Milton, Mill, and Chicken

The year is 2012, and, shocking though it ought to be, there are still major public figures who don’t believe in the freedom to express your opinion without government reprisal. 

The crisis in free speech was precipitated when Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy was asked about his company’s support for “traditional family” organizations. He responded, “Guilty as charged.” Further scrutiny of Chick-fil-A’s charitable donations found that over the last 10 years, the company has funneled as much as $10 million to organizations that oppose same-sex marriage.  

The response to what some call bigotry has been intense. Many are calling for boycotts of the franchise. Others are calling for government sanctions against the company. According to the Chicago Sun, Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel vowed to block the company’s expansion in Chicago, saying on Wednesday that “Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values. They’re not respectful of our residents, our neighbors and our family members. And if you’re gonna be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect Chicago values.” He continued:

What the CEO has said as it relates to gay marriage and gay couples is not what I believe, but more importantly, it’s not what the people of Chicago believe. We just passed legislation as it relates to civil union and my goal and my hope … is that we now move on recognizing gay marriage. I do not believe that the CEO’s comments…reflect who we are as a city.

Boston mayor Tom Menino, the first mayor to suggest he might block the franchise,  sent a letter to Dan Cathy after hearing Cathy’s comments and learning that Chick-fil-A was looking for a location to open a branch in Boston. Menino told Cathy, “There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it.”

San Francisco mayor Edwin Lee has suggested that he might take the same stance as Emmanuel and Menino. 

Without taking a position on the issue of same-sex marriage, this idea of government retaliation for free speech needs to be addressed. 

It has been well over 150 years since classical liberalism should have won the war of ideas regarding free speech. In 1644, John Milton first published his incomparable treatise Areopagitica. In 1859, John Stuart Mill bolstered the case with his On Liberty

In both these tracts, the same basic case is argued, and it would be worth reminding Emmanuel, Menino, and Lee of the argument. 

Censorship, argue Mill and Milton, is damaging because it deprives not only the speaker of their right to speak, but of the audience to hear the opinion. Without this opportunity, how can we know that the opinions we’re holding are right? Is it possible that we can be sure of our opinions without them being tested against weaker opinions? There isn’t anyone so infallible that they haven’t held a wrong opinion before, and history is replete with examples of opinions erroneously held by majorities, government, and, indeed, boards of censorship. There is a very real risk that the censors could be wrong.  

Not only would censorship risk our being wrong and censoring the truth, but it ensures that we are weak in our opinions. An untested opinion, no matter how correct, is certain to be weak and poorly suited to the challenge of life. Mill points to the history of the growth of religious faiths. Every faith, he argues, has its flowering and its most devout adherents in its beginning when it’s challenged. It’s precisely that challenge which forces them to understand their doctrines, to strengthen their belief, and to stay on guard against the erosion of that understanding. When those religions become established, and they lack the challenge of defending themselves constantly, then they begin to stagnate and ferment. It has been said that nothing brought so much health to the Roman Catholic Church as the challenge of Luther’s reformation. 

Finally, we must remember that censorship is a two-edged sword. There is always the danger when you claim a power that your enemies will later claim it—and they can claim  If you’re willing to censor an opinion now which you find distasteful, you must allow that your opponent might later claim that power and censor your view. Christopher Hitchens used a scene from Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” to illustrate the point. 

In this scene, William Roper is talking with Sir Thomas More. 

Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law! 

More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? 

Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that! 

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake! 

The point is difficult to miss. You can eliminate free speech if you want. You can install censorship boards that decide what’s allowed and what isn’t, but you can’t determine when they’ll be used against you. 

So, Mr. Emmanuel, would you hold that Salt Lake, Boise, Marietta, or other socially conservative cities should be able to ban businesses which support civil rights and equality? That’s the position you’re espousing, whether you realize it or not. 

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