I think of respect for free speech as a commons. Every time some group invokes free speech to say something controversial, they’re drawing from the commons – which is fine, that’s what the commons is there for. Presumably the commons self-replenishes at some slow rate as people learn philosophy or get into situations where free speech protects them and their allies.I do see the dynamic he is talking about, but I think his worry is overblown. For one thing Americans have never really been that big on freedom for speech they dislike, and we have at times made big swaths of speech that ought to be protected by the First Amendment effectively illegal. There are no actual sacred principles in our society, or probably in any other. So my question would be, is the threat posed to free speech by contemporary leftists any worse than the threat posed by anti-communists in the 1950s or Victorian prudes or any other powerful, highly motivated group? I don't see it.
But if you draw from the commons too quickly, then the commons disappears. When trolls say the most outrageous things possible, then retreat to “oh, but free speech”, they’re burning the commons for no reason, to the detriment of everybody else who needs it.
(This is how I feel about everything Milo Yiannopoulos has ever done or said.)
If Charles Murray sincerely believes what he says, thinks it’s important, and thinks that saying it makes the world a better place, then he is exactly the sort of person whom free speech exists to defend. And if someone in a college reads The Bell Curve, likes it, and wants to learn more, then free speech exists to defend them too. But if your thought process is “Who’s the most offensive person I can think of? Charles Murray? Okay, let’s invite him to give a big talk, put up flyers everywhere, and when people get angry we’ll just say FREE SPEECH”, I worry that you are drawing from the commons for no reason. And that sometime later, when people need to use the commons for things they actually believe, there won’t be any left. People will have gotten so reflexively hostile to the idea of “free speech” that they’ll reject even the barest amount of tolerance for even slightly divergent views.
This is even more pressing in the context of growing partisanship and tribalism. Because the debate centers on mostly-leftist areas like universities, conservatives are turning free speech into a conservative principle. This is a disaster, because something being a conservative principle pretty automatically means that liberals will be tempted to conspicuously desecrate it. If people actually care about free speech, the number one thing they can do right now is very loudly invoke it every time a liberal is silenced. We should be having giant free speech parades supporting everyone who’s punished for supporting Palestine, just to make sure liberals don’t get the impression that free speech is a weapon pointed at them.
The nightmare scenario is that “free speech” goes the way of “family values” – a seemingly uncontroversial concept gets so tarnished by its association with unpopular/conservative ideas that it becomes impossible to mention or invoke in polite company without outing yourself as some kind of far-right weirdo. Right now I think we’re on that path.
The flip side of that, though, would be that there have always been threats to free speech, so it has always needed defending.