McConnell: Free Speech Is Crucial To Who We Are As Americans

‘This fundamental right is one of our most cherished. It forms the beating heart of our democracy. It sits at the core of our civic identity. Yet, these days it seems to be coming under increasing threat across the country.’

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made the following remarks today on the Senate floor regarding the importance of free speech and the threats it faces in our nation today:

“Today I want to touch on a topic, as I announced recently, that I will continue to address regularly here on the Senate floor: the right of free speech. This fundamental right is one of our most cherished. It forms the beating heart of our democracy. It sits at the core of our civic identity. Yet, these days it seems to be coming under increasing threat across the country. The challenges it faces are different from what we've seen in the recent past, but we must confront these too if we are to preserve this right for future generations. That's certainly what I intend to do, I know others share that commitment, and I hope more colleagues will join in this effort as well.

“As colleagues know, this is a topic that I have devoted a large part of my career to. Throughout the Obama years I warned that our ability to freely engage in civic life and organize in defense of our beliefs was under coordinated assault from an administration that appeared determined to shut up anyone who challenged it. These efforts to suppress speech were well-documented, they extended throughout the federal government, and they were often aided by the Obama Administration’s allies in Congress.

“There were threats before then as well. I know, because I took up the fight against many of them. Sometimes it was a lonely battle. Often it was an unpopular one. But in my view it was necessary because whether the threats to free speech came from the IRS or the Obama Administration’s SEC, they shared a similar goal: to shut down or scare off the stage those who chose to think differently. Today, however, the threat to free speech is evolving. The speech-suppression crowd may no longer control the levers of federal power, but it hasn’t given up its commitment to silencing those with an opposing view.

“Yesterday, in the Judiciary Committee, Chairman Grassley held a hearing to explore the worsening problem of a lack of tolerance on college campuses.  Imagine that—college campuses of all places, for the views of others. One of the witnesses at the hearing was Floyd Abrams, whom our former colleague Senator Moynihan rightly described as ‘the most significant First Amendment lawyer of our age.’ Mr. Abrams noted that we are witnessing ‘an extraordinary perilous moment with respect to free speech on campuses,’ where ’too many students . . . seem to want to see and hear only views they already hold. And to prevent others from hearing views with which they differ.’ What could account for this? A profound lack of information is one answer. For example, Mr. Abrams cites a study where ‘nearly a third of college students could not even identify the First Amendment as the one that deals with freedom of speech.’

“The day before, across the street, the Supreme Court reminded us of the importance of a vibrant right of free speech, where its exercise does not depend upon the sufferance of the government. In striking down the ‘disparagement clause’ of federal trademark law, the Court reminded us of what too many of those on college campuses appear not to have learned and too many others have forgotten: ‘Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.’

“The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education estimates there were 43 reported instances of revoked speaking invitations or similar efforts to block speakers on campuses last year. That’s double the number recorded the previous year. It’s more than 700% higher than the six incidents recorded in 2000. And the trend is getting worse, not simply in terms of the overall number of incidents but — more worryingly — in terms of the growing aggressiveness of those efforts. This year alone, there have been multiple instances of intimidation, violence, and rioting at universities across the country. There has been nasty and thuggish behavior aimed at suppressing speech. Sadly, it has often succeeded.

As USA Today put it in a recent editorial, ‘In just the place where the clash of ideas is most valuable, students are shutting themselves off to points of view they don’t agree with. At the moment when young minds are supposed to assess the strengths and weaknesses of arguments, they are answering challenges to their beliefs with anger and violence instead of facts and reason.’

“That should worry all of us. Regardless of party. Regardless of ideology. Hearing criticisms of one’s beliefs and learning the beliefs of others is simply training for life in a democratic society. It doesn’t mean one has to agree with those opinions, but no one is served by trapping oneself and others in cocoons of ignorance. That’s hardly the recipe for a free and informed society. To quote Frederick Douglass, ‘to suppress free speech is a double wrong [because] it violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.’

“Just as it was not right during the Obama years for Americans to endure harassment or incur crippling expenses because the government didn’t like what they believed, it certainly is not right today for Americans to live in the shadow of fear simply because they dare to speak up, or think differently, or support a candidate or cause that the speech-suppression crowd may disagree with.

“It really doesn’t matter who you are or whether what you’re saying is popular. These rights do not exist to protect what’s popular, they exist precisely to protect what isn’t. That’s one reason I’ve long opposed ideas like the flag-burning constitutional amendment. That doesn't mean I agree that the flag should be burned. Of course I don't. I disagree strongly. But it's the principle that matters. Because the moment we allow ourselves to believe that some people stand outside the free-speech protections of the First Amendment, we’re all in trouble.

“The growing trend of intolerance we’re seeing has taken many forms recently, but the underlying hostility to free speech has not changed. As I noted earlier, in recent years the threat had often come from the federal government. These days, the threat tends to come from different quarters. There have been many high-profile incidents of speech suppression and violence at universities across the country in particular, but it would be a mistake to think that this problem is isolated to college campuses. The bottom line, for me, is this: we simply cannot allow this trend of violence and intimidation to become the new normal in our country. This is a serious problem that deserves our serious attention. The solutions will not come simply. They will not be found in a single piece of legislation.

“As President Reagan famously put it: ‘Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.’ And that is what we are called upon to do again now. To inform. To engage. To empower. In the end, to inspire a new generation to defend a fundamental right for future generations — just as past generations did for us.

“That’s what I aim to do by continuing this dialogue here on the Senate floor. From this platform, I will continue to raise the importance of free speech, outline the threats it faces, and do what I can to inform and encourage Americans to rally in its defense. Others are using their platforms to advance similar goals, as Chairman Grassley did yesterday. I hope more will join in as this discussion continues. Because free speech is critical to who we are as Americans, regardless of party, and we owe it to future generations to do what we can today to defend it.”

Related Issues: First Amendment