People who are deeply offended by the opinions of others often wonder: Can’t we do something to shut these guys up? In extreme cases, as we’ve seen all too frequently lately, they take matters into their own hands, killing (or threatening to kill) those who offend them. But even much less violent souls often favor using the government to silence those they see as dangerous voices — through laws dictating fines or imprisonment for hateful or objectionable speech.
These urges are not new. In 1798, the ruling Federalist Party in the United States passed the Sedition Act, making it illegal to criticize the president or members of Congress. The Federalists weren’t just trying to gain a political advantage by quelling their critics. The nation stood on the precipice of war with France, our new national government seemed weak and vulnerable, and the Federalists truly believed that their Republican (no relation to the modern party of the same name) opponents threatened to destroy the country with their evil ideas.
As the Federalists began rounding up their enemies, Americans faced their first great test of free speech: Did they intend to live up to the freedoms assured in the Bill of Rights? The specter of seeing fellow citizens jailed for using rights they had so recently fought for woke Americans up to the reality of what they stood to lose. In the end, it was the Federalists who paid the price. They lost the next national election, never again held a majority, and soon faded into history. The Sedition Act quietly expired in March 1801.
Modern Western governments may believe they have identified topics (race, gender, sexual orientation) so uniquely sensitive as to require special government restrictions. But keep in mind that the Federalists of 1798 believed just as strongly in the values they wanted to protect, and they were just as convinced that those values — and their way of life — were imperiled by the toxic words of their Republican opponents. Both sides wrote and said outrageous things. Yet for the brief reign of the Sedition Act, Republicans went to jail and Federalists remained free — not because one side had a lock on wisdom, but because one side enjoyed political cover while the other did not.
Allowing offensive speech doesn’t connote approval. Nor do we defend wrongheaded thinking under the bromide that everyone’s opinions matter, or that the mere act of forming and expressing ideas entitles those ideas to respect. Ignorance and hatefulness can and should be confronted and shot down, but with reason and with better words. Rigorous confrontation of bad ideas is a process that author Jonathan Rauch calls “liberal science.”
In his classic book, “Kindly Inquisitors,” Rauch, who is Jewish and gay, defended the rights of anti-Semites and homophobes to spout their hurtful nonsense. “The only way to kill a bad idea is by exposing it and supplanting it with better ones,” Rauch wrote. Tolerance, he noted, is not a gift; it is an investment in one’s own ongoing freedom of expression. “Today, true, the regulators may take gay people’s side,” he noted. “But the wheel will turn, and the majority will reassert itself, and, when the inquisitorial machinery is turned against them, homosexuals will rue the day they helped set it up.”
Each generation faces wars, recessions, and political, religious, or racial strife so seemingly perilous that even freedom-loving Americans may feel called upon to forcibly shut one another up. As Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall observed, “History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.” It is human nature to believe ourselves ever to be standing on the precipice of disaster, holding tight to our values and our way of life. If previous generations seem by comparison to have lived in peace or harmony, that’s only because their crises by now rest calmly in the history books, whereas our own seem so immediate and uncertain.
A passion for liberty and individual rights is not about hating the government, nor denying its essential place in our lives. But it is about recognizing the dangers (and resisting the temptation) of summoning the authorities when someone says something we despise.
Most of the concerns that inflame us today will soon reside as historical footnotes alongside the issues that so inflamed Federalists and Republicans. What remains as the measure of a generation is not the policies it enacted to surmount temporary difficulties, nor the restrictions it imposed on its most repugnant voices. The true measure of greatness of any generation is the degree of wisdom it showed in looking beyond the moment and handing down liberty, intact and unfettered, to the next.