Free Speech Matters

Protesters chanting "black lives matter" have heckled, seized the microphone, and shut down a Seattle, Wash., rally for presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. An offer to let the protesters speak after Sanders was rejected.

No one who has seen news report after news report of unarmed black men killed by police and of a black woman mistreated should doubt the importance of the issue raised by many -- and of a whole constellation of issues related to the way the criminal justice system has malfunctioned -- mass incarcerations, selective marijuana prosecutions, resulting disfranchisement, and the rest.

And no one who has seen or read about these tactics of shutting down a speech by a candidate for president should fail to call the tactics what they are: an attack on our free speech system. Though they are "private," not governmental, actors, these few protesters suppressed free speech. They both denied Sanders the chance to speak at his own rally and denied the audience the chance to hear him.

These speech-suppressing tactics should be strongly and unequivocally rejected. They are part of an ugly tradition in American history.

When, in the 1830s, abolitionists called for an immediate end to slavery, mobs destroyed their newspaper presses, suppressed their speakers, and broke up their meetings. The advocates of suppression had their reasons: they said raising the emancipation issue could split the nation and lead to civil war and slave revolts.

Beyond attacking abolition, the mobs did something else: They prompted all sorts of Americans -- editors, ministers, public intellectuals, and political figures, including many who did not agree with abolitionists -- to re-frame the issue. These citizens and opinion leaders saw the attack on abolitionists as an attack on free speech. A strong commitment to free speech led opponents of the ideas of the abolitionists to defend their right to express their ideas and to reject "private" suppression -- as an attack on constitutional rights of free speech and assembly.

As a matter of technical legal analysis, one could fault these defenders of free speech and press.

Those throwing anti-slavery presses in rivers, destroying newspaper offices, and breaking up anti-slavery meetings were not state actors. But, at the deeper level of principle, the critics of suppression were right. When private actors silence speakers, they commit something beyond private wrongs -- they attack the essence of our free-speech system, a system that has been crucial for democracy and for reformers throughout American history.

So far at least, few opinion leaders in the media seem to have rallied to the defense of free speech. The issue is not whether one finds concerns that motivate many in the "black lives matter" movement important. I do. The issue is not whether one likes or dislikes a particular candidate and his or her stands.

Candidates like Bernie Sanders do not have huge campaign funds for endless TV ads. If private actors can silence them and disrupt their meetings, as a tactic to express their preferred version of their message, free speech and democracy are the losers. In the attack on free speech for abolition, fortunately, many opinion leaders at that time saw the issue for what is was -- an attack on a principal value that underlies democracy and the guarantees of the Bill of Rights. So they spoke up to defend free speech and press. This is what is needed now.