Free Speech Idiocy Is Killing Us

The cost of failing to engage in a morally complex debate.

When it comes to free speech, Americans are idiots, and our idiocy is killing us. The latest victim is Jeremy Richman, the father of Avielle Richman, a six-year-old girl who will never grow up as she was murdered with 19 other first graders in the Sandy Hook Massacre. Her dad was found dead Monday in Newtown in an apparent suicide.

His death came days after two more. A couple of survivors of the Parkland Massacre killed themselves last week. One is unnamed. The Times: “Another teenager, Sydney Aiello, 19, a recent Stoneman Douglas graduate, took her own life last weekend, her mother Cara Aiello told the local CBS television affiliate. Ms. Aiello told the station that her daughter had received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

How are their suicides related to free speech? To be sure, the expected context is gun rights and gun control. Each experienced violence in ways most never will. That they killed themselves after suffering trauma and loss, especially in Richman’s case, seems like just another reason to stop privileging the constitutional rights of gun owners over the constitutional values of justice, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare.

But the spasm of mass death we have witnessed since the assault weapons ban expired in 2004 is only the most obvious example of a constitutional order out of balance. Free speech is another. I would argue the irresponsible use of the First Amendment, in addition to the mindless defense of it, together have not only inflamed divisions in this country but last week threw three more dead bodies on the pile. Americans are idiots when it comes to free speech, and our idiocy is killing us.

Every time there’s a bloodbath, but especially after the big ones, there’s an almost instantaneous abuse of the First Amendment by disgusting people striving to profit from death. The trend began notably after Sandy Hook. That’s when Alex Jones alleged that the massacre in Newtown, Conn., had been staged by the government as a pretext for the government to confiscate guns. Jones, founder of Infowars, accused Richman and other grieving parents of being “crisis actors.” Jones inspired legions of like-minded people in thrall to conspiracy theory to issue death threats to Sandy Hook families, compounding their suffering by orders none of us can imagine.


What is justice when the US Constitution gives rights and freedoms to people like Alex Jones but doesn’t demand accountability from them?


Jones isn’t alone. A trend on social media right now is attacking survivors of mass shootings. The idea here is that survivors aren’t real victims. They are pretending, or planting “false flags,” as Jones has alleged, and in pretending they are exploiting victimhood for political reasons, almost always gun control. Because they are exploiting victimhood for political reasons, they are in fact victimizing “law-abiding and responsible gun owners.” In doing so, they are deserving of whatever horrible thing is said to them by patriotic Americans dedicated to the Second Amendment. These include hoping victims get raped. These include invitations to suicide.

I don’t know if Richman, Aiello and the unnamed teen killed themselves because disgusting people abused their right to free speech. Suicide is complex, and these three had more reasons than most to lose hope. Even so, I reject the argument that free speech abuse had nothing to do with their deaths. And even if I’m wrong, the public at large has an interest in righting this wrong. What is justice when the US Constitution gives rights and freedoms to people like Jones but doesn’t demand accountability?

That kind of morally complex question is almost entirely missing among respectable people who mindlessly defend the abuse of the First Amendment. I’m not just talking about “speech freaks” like Bill Maher. I’m talking about, in particular, professional journalists who may not like Tucker Carlson’s white supremacist demagoguery, but still defend it, because, hey, that’s what free speech in America is about, right?

Wrong. That kind of idiotic simplicity actually enables people like Jones, Carlson and a panoply of mooks to corrupt the Constitution. It fails to do the hard work that liberal democracies demand. It fails to make hard moral choices about what’s good for every citizen. Here’s how John E. Finn put it in his new book, Fracturing the Founding.

“Implicit in the claim that the First Amendment is absolute is a rank-ordering of constitutional norms and values, about the weight of speech relative to the public order or the common defense or the general welfare, or about the relative weight and standing of our commitments to speech and equality, human dignity, or some other important constitutional value. Speech freaks and First Amendment absolutists simply assume what must instead be demonstrated—that the First Amendment is always more important than our pursuit of other constitutional ideals” (italics mine).

The burden of proof is therefore not on those who decry the right-wing media for the damage it’s causing. The burden is on defenders of destructive speech to demonstrate why it is important and how it contributes to the common good and the constitutional order. That means we are no longer having mindless debates over “free speech.” That means we are having grown-up debates about what is said, why it’s said, why it needs to be said, and so forth. But until there’s a political space for that kind of morally complex debate, I think we can expect our free speech idiocy to keep killing us.

—John Stoehr


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