There is something ironic, if not Kafkaesque or Orwellian, about an executive order, imbued with language extolling free speech, that proposes an opposite effect by also calling on the federal government to monitor and regulate Internet and social media platforms. It isn’t clear how the government would regulate digital platforms, but the suggestion runs counter to the wide-open nature of free speech that facilitates all forms of discussion online — the hallmark of the Internet since it became commercial and accessible by ordinary people in the 1990s.
The president’s contradictory executive order highlights the dizzying world of free speech in America today. Trump has trampled on First Amendment and free-speech rights more vigorously than any president before him. Beyond the White House, free-speech battles are being waged across the country, on college campuses, social media and the airwaves, among voices from both the right and the left. Our increasingly fractious debates are pulling at the fabric of our free-speech protections, which ensure that all — even those with views offensive to others — have the right to be heard.
Now, into the fray comes Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, with a warning and a steady voice of experience and erudition on how to preserve and expand free expression. “The state of discourse in America today raises a troubling question of whether the principle of free speech can survive intact in our diverse, digitized, and divided culture,” Nossel writes in her new book, “Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All.” While she acknowledges that there are no easy answers, she hopes to spur “dialogue about why free speech matters and how it can be protected without running roughshod over values of equality.”
Nossel stresses the role and responsibility of the individual in maintaining our free-speech principles, rather than the imposition of rules on social media, universities and other institutions where public discourse occurs. “This book is intended for all who seek to voice controversial viewpoints, hear them out from others, and keep their boardrooms, classrooms, dormitories, and dining tables open to fruitful conversations between people whose beliefs differ,” she writes.
While most people believe that the Constitution holds all the answers to conflicts over free speech, Nossel explains that the First Amendment’s influence is limited because its purview is confined to infringements by the government. She notes that “the First Amendment is silent on many of the free speech conflicts of our time,” adding that it does not have an “answer to the censorious power of online mobs,” or guidance on curbing “the detrimental effects of hateful speech,” or advice on how to know when “content is too vitriolic, bigoted, deceitful, or misleading to be shared online.”
Though bigoted and hateful rhetoric often stirs the sharpest arguments over who should be allowed to speak, Nossel contends that the principle of free speech is strengthened by the airing of unpleasant views. She quotes a line attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire that amply supports free expression, however offensive: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Social taboos will keep most people from uttering offensive language, but sometimes it is impossible to keep ugly speech out of the public realm. It is also impossible, in many people’s view, to clearly identify it. “Much of the time, no such definitive judgment is possible,” Nossel notes. “Offensiveness is not always objectively determinable.”
So society must rely on a judgment elaborated by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in his notion of a “marketplace of ideas.” In a 1919 dissent, Holmes defended the free-speech rights of a group of socialist-anarchists, arguing, “The ultimate good desired is better reached by the free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
Holmes’s perception was revolutionary at the time, but as Nossel tells us, his vigorous protection of speech regardless of the viewpoint “became an anchor of American jurisprudence and is among the elements that distinguish the United States’ approach to free speech protections as the world’s most robust.”
Such history illuminates her pages, but Nossel never loses sight of her chief aim: to provide a road map for navigating and safeguarding free-speech rights in our multifaceted, multicultural democracy. “This book,” she writes, “suggests guidelines that can protect ideas and opinions from suppression and also widen the circle of those who stand ready to defend free expression.”
“Dare to Speak” offers principles for speaking, for listening, for debating free speech and for considering speech-related policies. Better debate, Nossel suggests, rests on individuals’ sensitivity and consideration when speaking in the public arena. She highlights her points in brief tips and how-to boxes. In one short section titled “How to be a Conscientious Speaker,” for instance, she advises, among her five points: “Don’t assume that your own understanding of the meaning of words and phrases is universally shared.” For the speaker who has offended someone, she has a box titled “Good Apologies.” Point No. 5: “Focus on regret for actions committed: Rather than saying you’re sorry for how someone felt or another result of your actions, say you’re sorry for what you did.”
Will Nossel’s guideposts resonate with polarized speakers? It’s impossible to know whether the tips throughout the book will facilitate more refined debate or acceptance of other viewpoints. Readers may find some of the advice banal, though well-intentioned.
Can a sincere, thoughtful book with some nuggets of practical advice resolve our infinite wars over free speech that sometimes devolve from juvenile name-calling to actual violence? “Dare to Speak” adds another voice to the cacophony. Nossel reiterates our long-standing commitment to free speech and offers some wholesome advice, which may be just what we need. Instead of less debate, we need wide conversation to lead us toward the truth in the marketplace of ideas. As Justice Louis Brandeis explained in response to power of negative speech: “If there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Dare to Speak
Defending Free Speech for All
By Suzanne Nossel
304 pp. $28.99