Speech is free, but not consequence-free. Milo Yiannopoulos managed to skirt this reality for years, but eventually it comes for us all.
A quick recap for those who have not been following this sordid tale: Milo is an Internet personality and now-former Breitbart News senior editor best known for his glibly offensive remarks about minority groups, his hatred of “political correctness” and his support of Donald Trump.
Many on the right hailed Milo as one of the few brave enough to defend free speech and speak uncomfortable truths. After his speaking tour was met with protests at college campuses, he was invited to speak at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
This weekend, however, video emerged of Milo joking about pedophilia and molestation. In short order he was disinvited from CPAC, his book deal was canceled, and he resigned from Breitbart.
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It is interesting that while the right championed his racist, misogynist invective as a much-needed tonic for our stifled public discourse, discussions of child sex abuse were not seen the same way. For all the invocations of the First Amendment, there is apparently still a line. Milo crossed it, the end, goodbye.
The fact that a line exists at all brings to light a point often overlooked when “free speech” is bandied about as a hallowed but somehow threatened ideal. Yes, speech is free, but not free from dissent. You can say what you like, but no one has to listen to you.
The First Amendment guarantees that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” That is all. It does not say that private companies must promote all kinds of content equally, or that Simon & Schuster is obliged to hand out book contracts to everyone who wants one. It should not be stretched to imply that institutions must provide a platform for every opinion. And while the First Amendment often makes it possible for individuals to challenge the dominant discourse, it gives them no more help than that.
Some – myself included – have argued that the best remedy for hateful speech is more speech, not less. But it is worth pointing out that “more speech” can take a number of forms. It could be the addition of other, opposing speakers to a lineup featuring a contentious guest. It could be a petition asking for the guest to be disinvited. It could be protesters telling said speaker to shut up and get off of their campus, or even calling the speaker a racist or Nazi. Some of these methods are far more productive than others, and some are less likely to promote useful discourse. But “free speech” also means that such responses must be allowed to occur and may well bring about consequences that the original speaker might not enjoy.
Positive freedom relies on prudence. If the things you say provoke an intense and unpleasant reaction, it may be worth wondering whether your critics have a point. And if you’re in favor of free speech when it comes to some topics but not others, perhaps you should investigate why your limits lie where they do.
The Milo debacle helpfully illustrates the limitations of invoking “free speech” to cast a benevolent glow on any and every injudicious statement, and the bind created when any opposition is cast as unjust, illiberal “silencing.” It may finally be time to stop flogging the First Amendment as some sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for foolish talk. We’re wonderfully free to say whatever we want to. But that doesn’t mean we should.