How Noah Berlatsky and CNN Got Free Speech Wrong

MLK LBJ Free Speech
Francis Folz | United States

In a recent CNN opinion piece, author Noah Berlatsky contended that “protecting Nazi speech doesn’t protect free speech” and concluded that a Nazi salute by a group of teenagers endangers the speech and lives of all non-Nazis. Although I credit Mr. Berlatsky for his laudable zeal and well-expressed opinion, his article is laced with multiple fallacies regarding free speech that must be confronted.

Firstly, our Bill of (Human) Rights are not, and should remain, non-negotiable, and that includes the first, second, and fourth amendments. Mr. Berlatsky attributes the belief that safeguarding controversial speech, which inadvertently protects less contentious or innocuous speech, to free speech ‘purists’.

Need I remind anyone it was less than 54 years ago that countless Civil Rights demonstrators were savagely attacked for merely utilizing their freedom of speech, expression, and assembly by law enforcement and firefighters on their solemn march to Montgomery from Selma.

It is for similar reasons that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from his Birmingham jail cell, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I wonder if Mr. Berlatsky disagrees.

Mr. Berlatsky proceeds, “Defending the speech of white kids doesn’t necessarily protect… marginalized people.”

To some extent, he’s right. Defending those kids doesn’t necessarily guarantee everybody’s speech of every demographic is going to be protected every time in the future. However, it does set a precedent favoring free speech compared to censorship, which should be a commonly held interest.

Mr. Berlatsky’s most startling, misguided premise about freedom of expression is whenever he discusses “giving free speech to fascists” and how organizations and judges need to balance ambiguous ‘interests’. Mr. Berlatsky blatantly misunderstands that our rights are not given to each other by society, rather they are innate, endowed to us by our Creator.

We don’t ‘give’ each other the human right to privacy, just like we don’t ‘give’ each other the 14th Amendment right to birthright citizenship. All of our rights are intrinsic to our humanity, inseparable from our existence, and deserving of our unwavering defense.

At some point in his article, I questioned if Mr. Berlatsky is aware of the equal protection clause since his attempts to justify censorship tend to fall apart when applied to groups outside of fascists. In regards to the Charlottesville rally in 2017, Berlatsky suggests that since white supremacists used their freedom to ‘terrorize’ people and one individual killed one person and injured nearly 20 others, that is cause to deny every individual within the group their human rights.

Using Mr. Berlatsky’s logic, shouldn’t all members of Antifa have their constitutional rights suspended? After all, when a Hillary Clinton supporter in Portland refused to surrender an American flag to the domestic terrorist group, Antifa members cracked his head open. And that’s only one example of their repeated malice. Shouldn’t their hatred be enough to disband the violent, left-wing faction?

What if you applied Mr. Berlatsky’s logic to religious fanatics instead of ideological extremists? Wouldn’t the tragedy of September 11th be enough to deny every American Muslim the freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly because of the actions of 19 men?

After all, haven’t Islamic extremists terrorized multiple nations and killed thousands of people throughout the globe in the last two decades? Any reasonable person would not punish a group of people for the actions of its individual members but would advocate for equal protection under the law, foils to Mr. Berlatsky’s arguments.

Next, Mr. Berlatsky makes the case that the Wisconsin school district should’ve reprimanded the students for their inappropriate picture that appears to show them performing a Nazi salute, despite being off-campus and unaffiliated with the school district at the time of the photo. In an attempt to buttress his argument, Mr. Berlatsky reports that a school suspended 20 students for a tweet that falsely accused a female teacher of flirting with students, justifying the suppression of expression.

The problem is that the Salem students were guilty of libel and accused a staff member of coquetting with her pupils, a criminal offense. The only crime the Wisconsin teens committed was taking a reprehensible picture, making the situation incomparable.

Mr. Berlatsky’s final argument centers around discipline and race. According to the Government Accountability Office, Black students, in 2014, were 15.5 percent of the U.S. student populace, yet accounted for almost 39% of suspensions. Mr. Berlatsky attributes the disproportion to schools inevitably using their disciplinary authority against ‘marginalized students’ at the expense of others.

However, American schools are extremely localized, meaning parents and administrators have the final say on countless decisions, from electronics to dress codes to disciplinary policies. Regrettably, American schools are nearly as segregated as they were in the 1960s.

So in other words, the black students who are subjected to disproportionate suspensions are largely attending non-white majority schools which choose to chastise their students at a rate that is, apparently, acceptable with school personnel and parents.

Free speech is under siege like never before in American history. I hate bigotry. I detest fascism. However, I appreciate our collective, human right to speech and expression, even if I disapprove of somebody’s opinions and/or actions.

Today, the groups whom people loathe most are nazism and fascism. Nazism, by definition, is national socialism. Socialism is just a few steps away from communism. Communism has left over 100 million people dead in 100 years. What would people think if you could no longer raise your fist in public because of it’s communist insignia?

We are better as a society for the ability to openly express all of our ideas, even ones we don’t concur with, rather than only tribal-mentality approved perspectives, regardless of ideology. If detestable, bigoted opinions are allowed to be expressed in the open, it allows society to weed out the most reprehensible of ideas. It is best we don’t take for granted the ability to communicate freely and openly with each other, as anything less is a form of authoritarianism, oppression, and tyranny.


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There Is No Moral Reason to Prohibit Hate Speech

Hate Speech Free Speech
By Teagan Fair | United States

The First Amendment, naturally, comes first in the Bill of Rights. As such, it is the most important right. It has become an emblem of American society since our founders wrote it into law. Founder and hero George Washington once said the following on free speech:

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

He was absolutely right. He, along with the other founders of this country, and any man or woman that values liberty, knew that there is simply no moral reason to prohibit free speech, even hate speech.

Allow me to ask an interesting hypothetical: If we can limit speech, then where exactly does one draw the line? The Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment does not safeguard “advocacy of the use of force” if it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and is “likely to incite or produce such action”. So, if you wish to draw the line there, it already exists. This makes sense and is just, as we must take action against serious threats. However, there should be no more limitations on free speech.

Hate Speech is Free Speech

Anything else, including hate speech, is simply one group of people enforcing values onto others. Ultimately, there is nothing that makes one set of values more or less important than others. This strikes a second question: whose values become proper, and whose become hate speech?

Let’s take a blatantly brazen and noxious group as an example: the Nazis. Many people may support a prohibition on the hate speech of Nazis. This is not morally correct. Sure, I hate Nazis as much as the next guy. Almost all can agree that Nazism is an ideology of hatred. However, provided that they are not advocating for direct and violent action, the Consitution still guards their rights.

Though they are morally wrong in intent, it is just as wrong to prohibit them from speaking. This goes for any ideology, on any side of the political spectrum. No matter how politically radical you may be, you have the same rights to free speech as anyone else. As said by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Hate speech, without a doubt, is free speech.

Violence and Hate Speech

Many people claim that hate speech is either violent itself or can provoke violence. Yet, hurt feelings do not mean that something is violent. On a moral level, it may be practical and/or moral to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. However, it is truly horrendous to ask the government to steal someone’s money or lock them away for espousing an opinion you do not like. This is no different than the government arresting an innocent man. Using violence itself, the state is enforcing the values of one person onto another. There is no other way to put it: this is a form of oppression, by the government and by fellow citizens. If the speech incites violence, it is another story. But there is a clear difference between a brash insult and a call to violence.

Moreover, it is worth noting that these rights apply universally. Age, gender, race, and creed, among other things, cannot take away free speech. The phrase, “You don’t get free speech until you’re an adult” is fairly common. Surprisingly, many children actually repeat it. This is completely untrue. As I noted previously, in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines that the First Amendment does apply to public school students, in a 7-2 majority. This applies to charter schools as well, as they act as public organizations.

The right to free speech is arguably one of the most important ones. Speaking is something that we do every day. To narrow it down, speaking about controversial topics is also quite regular. The government already influences or controls your business, your car, your money, your devices, your weaponry, and countless other rights. If the State controls our right to something as basic as free speech, what kind of society do we live in? Certainly, that would not be one that is civil or desirable.


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Supreme Court to Solve Free Speech v. Private Corporation Debate

By Mason Mohon | United States

Brett Kavanaugh’s turbulent entrance into the Supreme Court will first be met with a potentially groundbreaking free speech case. The case is that of Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, No. 17-702. As CNBC reports, this case centers around whether a private operator of a public access television network is considered a state actor, which would leave it accountable to the free speech protections in the First Amendment.

Read moreSupreme Court to Solve Free Speech v. Private Corporation Debate

“Build the Wall” Sign Declared Hate Speech at Stanford

By Jason Patterson | USA

A picture of students with a poster board that said #buildthewall caused controversy among staff members and students, and one teacher even went as far as to declare it hate speech.

This all started when signs and posters started to appear across the university encouraging students to “report ICE activity” attempting to stop ICE officials from doing their job and deporting Illegal immigrants.

However, when someone tore down one of these ‘go against the law’ signs, university officials immediately declared it to be an “Act of Intolerance”.

Andrew Todhunter, a biology teacher at Stanford sent an email to students in which he described the incident as a “hateful act,” before claiming residents, “Now feel unsafe in their home here at Stanford.”

The incident was officially deemed to constitute an “Act of Intolerance,” which is any act that targets a group based on, “Gender or gender identity/Race or ethnicity/Disability/Religion/Sexual orientation/Nationality/Age/Social or economic status.”

In response, the MEChA de Stanford student organization made two hundred anti ICE posters and hung them all around campus.

MECha claimed that #BuildTheWall” flyer was “blatantly racist and xenophobic”.

Martin Alcaraz Jr, a student at Stanford on Facebook called the build the wall flyer a “hate crime” and said it was evidence that Stanford was encouraging an intolerant environment for students.

One wonders how the same students and staff would have reacted if someone had posted the ‘#BuildTheWall’ sign on their own door. Would they have been targeted for harassment or left alone?

The story is similar in nature to when “It’s okay to be white” signs were posted on campuses at several universities last year, leading to another hysterical moral panic amid claims that the signs represented some kind of threat.


Image from Stanford.

Free Speech Zones: A Backhanded Slap to Students

By Addie Mae Villas | USA

In the day of age of trigger warnings and safe spaces, free speech zones have been appearing on college campuses everywhere, restricting free speech for thousands. What once started as a way to provide a safe way for anti-Vietnam War protesters, has now become an easy pathway to suppress the voices of those with the “unpopular opinion” and dare to challenge the agenda of the universities. Not only are these free speech zones often completely unconstitutional, but they eliminate the discussion that is so often associated with higher levels of learning.

The fight for free speech has always been a hard fight battle. More times than not we see brave students taking on the establishment of their schools to fight for what they deserve. One prime example of this can be seen in Tinker v. Des Moines, a landmark case that stated students still have rights, mainly the First Amendment, when on public funded land. The decision was based on the fact that “Students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates.”, meaning that students have every right to peacefully protest, gather, and say anything they want without repercussions from the school. This case not only showed that students cannot be silenced but also became the basis for unlaw action against students. The fight for the First Amendment rights can also be seen in Healy v. James, which was judged on the Tinker Standards, and came to the basis that the organization, Students for a Democratic Society, had every right to use school buildings to have their meetings, seeing as public universities were public forums. This is also backed by the Equal Access Act that prevents schools from discriminating against religious, political, or philosophical groups that wish to have met and share their message.  There are many other cases that have set a precedence of not denying rights to students on public land, yet students are still be censored and confined to their views.

Currently, 33.9% of public colleges and universities received a red light rating from FIRE, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The red light rating is defined as a speech code that “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech, or that bars public access to its speech-related policies” this is supplemented by the fact that red light ratings are a direct violation of the First Amendment. This is down from 79% in 2009, but 33.9% is still a substantial amount of schools, especially when 52.8% of the schools looked at received a yellow light rating, that implies the school has policies that could be seen as suppression of students right to expression. With schools implementing free speech zones, sometimes as small as 616 square feet at Pierce College, it not only confines the reach of the messages trying to be advocated but also gives colleges and universities the option to pick and choose the rules they want to follow. The Pierce College case is important for the fact that the students were met with opposition for handing out Spanish versions of the Constitution. By suing Pierce College, Kevin Shaw hopes to show the violation of the First Amendment for restricting speech to a set zone, but also requiring a permit and a set time for the distribution of materials or the spreading of a message.

College campuses were once the place for healthy and lively discussion and debate. Now, it is filtered to ensure that no one is harmed by the truth and limits interaction and dialogue. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated that colleges “a place of robust debate,” had become “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.” Going back to the Tinker v. Des Moines case, a student doesn’t lose their rights to free speech or assembly when they enter the world of academia. In the words of George Orwell “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Although the truth may hurt, it still deserves to be shared and not restricted by the authority above.