While leftists have often been victims of anti-free speech laws in history, exemplified by the Argentinian Dirty War, the Kent State Massacre, the Holocaust, the Spanish White Terror, etc., there is some debate concerning whether freedom of speech should be given to all opinions, such as those of fascists. In this article I will discuss why freedom of speech shall be guaranteed to all nonviolent opinions, from both an ethical perspective and from a pragmatic perspective. Note that while referring to free speech, I am not referring to the right of false advertising nor libel, but right of expression of political opinions.
What we first must understand is how restrictions on freedom of speech and press are enforced. Under control of a state, people’s speech is restricted by the state which has the legal ability to use force to punish those who express objectionable views or prevent them from expressing them. The problem with this is that once the precedent has been set that some views are not allowed to be expressed, then no views are able to be certainly protected. For instance, if it becomes punishable by law to make offensive comments about a specific group of people, how long would it take for it to become punishable to criticize the actions of the state of Israel, which aren’t comments made out of bigotry, but necessary criticisms of repressive actions of a regime? Additionally, if the premise for illegality of an action is individuals being offended, a similar case could be made for someone claiming to be offended by homosexuality. To allow the state to use violence to determine which views are acceptable and which are not grants the power to restrict what views it wants at whatever time it sees fit, which we cannot expect to be always remain the same. As socialists, we shall oppose bigotry and discrimination in all forms, but we are not thought police, and we do not have the right to silence others for having an opinion unless it promotes undeserved violence. To exemplify this, it is not within one’s right to encouraging genocide, but it shouldn’t be illegal to express a belief of racial superiority. Socialists should strongly resent these ideas, but, as stated by Rosa Luxemburg,
Without general elections, without freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, without the free battle of opinions, life in every public institution withers away, becomes a caricature of itself, and bureaucracy rises as the only deciding factor.
By understanding that bigotry is a product of divisive class-based society, we shall strive to vehemently discourage such opinions and educate others through intellectual discussion and debate. For as a product of the bourgeois family’s monopolization of morals introduced to children and a biased education system, people are socialized to have these bigoted opinions and socialists shall support a revolutionary society to make these opinions socially annul.
A common argument against freedom of speech in the name of anti-fascism is that fascist regimes in the past would not have risen if their speech was censored. However, this argument has two flaws. First of all, fascism arose under Hitler and Mussolini through paramilitary groups. The Nazi Sturmabteilung used the instigation of violence for the decade leading up to Hitler’s rise by disrupting rallies of opposing parties, intimidating voters, and assaulting political opponents, Jews, Romani, unionists, etc. The Italian Blackshirts destroyed institutions of socialists and other non-fascist organizations. While it is true that fascism must be physically fought, this is because fascism refers to a movement involving paramilitarism to gain power, and freedom of expression should not be used as a scapegoat to restrict liberty. As articulated by anarchist Alexander Berkman who was charged for possessing “a wagon load of anarchist records and propaganda material,”
I believe free discussion and free speech should not be limited under any pretext. It is a dangerous thing to do. It is the assassination of liberty.
The second reason that censorship will not intrinsically stop fascism is that criminalizing something does not, of course, stop it from happening. People will still discuss restricted ideas with those who agree with them, who will not report them to authorities, and if this conversation is censored, they will face no outside source to counter their beliefs. This, in effect, creates an echo chamber in which beliefs are not challenged and instead they spread, undisputed, underground. Furthermore, while the speech itself is punished or censored, the knowledge that these beliefs exist are not necessarily hidden. A common, colloquial name for the phenomenon of information that becomes more exposed through the attempt of being censored is the Streisand Effect. As explained by Marx,
If the censorship law wants to prevent freedom as something objectionable, the result is precisely the opposite. In a country of censorship, every forbidden piece of printed matter, i.e., printed without being censored, is an event. It is considered a martyr, and there is no martyr without a halo and without believers.
This was exemplified last month when rioters disrupted and shut down a speech by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley. What intended to silence him truly garnered him more mainstream attention than he had ever had before:
Through portraying Yiannopoulos as a victim, the media grasped an opportunity to vilify the entire protest—much of which was peaceful—and the speaker got what he wanted, which is more attention to his right-wing cause. This is an example of ineffectiveness through the use of the censorship technique. While Yiannopolous is a provocative right-winger who relishes in offending people, he is a political, not a military opponent. Analyses of him as fascist are distorting obscuring the true character of the situation. As long as he is not instigating undeserved violence, his views should be protested and criticized instead of censored.
To disparage political principles, another set of principles must be presented to overshadow any propaganda and menace of the former. By spreading the true word of socialism—workers’ democratic control over the means of production—and clearing up the lies about fascism and other conservative ideologies instead of letting them scatter among hidden circles, socialists can continue our goal to promote class consciousness to achieve the eventual feat of socialist revolution. This is a true socialist revolution, not a pseudo-revolution that opportunistically throws away its principles to create the same restrictions on freedom as its authoritarian opponents.