Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote “…if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought-not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” United States v. Schwimmer, 279 US 644, 654-655 (1929).
Too many people make the mistake of thinking that because you protect the rights of Nazis to march through a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, or of the KKK to participate in an adopt-the-highway program that will note that notorious hate group’s involvement with a sign, or the ability of the Westboro Baptist Church to spew its venom on public streets at soldiers’ funerals, that it means you support those groups and their messages of rage, violence and division. Or that by saying Je Suis Charlie, you approve of the sophomoric, lewd expressions of anti-fundamentalism that frequently crossed the line into racism and ethnic stereotyping. But supporting the right to speak is not the same as supporting the content of that speech. It’s easy to stand up for the popular and the anodyne, the uncontroversial. If every news story, opinion piece, or political cartoon only dealt with pandas in the snow, bunny rabbits, babies and puppies, most of us would be on the same page. But what about defending the outrageous, the difficult, the crass, the puerile, the gross, the finger-in-your-eye offensive? The despicable? That’s the incredibly difficult, often distasteful mandate of believing in and defending freedom of speech and expression.
So why do it? Because knowledge and understanding are the enemies of ignorance, fear, hatred and intolerance. Totalitarians have always tried to control expression, because information and scrutiny have always been the greatest threats to their power. If we allow governments, religious ideologues, political factions or even well-meaning people motivated by a passionate and necessary dedication to social justice to decide for the rest of us what we should be allowed to write, hear and read, then everyone’s liberties are threatened. When we censor those with whom we disagree or refuse to protect the rights of those who express thoughts we find repulsive, we inadvertently find ourselves on the same side of the fence as those who wish to silence speech they find inconvenient, but that we might very well admire. Not everyone agrees on what constitutes despicable speech. There are many among us to whom the ideals of liberty, justice and equality are anathema.
I am Charlie. Not because I like all of their drawings or views, but because I stand in solidarity against those who would dictate to the rest of us what we can write, say, publish, think, read, draw or see. It’s not always easy, but by standing up for the freedom of others to express the thought that we hate, we also fight for our own freedom to express the views we hold sacred.