Speech is a superpower used to move individuals, societies, armies and kingdom for tens of thousands of years. Whether in quiet conversations between family, public rallies on the eve of significant events, or the rallying cries of military leaders spurring on troops into battle, leveraging speech has been a critical component throughout recorded history. Likewise, changes in society have often been in reaction to the impact of hurtful speech.
Lies hiding behind the shield of speech are not new. From Herodotus to almost every modern American President, protecting lies as speech has led to fundamental changes in society. At the beginning of the Trump administration, the former president’s propensity for lying often generated references to compare just how unusual those times were. In in the early days, comparing 100+ lies told by Trump in a few months against the 18 told by former president Obama seems quaint. After a presidency that generated over 30,500 lies in four years, as well as two impeachment trials surrounding elements of speech (abuse of power and obstruction of Congress via powerful speech with foreign governments, incitement of insurrection via powerful speech), the legal rulings will continue to be felt as we parse exactly what kinds of powerful speech are protected by elected officials.
The legacy of hurtful and extremist speech has been taken to new heights in last 20 years by rapid spread through Internet, social media, talk radio, and the surface-level acquiring of information by individuals with limited knowledge of history, geo-politics and ethics. Often over the last few decades powerful speech has been invoked by highly ignorant individuals or by individuals manipulating these ignorant masses for personal gain.
Powerful speech is meant to enflame, intended to spark. Protecting that power is critical to our institutions. It is fundamental to liberal (as in pursuing liberty, not in modern political affiliation) republics to protect the voices of minority opinions. Sometimes these are the voices of dissent that become the founding sentiments of popular opinion. But, often, these minority opinions demonstrate the power of speech: helpful speech should be able to withstand the onslaught of even the most hurtful minority speech. Helpful speech is fundamental for reasoned debate toward improving society.
The power of the speech is that although it protects hurtful speech, it also protects those who push back. The push back can be as powerful, if not more so, than the hate speech. Take LGBTQ rights: for all the effort of the Westboro Baptist Church, a recent survey by Gallup indicated that 1 in 6 Gen Z adults identified as LGBT, with numbers of all generational groups identifying as LGBT increasing. Protecting speech offers an opportunity for voices to present counter speech to radical and hurtful speech.