Former Vermont Governor and DNC Chairman Howard Dean recently surfaced with the following tweet: “Hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment.” The comment was aimed specifically at Ann Coulter, Firebrand of the Right. Coulter had agreed to give a talk at UC Berkeley on April 27, but the university administration recently canceled it.
Berkeley has seen street violence between “Antifa” (anti-fascist) groups and Trump supporters twice this year, and in February people attending a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos were attacked by protesters. According to the administration, Coulter’s safety could not be guaranteed. The administration has since offered to host her on May 2, but Coulter has already announced that she plans to show up anyway on April 27.
I suspect many libertarians are not surprised to hear that some cowardly administrators can’t control the locals. Many universities have poor track records of handling speakers presenting minority views. But Dean should know better. If the First Amendment does not protect unpopular opinions, why even have it? And it feels different coming from a former governor. It is more than empty virtue-signaling coming from someone who has held elected office.
And while we can commend Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders for their support of free speech, Howard Dean is not alone. His ideological contemporaries are quite open about working toward the restriction of speech on any topic they consider to be off-limits. There is a reason the term “hate speech” has worked its way into our vernacular, yet it does not exist as a legal concept in the United States (with the arguable exception of a number of United Nations resolutions). So far, the First Amendment has acted as a bulwark.
But the term gains traction; we must resist it. Labeling something “hate speech” is more frequent than ever: applied to religious and cultural considerations, personal pronouns, bathrooms, and anything else loosely grouped under the umbrella of “social justice.” Nor is this limited to college campuses.
In this new world, CEOs are fired for political donations (Brenden Eich, co-founder of Mozilla), mom and pop businesses are targeted for their religious beliefs, and controversial speakers are an excuse to smash private property and attack individuals. Even if we don’t like that world, that’s the world we live in.
We libertarians would prefer to disengage from such conversations. We want to be above this sort of thing, and we want to live and let live. But to shy away on this front is to submit. Whether our personal values align more with conservatives or liberals, libertarians should loudly advocate for free speech, even on behalf of someone like Coulter. And we should never accept, on any pretense, legal restrictions on what may and may not be said in public.