Letter to the Editor: free speech drives democracy

“Free speech” is democracy’s indispensable life-blood for its survival. But although protected legally, it may be threatened “socially.”

Recently, former athlete, now (suspended) ESPN commentator, Curt Schilling, tweeted this:

“It’s said only 5 to 10 percent of Muslims are extremists.  In 1940, only 7 percent of Germans were Nazis.  How’d that go?”

Then he commented: “The math is staggering when you get to the numbers.”

Then, apparently losing nerve, he removed the tweet. But it had already “escaped” into cyberspace. Result: he was suspended for a year.

His comment simply “made me think.” But his suspension, disgusted, then alarmed, me.

Legally, Free Speech is: anything except slander (negative untrue statements) plus inciting violence. That’s it. Can’t restrict “hate speech,” it’s undefinable. As for loutish, even loony, statements, let the marketplace of ideas sift-and-winnow them. “Fight bad speech with more speech.” Etc.

But free speech can be eroded socio-culturally. Current unwritten social norms (currently Political Correctness) dictate that we revere current Truths, reject current Taboos. “See, say, hear nothing about Topic X—or we shun you.” (In fact, don’t even think it.)

Judge people by their social contributions, not their personal attitudes and actions. (Which even if “contrary,” might even be beneficial to hear anyway!) Baseball star John Rocker bad-mouthed NYC people: welfare mother, “some queer with AIDS,” foreigners. He was criticized. But–could he play good ball for his fans?  A secretary of agriculture told an anti-Black joke; he was dismissed.  But–was he administrating competently? A business executive supported an anti-gay-marriage initiative.  But–was he managing competently?

Does all this matter?  Free Speech spotlights tough issues, serious threats. Thus is democracy’s vital vitamin. (And our enemies love it when we police our own speech—and thought.)

Brian Kevin Beck

Emeritus Associate Professor, UW-W