The Value of Fighting Attacks on Free Speech Early and Often

Jan 8, 2017

By Conor Friedersdorf

Professor Keith Humphreys of Stanford University does not believe that speech is threatened on America’s campuses. He’s never perceived a meaningful threat himself. And he is very antagonistic toward several of us who believe that important values and vulnerable people will suffer unless more is done to protect free expression.

His posture is not unusual. Across issues and ideologies, on matters big and small, harms that disproportionately affect a vulnerable group or class of people attract skeptics who feel impelled to minimize the importance of documented injustices, especially when they manifest in what appear to be atypical circumstances. A skeptic may grant that there are bad apples in police departments, hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims, abusive teachers who exploit union job protections, or men who catcall women on the street. But perhaps they’ve never been affected, or known anyone who has suffered the relevant harm, so they are predisposed to concluding that the problem isn’t really that bad. Baffled by those who think otherwise, they come to regard them as discreditable agitators.

This type of skeptic is a scourge of civil libertarians. Though they may value the same goods in the abstract, they have a bankrupt understanding of how civil rights, liberties, and key norms must be defended in the particular if they are to endure.

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