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Opinion | Free Speech: A Reminder From Russia of How Precious It Is

Jay told us that he felt like something had changed in the liberal approach to free speech since he was a kid — as if the unquestioned sanctity of it was now up for question. Liberals once defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill. Now some had reservations about defending “hate speech” or anti-vaxxers or white nationalist activists that wax rhapsodic about the Holocaust and seem to think another one would be a fine idea.

As we all know, it is extremely easy to defend speech we like and speakers we support and harder to stand up for the speech we despise or the speakers who would have us cast out of the public square (or far worse). It feels pretty unnerving to defend the rights of people whose ideas are so wrong and who could end up in positions of power. After all, a year after a few Klansmen raised a cross in Cincinnati, a former Klan grand wizard, David Duke, reached a runoff election for governor of Louisiana and won nearly 40 percent of the vote. And the Covid misinformation on Joe Rogan’s podcast came in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed nearly a million Americans.

And of course, many people seemingly intentionally misunderstand the concept of free speech, arguing that they should be permitted to say whatever they want without opprobrium but that their ideological or cultural opponents should be forbidden from doing so — speech for me, not for thee.

I tend to think that the reason that some people on the American right have previously voiced support for Vladimir Putin is because, in their view, he would act as a bulwark against some speech: he would protect their speech while restricting the words that scare them the most, speech on L.G.B.T.Q. rights or the speech of religious minorities. If no one ever heard the speech of lesbians or bisexual people or transgender people, they seem to reason, no one would be a lesbian, or bisexual or transgender.

The people whose speech I have the hardest time wanting to protect are the people who would very much like to see me in jail or dead simply for the terrifying crime of being a bisexual, biracial woman. The neo-Nazis and white nationalists I used to cover at Vox.com and the attendees at a recent white nationalist conference that attracted two sitting members of Congress are all committed to limiting the rights of the people they deem inferior. Why should I need to stand up for theirs, particularly if doing so could help them gain more power?

Well, as the rabbi who fought to put a menorah on Fountain Square told The Associated Press in response to the Klan cross, “If we want to play the American game, this is the price we pay for democracy.” And personally, I agree.

Permitted by a court of law to speak freely, the Klansmen did not strike fear into the hearts of Cincinnatians. They looked like idiots, their speech rendered inert and inept.

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