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March 15, 2017

Free Speech Isn’t Granted by the First Amendment

It’s an “unalienable” right.

Nevertheless it’s a right which is endangered by the intolerance of both the right and the left. Lately and near home some have thought to excuse the disgraceful assault on free speech and free debate, not to mention the physical assault on a professor, at Middlebury College on the grounds that, since the college isn’t the government, free speech (and apparently professors) aren’t protected there.

True enough, the first amendment in The Bill of Rights “only” says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;…”. Congress could only abridge a right if it already existed. This amendment protects the right of free speech; it doesn’t grant it.

The Declaration of Independence makes clear where these rights come from: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,…” In other words, no one gets to take rights like free speech away; not government at the federal level; not government at the state level or the local level; and not a mob like the one at Middlebury.

In fact the protections against certain acts of congress in The Constitution have been extended by a series of court decisions to apply to the states and their subdivisions. Congress has extended the obligation to protect these rights to many recipients of federal aid – including colleges. Would those who argue that free speech protection doesn’t apply at Middlebury also argue that Middlebury isn’t obliged to offer equal-opportunity admission or equal funding for men and women’s sports?

Another specious argument used to defend the mob is that Charles Murray had no inherent right to speak at Middlebury. That’s true but irrelevant. It’s not his right that was abridged; it’s the right of the students who invited him and wanted to listen to him or debate with him that was denied by those who wouldn’t let him speak. Free speech means the right to listen to whomever you want as well as the right to say what you want.

Free speech needs lots of defense, partly because it obliges those of who treasure it to protect the rights of those who say obnoxious things – including attacks on free speech itself. We must extend them the right to be heard that they would deny us.

Lately there have been endless parallels proposed between the election of Donald Trump and the rise of Nazis in Germany. We should never forget these lessons. But I’ve just returned from France with its horrible memories of the tyranny of the self-righteous left after the French Revolution. The mob at Middlebury is a reminder that liberty is most at threat from those who are convinced they have a monopoly on truth, whether they are on the left or the right. Our unalienable rights are always endangered and always need defense.

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