him.
· Finally, it means that we have an obligation to refute assertions for which there is no evidence, an obligation to point out faulty logic and bias. We have an obligation to counter his bad ideas with better ones.
As federal judge Sarah Evans Barker once wrote in an opinion striking down an ordinance that criminalized sexually explicit materials deemed to “demean” women, free speech is not the enemy. It is a worthy and trusted ally in the fight for equality.