Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Free speech isn’t as free as you’d think. It comes at a price—in fact, a steep price as this last Memorial Day reminds us of Americans who died fighting tyrants and ideologies that have no use for human rights or the freedom to articulate them. If free speech is costly, then provocative speech is at a premium. And its on trial.

Exhibit A: the “Draw Muhammed” contest held earlier this month in Texas literally drew fire from two offended terrorists who stormed the event with plans to kill as many as possible.  Instead of embracing the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword” the Islamic terrorists were abruptly reminded that “those who live by the sword, will die by the sword.”

Exhibit B: The competitive campaign for Kentucky governor, while short of drawing blood, turned into a bitter contest with charges between leading contenders being tossed like firecrackers the last three weeks prior to the election. Outside groups entered the fray and spent over a million dollars attacking their foes.

Critics of Super PACs decry the money as corrosive. But aren’t the messages laced with malice and contempt really what’s corrosive? All the money spent in the primary ended up turning the electorate off, and apparently failed to sway the vote as the big spenders planned.  Voters defaulted to the guy who stayed mostly positive.  The verdict is in: our sensibilities are the big casualty of scorched-earth political campaigns.

Speech can be messy—but that’s the price we pay in order for it to flourish. Even while the rude, callous, inarticulate and politically incorrect have equal access to the arena of ideas, it doesn’t mean they command equal respect or credibility. They definitely don’t garner the same influence. The onus is then upon the more thoughtful to winnow the wheat from the chaff, wisdom and humility from the foolish and abrasive. In essence, individuals who most cherish speech must become the most careful judges of it.

The abuse of speech may try our patience and profligate political spending amplify messages unworthy of our attention, but the biggest danger however is when speech is curtailed, shut down and citizens depend upon another authority to do the winnowing for them, whether through restrictive laws that muzzle third-party groups from election messages, or minorities offended by ideas contrary to their own values.

Of all places we should expect free speech to flourish—our college campuses—it may be most threatened. This was the case recently when sign-carrying students at Georgetown University protested Christina Hoff Sommers. Her talk “What’s Right (and Badly Wrong) with Feminism,” didn’t fit the mold of leftist ideology, so protest signs pointed others to the room number of a “safe space” for students who couldn’t handle the content.  Since when did retreat and isolation from opposing ideas become part of the college experience?

An unmistakeable trend is sweeping college campuses to stifle the free and open exchange of ideas.  Students are now growing accustomed to the idea that if something might be emotionally upsetting, they should be warned. and offered an alternative place to go. Heaven forbid that a student be confronted with an idea contrary to their own understanding of reality. So we now have “trigger warnings.” That conservative speakers and conservative ideas necessitate “trigger warnings” should send an alarm that all is not well on our campuses.

The issue isn’t relegated to East Coast schools. In January, the University of Kentucky Student Government apparently concerned about potentially upsetting speech, sent out a questionnaire asking students to choose their preferred free speech zone. (Isn’t the entire university campus a free speech zone?)  Students could choose between a) a “single designated free speech zone in a specific location on campus,” b) “multiple designated free speech zones in various locations across campus,” or c) “no preference.” The survey was faculty approved.

Universities, as professors Robert George and Cornel West agreed, should not be intellectually safe places. They should be places of challenging, even if uncomfortable, discourse. And we desperately need more discourse, not less. Speech is the biggest loser when psychological fragility is protected above the freedom to express ideas and we are complicit in its demise when we allow third parties to designate "speech zones."