In my experience, everyone supports the right to freedom of speech, as long as it’s their own speech or the speech of people they agree with. But most speech falls outside that category. Most people would ask: why support the right of people to say things you hate, or fear or that you regard as dangerous?
That’s an intuitively reasonable question. I like some of what some people say, am indifferent to a lot of what is said and think we’d all be better off if some of what is said was never said. I’d be happy if Kanye West never uttered another word. I’d be delighted if Donald Trump went silent.
In 1968, when the racist George Wallace, a Democratic governor of Alabama, was running as a third-party candidate for president of the United States, I defended his right to speak at a stadium owned by New York City, after the then mayor had banned him from using that platform. There was, at that time, no one whose speech I despised more than Wallace’s. I considered him, and his candidacy, a credible danger to the fundamental rights I was spending my life trying to protect. Nor was that a unique case. Many speakers whose right to speak I defended during my 34 years at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) expressed views I disagreed with, some of which I thought were bigoted and dangerous.
So why did I do it? Why defend the right of people to express views when such people, if they gained the power to do so, would eliminate my views, and maybe eliminate me?