Freedom for Me but not for Thee: Free Speech and the Conservative Movement

Freedom for Me but not for Thee: Free Speech and the Conservative Movement

Conservative dedication to free speech is teetering. In recent months, Florida, led by Governor Ron DeSantis, has been the epicenter of attacks on free speech through the Stop WOKE Act. The bill prevents true freedom of speech—government imposition on what a teacher is allowed to say or teach is a direct restriction of their right to speech. Moreover, it prevents them from being allowed to share a wide variety of viewpoints within the classroom.

Attacks on freedom of expression from conservatives aren’t just confined to Florida. Turning Point USA, the fastest growing organization on college campuses nationwide, created and maintains a college professor watchlist, designed to expose professors who promote left wing ideology. Additionally, gag bills have also become more commonplace, with PEN America finding that in the first eight months of 2022, Republicans sponsored 136 gag bills, with only one sponsored by a Democrat.

These policies underline the shift within the conservative movement from being freedom loving to being willing to destroy the very principles around which America is built. This is particularly evident in the new Republican movement where politicians such as Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis dominate. Conservatives can no longer attack those on the left for not upholding freedom of speech, whilst themselves continually clamping down on it. Instead, there needs to be a reckoning on what exactly the conservative movement stands for. Freedom of speech must be a universal principle.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental value that goes beyond any practical bounds. Free speech improves discourse, helps us create better ideas and serves to allow everyone to share their ideas out in the open, such that everyone can come closer to truth.

But away from mere laws, freedom of speech is the only way to allow everybody to express their own beliefs and create a lively debate as to what the good is. Absent this discussion, we are instead likely to fall for narrow confines of what a select strand of the Republican Party deems good, instead of allowing everyone to figure out what good is in their own lives. Further, it locks society into a close-minded conception of good, which prevents adaptation and the development of a stronger, more complete understanding of the good.

The conservative movement has begun to trample on the rights of those who disagree with their ideals. For a democracy to properly function, everybody needs to be allowed to express their own opinions. In recent years, while conservatives highlight the ways in which the left have clamped down on freedom (such as in the Stanford Law School incident or in the orthodoxy of critical race theory), they have themselves attempted to fight with equally nefarious means.

The weaponization of the right to speech as a political tool has made it no longer function as a genuine belief. This is evidenced in how speech has been used as a political weapon in schools: instead of trying to educate our children by exposing them to a wide variety of ideas, some conservatives have joined those on the left in trying to force-feed their ideology to children.

If we have a set conception of the good right now, many might argue that it is not necessary to have a ready interchange of ideas and freedom of speech. Nonetheless, even if one believes that they know the good and want to work towards it, freedom of speech is still beneficial.

First, this is because others likely do not have the same conception of the good as you. This means that in order to ensure that others hold similar views on what is good to you, then a free exchange of ideas is necessary to convince the general population of what the good actually is.

Second, beliefs often change over time. This idea that beliefs can change over time means that having some deference to alternative viewpoints is essential to a more refined conception of what the good is. This is because some beliefs of what is good have clearly shifted over the course of the last few thousand years. Absent of freedom of expression, these beliefs could not change as any new idea would be censored. Consequently, freedom of expression is essential even when we think that we know what is good right now.

To truly be the freedom-loving party, Republicans can no longer silence speech that they dislike. As the world trends towards authoritarianism, conservatives need to face up to the reality of the principles they hold, instead of resorting to shallow political games. Freedom is more important than petty political wins. Lest we suffer the fate of illiberalism that has overtaken Hungary or Poland, American conservatives need to uphold fundamental values rather than go searching for political victories. To truly be a movement that upholds freedom, freedom of speech needs to be front and center of the movement.

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