The excellent Steven Pinker has an article in the Boston Globe today defending free speech. It’s an incomplete defence, of course, given the space (it neglects to defend worthless/garbage speech, which I feel should be part of a complete defence), but it does a fine job of outlining the main points in favour of it.
I do want to take issue with one argument Pinker makes that I don’t think goes through:
The first reason is that the very thing we’re doing when we ask whether free speech is fundamental — exchanging and evaluating ideas — presupposes that we have the right to exchange and evaluate ideas. In talking about free speech (or anything else) we’re talking. We’re not settling our disagreement by arm-wrestling or a beauty contest or a pistol duel. Unless you’re willing to discredit yourself by declaring, in the words of Nat Hentoff, “free speech for me but not for thee,” then as soon as you show up to a debate to argue against free speech, you’ve lost it.
Those who argue against free speech (or for “free speech with limits”, as they often call it) aren’t arguing against all speech or against the value of debate. What they are claiming is that some instances of speech are so harmful that the state should actively prohibit them. A typical example of this is “hate speech”. It is perfectly possible for someone to argue without contradiction for there to be restrictions on hate speech, so long as they do so without the need for them to “hate speak” in the process. So I don’t think that it’s true that if you “show up to a debate to argue against free speech, you’ve lost it”. All it requires is that you don’t think that debating such issues should be considered as the sort of speech that ought to be prohibited.
I don’t believe that there should be restrictions on hate speech, but that is because I believe free speech should be a right. There’s no contradiction when an advocate of unfree speech uses their approved subset of speech to argue against their right to say what they like.