GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - ideas about the freedom to speak, the freedom to offend and whether we can agree about what all that means. So how would you describe - sort of describe public conversations today, like our public discourse?
JEFF HOWARD: Well...
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Steven (ph), I'm trying to get to the issue of the president's fitness, which a lot of people are questioning.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well - and I'm getting to the issue of your fairness...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: From what I said, that you can pick anything...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: How dare you...
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HOWARD: I think our public discourse is broken.
RAZ: This is Jeff Howard. He teaches political science at the University College London.
HOWARD: One reason I think our public discourse is broken is because people have the wrong kind of attitude toward the purpose of public discourse. I think people think of it as a tribal fight between different teams rather than thinking of it as a conversation. So I think when people participate in public discourse, they tend to think of themselves as tasked with scoring points for their side rather than engaging authentically, sincerely, honestly in public reasoning with their fellow citizens about the kind of society we want to live in. And I think that betrays a level of arrogance and certitude I think is inconsistent with the complexity and the difficulty of the kinds of questions that we face in public life.
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RAZ: Is - I mean, is the U.S. a place that is sort of - comes closest to having free speech in - you know, compared to any other country in the world?
HOWARD: So I think there tends to be a very common way of thinking about the debate on freedom of speech, which is between people who are in support of free speech and then people who are critics of free speech. What kind of speech falls under the protective umbrella of free speech, and what kind of speech doesn't? So the U.S. example is fascinating on this one. So the - I think one of the most important opinions in the United States was a Supreme Court case in 1969 called Brandenburg v. Ohio.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Number 492, Clarence Brandenburg, appellant v. Ohio.
HOWARD: And this was a case that concerned a Ku Klux Klan leader in Ohio named Clarence Brandenburg. And what he basically did is he organized a televised rally in which he, surrounded by his cadre of armed hooded Klansmen, talked about the importance of white supremacy...
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Then they go on and they say the Jewish should go back to Isreal, and blacks should go back to Africa.
HOWARD: ...And talked about the importance of taking vengeance on those who obstruct the cause of white supremacy. And he was arrested for this, for violating an Ohio law that banned advocacy of violent criminal conduct like terrorism. And he complained that this arrest was inconsistent with his rights to free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: We are dealing, in this situation, not with an address to an evil from which we must move back to a possible restraint on First Amendment, we are dealing with an entry particularly into the right and then a prescription upon the right as it might engender an evil.
HOWARD: And the Supreme Court agreed with him.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: God save the United States and this honorable court.
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HOWARD: And so in 1969, the Supreme Court set the standard - that continues to this day - that says that so long as a given instance of speech isn't deliberately endeavoring to incite crime and isn't likely to do so imminently, it has to be allowed. And that's an extremely permissive standard because it basically means you can say whatever you want. And so long as that speech isn't going to cause an imminent incidence of lawbreaking, it has to be allowed. And that kind of a view that requires imminent violence isn't found in most of the rest of the world.
RAZ: Here's more from Jeff Howard on the TED stage.
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HOWARD: Many democracies around the world restrict hateful speech on the grounds that it hijacks and poisons rather than enables and nourishes a culture of free expression among equals. And while that position may be mistaken - as the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided it to be - it's not obviously mistaken. There are good arguments on both sides of this issue. I think a lot of our debates about politics are kind of like the debate about whether free speech protects hate speech or not. There are good arguments on both sides.
But once we realize that there are good arguments on both sides of so many of the debates about which we get the most passionate in politics, it makes no sense to describe those debates and live out those debates, as we so often do, as if they were grand crusades between good and evil rather than what they really are - reasonable disagreements. Taking our fellow citizens seriously means recognizing that they have thought about these questions as hard as we have but simply come to different answers.
RAZ: Do you think - especially in the American context, do you think that people often confuse freedom of speech with freedom of speech without consequence? Because, like, freedom of speech in the U.S. means you're not going to be incarcerated or executed, Jeff, basically, for what you say but doesn't mean you're not going to be ridiculed or shamed or sort of shouted down.
HOWARD: Yeah, absolutely. So I think when we talk about free speech, we might be referring to one of two things. So first, I think sometimes when people talk about free speech, they do mean the legal right to freedom of expression as embodied in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And this is a view of free speech according to which the government can't suppress your right to speak. But that doesn't mean you have the right to a platform at a university you might want to speak at. That doesn't mean that other people have to give you opportunities to speak. It simply means that the government may not suppress your speech. But I think when people talk about free speech, they sometimes aren't referring to the legal right. They're referring to something like a culture of free speech.
HOWARD: They're referring to the idea that we want to live in a society that has a robust exchange of ideas whereby people aren't silenced through public opinion, where people feel confident to express what's on their mind and other people listen to what they have to say and then argue back against them if they disagree.
RAZ: So I just want to run one scenario by you. And I asked Zach Wood basically the same question, which is say you're a minority student at an elite university or any university, and you're the first kid in your family to go to college. But, you know, over the course of your life, you're subjected to being watched and followed in stores or pulled over by police or being, you know, treated differently when you go out in public - so all these little things add up, right? And then you get to college and you find out that a speaker is coming to your campus to say that people of color aren't as intelligent as white students. I mean, I could understand why that student would feel very uncomfortable...
RAZ: ...That - almost like the university has an obligation to protect them.
RAZ: Like, I don't think it's crazy for that student to not want that...
HOWARD: Yeah, absolutely.
RAZ: ...Speaker to come to campus.
HOWARD: Absolutely, so I 100 percent agree with that. So I think when we talk about the importance of free speech, the paradigmatic site of that conversation is what I like to call reasonable disagreement. So these are the big questions of public life where we disagree, but there are actually some pretty good arguments on both sides.
HOWARD: And so I think that the tricky question arrives when we're talking about, what I would call, unreasonable disagreements, where one of the points of view is clearly mistaken, right? So the idea that we should live in a white supremacist society - so I just don't think it's a debate worth having because I...
HOWARD: ...Don't think it's worth curating that kind of a conversation.
HOWARD: It does seem to me, however, that sometimes when there are big, public debates going on in society - that you might nevertheless think are unreasonable - it's worth having them out on campus just in case a significant portion of your society's population supports the unreasonable view. For example, you might think that Donald Trump is just the worst president in the world, that there's just nothing that could be said for him, that he's clearly terrible and that he clearly shouldn't win re-election. So in this sense, you might think that this is - people who disagree with you are being unreasonable. Well, that might be true, but the mere fact that there are millions and millions and millions of your fellow citizens who disagree with you about that means that it's worth having the conversation.
RAZ: But, I mean, judging by that standard, I mean, you could say - like, if you were to apply that idea and take us back to 1938, you could say, hey, you know, look; many Germans are - support this man who believes that Jews are inferior and should be annihilated, so, you know, we're going to have a speaker come and represent this point of view. I mean, you could bring somebody from a conservative country where the majority people believe that gay people should be stoned to death and you could say, well, we need to represent that view, right? Like, I mean, you could justify any speaker using that argument - right? - as long as you say there's a significant chunk of people who agree with this.
HOWARD: Yeah, so I think one important distinction to keep in mind is between debates that are taking place on campus where the purpose is to subject the speakers to a kind of gauntlet of rational interrogation - so you take a view that you think is reprehensible and you really lay it out on the table, and the counter speaker does a great job of explaining why it's such a terrible view. I think we need to distinguish between a case in which you have that kind of critical rational debate from a case in which someone is giving a commencement address or they're giving a single speech where they don't have to answer to a critic who's opposing their point of view. I think the only question worth debating is whether it's sometimes sensible to have speakers with unreasonable views on campus when doing so serves an important educative purpose. And I think I completely agree that there will not be that many cases of this.
HOWARD: But I think occasionally there may be cases like that. And so that's why I'm very reluctant to endorse a bright-line rule that says that no unreasonable views should be represented in any debates on college campuses. Because in so far as you might have some students with those on reasonable views and it might benefit those students to see those views dismantled in real time by smart people arguing against them, then I think it's sometimes worth it to have those conversations.
RAZ: Have you ever found yourself in a position where somebody has changed your mind very quickly through reason and argument?
HOWARD: No, I can't immediately recall...
HOWARD: ...A circumstance where that has happened. I've certainly changed my mind on things by thinking them through over a period of time. But - no, I think it's actually pretty rare to change someone's opinion on an issue in real time. But I actually don't think the justification or the value of free speech depends on that kind of mechanism because I think that the way in which we change people's minds is gradual and largely a function of continued exposure to alternative points of view and ideas that have the effect, gradually, of loosening the grip of a particular conviction rather than it being a sudden change overnight. And I think that's why we need to be having even more conversations than we're currently having because I don't think you can change people's conversations like the flick of a switch.
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RAZ: That's Jeff Howard. He teaches political science at the University College London. You can see Jeff's full talk at ted.npr.org.
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