Yesterday I took on Matthew Walther’s inane claim that the government should censor Nazis. Today I address Piers Morgan’s similar contention that the First Amendment should not be used to protect Nazis. Responding to someone who said Morgan didn’t understand the purpose of the First Amendment, Morgan replied:
I understand the purpose very well. I don't think it should be used to protect Nazis. https://t.co/smPEGEdUNg
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) August 16, 2017
What these Nazis did in Charlottesville is not free speech. If America doesn't wake up to this fact fast, it is in deep trouble. https://t.co/S7vkgOw0mh
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) August 16, 2017
Piers Morgan saying he understands the purpose of the First Amendment reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld’s response to the car rental agent who told him that she didn’t have his reserved car — but that she knows what a reservation is. Seinfeld looked at her and said: “I don’t think you do!” You say you understand the purpose of the First Amendment, Piers Morgan? I don’t think you do!
Charles C.W. Cooke has already addressed this lunacy admirably at National Review. Let me chime in with my own less polished thoughts, after first quoting Cooke:
Morgan is echoing an idea that has been advanced repeatedly in the last couple of days: To wit, that there is something particular about Nazism that makes it ineligible for protection under the Bill of Rights. This is flat-out wrong. And, more than that, it’s dangerous. Abhorrent and ugly as they invariably are, there simply is no exception to the First Amendment that exempts Nazis, white supremacists, KKK members, Soviet apologists, or anyone else who harbors disgraceful or illiberal views. As the courts have made abundantly clear, the rules are the same for ghastly little plonkers such as Richard Spencer as they are for William Shakespeare. If that weren’t true, the First Amendment would be pointless.
This is not a “controversial” statement. It is not an “interesting view.” It is not a contrarian contribution to an intractable “grey area.” It is a fact. There are a handful of limits to free speech in the United States, and all of them are exceptions of form rather than of viewpoint.
. . . .
“I believe in free speech, but” or “I just don’t think this is a free speech issue” — both popular lines at the moment — simply will not cut it as arguments. On the contrary. In reality, all that the “but” and the “I just don’t think” mean is that the speaker hopes to exempt certain people because he doesn’t like them. But one can no more get away from one’s inconsistencies by saying “it’s not a speech issue to me” than one can get away from the charge that one is unreliable on due process insisting in certain cases, “well, that’s not a due process issue to me.” This is a free speech issue. Those who wish it weren’t just trying to have it both ways — to argue bluntly for censorship, and then to pretend that they aren’t.
The point I made yesterday regarding this issue is that, if you’re going to have a principle that says the government can ban speech, you have to ask one very important question: who gets to decide what speech is banned? And the answer is going to be “government officials.” And government officials will view the question through the lens of their own world views and self-interest rather than the common good. That alone should be enough to give you pause.
Are you comfortable with giving the IRS the power to audit people based on their political viewpoint? If the answer to that question is “no,” you should feel even more uneasy about giving government the power to ban wrongthink, or to imprison people whose views they don’t like.
It’s actually distressing to me that I need to say any of this. Rejection of content-based censorship by the government should be such a basic part of every American’s education that blog posts like this are completely unnecessary. But when prominent people keep saying such a silly view, it has to be refuted.
One irony in all of this is that the Nazis themselves suppressed speech they didn’t like as a way to stamp out any possible opposition to their views. Those who have studied history might remember that the Nazis made long lists of unacceptable books. Then they raided libraries and bookstores, seized those books, and held book burnings. Yet Piers Morgan would apparently be happy to see the government burn books, as long as the books arguably support Nazi views. How could he object to such book burnings, given his recent statements? Does this not show the insanity of his position?
This goes back to my question about who decides what speech can be banned. It might sound benign to say: hey, Nazi thought is bad, so obviously it should be banned. But when the Nazis were in power, they didn’t think Nazi thought was the problem. They thought the Jews were the problem. So instead of banning books by the likes of, say, Richard Spencer, they banned books by the likes of Albert Einstein.
Oppressive regimes throughout history have always tried to control citizens’ thoughts by banning speech. Tools like Piers Morgan who advocate for content-based government censorship are actually advocating, in part, the return of totalitarianism. No matter how attractive it might sound to carve out an “exception” to the First Amendment for obviously hateful speech like pro-Nazi propaganda, such efforts are illegal, morally wrong, and should be rejected in the interest of freedom.