Thane Rosenbaum’s book is part of a growing literature in the US, expressing doubts about that country’s free speech (“First Amendment”) tradition. Most of my readers come from the UK so it’s worth explaining what he’s against.
In as short as I can make this for Brits: the US Constitution was ratified in 1790. Eighteen month later, the First Amendment was added, as part of a group of amendments all protecting the individual from arbitrary government by protecting rights to jury trial, the right to silence, etc. The first amendment limits the legislature from curbing free expression, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”. For more than a century after the amendment was ratified, judges ignored it. In the 1920s, judges invoked the first amendment, but in a canting, hypocritical way, eulogising its importance while criminalising all speech Socialists, Communists and radical trade unionists.
Since 1945, the First Amendment was extended beyond its original remit (“Congress shall…”) to include all parts of the government, and all private citizens in the US. All speech has required to be tolerated, even pornographers, fascists… Since about 1990, free speech has become a totem for the US right, a shield to protect everything they say, and a sword against their enemies. So, after the Trump coup of 6 January, the President defended himself from impeachment was by saying that it didn’t matter that he had incited his supporters to kill, to destroy property, or to sack Capitol Hill, the First Amendment makes all speech legal, irrespective of what comes from it.
Through the 39 chapters of his book, Rosenbaum gives his readers a series of reasons to doubt whether the First Amendment still does any good in protecting what most people would consider free speech.
His book begins in 2017 with Charlottesville, and the various neo-Nazis gathered there to chant “Jews will not replace us”. The idea behind that chant is the belief that every black person present in the US is merely by being alive, carrying out an act of violence against whites. And that Jews are the secret organisers behind the imagined mass murder of white people. These fantasies of anti-white violence are invoked, pretty obviously, to legitimise what fascists can tell themselves is pre-emptive and defensive violence on their party, murders such as the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in which 11 Jewish worshipers were killed.
Why, Rosenbaum asks, would anyone want to allow speech which is an incitement to murder? In reality, the First Amendment, is just one of several ways in which US law struggles to keep up with what every other affluent society has been doing for decades. No other country in the developed world permits this, any more than they tolerate the death penalty, or allow employers to go without paying maternity pay.
From there, Rosenbaum goes to other kinds of speech tolerated under the First Amendment, social media trolling, cyberbullying. Again, outside the US these are dealt with in the civil or criminal law as acts of “hate speech” (the US term) or “harassment” (as in the UK and Europe). Why does the US make itself the exception? “Other nations,” he writes, “managed to avoid the free speech madness”.
Rosenbaum responds to the argument that bad ideas die out when they are subjected to public discussion. To which, he asks, what happens if you are the individual who has to hear them, and you are in the middle of a riot?
From there, Rosenbaum pivots. He wants to be seen as a careful, balanced, person. Not an extremist, just someone worried about the excess of free speech. Therefore, there is a mandatory chapter insisting that as much as the right is a problem, there is also an issue of intolerant students. (He also has some pretty stomach-turning things to say about the rights of Palestinian to speak – or as Rosenbaum sees it, their obligation to be silent).
There is a lot wrong with this book. But it has its moments, too. Rosenbaum makes points which 90% of Americans don’t get to hear. That the First Amendment was only ever supposed to be a rule that bound governments, not individuals. That it is a right to speak, not an obligation to listen. That it does nothing to protect right-wing or far-right speakers, from the acts of people who will permit them to have a platform but are also intending to debate, to heckle, to subject them to slow handclapping.
That not every kind of spoken word is an idea.
That the much spoken-about free marketplace of ideas does not exist and could not meaningfully exist in a world dominated by the tech giants.
That the hearing of unpleasant words can cause physical harm, that stays in people’s bodies, that ruins their lives.
That the people who are on the receiving end of hate speech have a right to dignity and, at the very least, these two things need to be balanced.
Reading a book like this, as a socialist, or a European, or a practising lawyer, or someone who reads more than, I don’t know, one book every decade, you have to pinch yourself every two seconds and tell yourself: Let it go. You are not the audience for this book. It is not aimed at you. It is addressed at an imagined Middle American audience saturated with the assumptions of that media culture.
From that perspective this book is … ok. Ish. Kind of.
It doesn’t have the wide reading of a Jeremy Waldron, or the fizz of a P. E. Moskowitz, or the commitment of a Natasha Lennard or a Shane Burley or a Talia Lavin. But it’s a start.