A Moment Of Clarity: Joe Biden Takes Anti-Free Speech Wingnuts To School–Big League

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Oct 21, 2017 12:00 PM
A Moment Of Clarity: Joe Biden Takes Anti-Free Speech Wingnuts To School–Big League

There is not much the conservative movement and former Vice President Joe Biden agree on concerning politics. He’s a solid liberal. Yet, when it comes to free speech rights and the First Amendment, there is common ground: it’s wrong to shut down speech you find inappropriate. That opinion alone could land you in the doghouse with the sheltered, coddled, and illiberal cohorts of campus progressives. Anything they find triggering must be shut down; that’s the ethos. And yes, it’s a rather authoritarian one.  At a University of Delaware event this week, Biden reiterated that point, while mentioning how the First Amendment is essential to what makes this country a special place. It makes us who we are in the Bill of Rights. Free speech, debate, and scrutiny also provided as way to neutralize emerging totalitarian tendencies; bad ideas get aired out and squashed (via Reason):

"It's interesting," said Biden. "When I was coming up through college and graduate school, free speech was the big issue but it was the opposite. It was liberals who were shouted down when they spoke. And liberals have very short memories. I mean that sincerely."

Biden accused liberals of hurting themselves "badly" when they don't allow speech to take place. He specifically referenced the madness at Berkeley earlier this year and noted that the pre-emptive violence was deeply counterproductive.

"You should be able to listen to another point of view, as virulent as it may be, and reject it, expose it," he said. "The best thing to do is let this stuff be exposed. Don't be like these other people. Don't give the Trumps of the world the ability to compare you to the Nazis or you to the racists because you're doing the same thing. You're silencing."

The one thing I would add: let’s drop the “you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater” talking point. The roots of this story ironically rest with the very activity that Biden and other free speech activists are trying to prevent (via NRO):

This fire-in-a-theater jazz is a favorite of the less historically literate among America’s false-compromisers, most of whom know neither that the phrase was a (defective) analogy and not a legal doctrine, nor that the case from which it comes was subsequently overturned with some prejudice. Also generally unknown, but crucial, is what Oliver Wendell Holmes and his colleagues were (unanimously) doing in that case. Nine to nothing, they were upholding the Espionage Act of 1917, that baleful resurrection of the Alien and Sedition Acts that so stained the liberty of the republic during its brief flirtation with fascism. In doing so, Holmes and Co. were endorsing the half-year prison sentence that had been inflicted upon the plaintiff, Russian exile and secretary of the Socialist party Charles Schenck, for having the temerity to oppose in public his new country’s involvement in World War I.

 It is a detestable irony that in exchange for handing out anti-draft leaflets reading, “Do not submit to intimidation” and “If you do not assert and support your rights, you are helping to deny or disparage rights which it is the solemn duty of all citizens and residents of the United States to retain,” Schenck was not only put in prison but used as a symbol to signal the court’s pusillanimity in the face of the Wilson presidency: a majority upholding a majority against the little guy. And on what grounds? Because the United States, whose nearest border lay more than 3,000 miles away from the horrors of the Western Front, was ostensibly in “clear and present danger,” and Schenck’s leaflets — not even written in English — were such a mortal menace to the war effort that they had to be repressed. “Because the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic,” the Court reasoned, the Wilson administration could imprison anti-war types whose words damaged recruiting, or even just “morale.” If that sounds silly, rest assured that it was.