The argument over what is and isn’t a right used to primarily take place between governments and the people they claimed dominion over. Today, at least in the United States, the argument seems to be more and more taking place between government subjects and other government subjects. This shift seems most obvious on college campuses:
A coalition of marginalized students at Pomona College are demanding that the president of Pomona (one of the Claremont Colleges) take disciplinary action against student-journalists who write for The Claremont Independent, a conservative paper.
That’s not all. The students’ letter to the president also stridently rejects the very mission of a liberal arts college. The search for truth is little more than an attempt to silence marginalized people, in the view of these students. Accordingly, the campus administration must revise its commitment to free speech such that no one who espouses hateful views—as defined, in incredibly broad terms, by the offended parties themselves—is allowed to speak at Claremont.
“Free speech, a right many freedom movements have fought for, has recently become a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions,” the students wrote in their letter. “It has not just empowered students from marginalized backgrounds to voice their qualms and criticize aspects of the institution, but it has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.”
Let’s consider the claim that free speech has been appropriated. Why do so many people consider free speech a right? Is it so people can express popular opinions? No. Popular opinions usually aren’t the opinions that are being suppressed. The reason so many people consider free speech to be a right because it gives protection to people who are expressing unpopular ideas.
What constitutes an unpopular idea? Generally speaking, an unpopular idea is a minority idea within a particular sphere of influence. For example, expressing anti-war sentiments is an unpopular idea when it is being expressed at a pro-war rally. It is not an unpopular idea when expressed at an anti-war rally. Expressing anti-democratic ideas is an unpopular idea when it is being expressed pretty much anywhere in the United States. It is not an unpopular idea when expressed at an individualist anarchist meeting.
The beauty of the idea of the right to free speech is that it can turn a minority idea into a majority idea. Free speech is why same-sex marriage went from strongly opposed by the majority of people in this society heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian values to being generally accepted, at least within the realm of government marriage. Likewise, cannabis legalization efforts have been made possible because the right to free speech has allowed legalization advocates to inform the public that the government claims about cannabis are false. Within the sphere of United States society these two minority opinions were able to be expressed, which allowed same-sex marriage to be legalized throughout the country and has allowed cannabis legalization advocates to achieve victory in several states.
But free speech, as with any concept developed by humans, is a double-edged sword. It allows minority and majority opinions to be expressed. Free speech is not “appropriated” when people use it to express an opinion that is unpopular within your sphere of influence, it’s exactly what the concept of free speech was created to allow. If that aspect changes then the entire reason for free speech goes out the window because the majority opinion will become the only opinion that will legally expressible. Admittedly, this usually sounds acceptable to people who hold a majority opinion within a sphere of influence but that is only because they fail to realize that their sphere of influence isn’t the only sphere.
The people who submitted the complaint at Pomona College likely hold the majority opinion in the sphere of influence of that college campus. But they may or may not hold the majority opinion within the sphere of influence of California. They most likely don’t hold the majority opinion within the sphere of influence of the United States of America. If their advice were to be followed, if free speech was curtailed in such a way that only majority opinions could be expressed, these people may find themselves silenced within the State of California and almost certainly within the United States of America.
You will likely always hold a minority opinion in several spheres of influence. If you advocate for speech being limited in a sphere you hold a majority opinion in, it will be used as precedence to silence your opinion in spheres you hold a minority opinion in. Free speech can either be a double-edged sword that allows everybody to express their opinions or it can be a single-edged sword that only allows the majority to express their opinions.