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Defending Free Speech, edited by Steve Simpson

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 11, No. 3.


Defending Free Speech, edited by Steve Simpson. Irvine, CA: Ayn Rand Institute Press, 2016. 136 pp. $6.95 (paperback).

Steve Simpson’s excellent new anthology, Defending Free Speech, opens with a 1989 essay by Leonard Peikoff titled “Religious Terrorism vs. Free Speech.” Commenting on the Iranian persecution of Salman Rushdie (author of The Satanic Verses)—and the failure of the U.S. government to protect Rushdie and his publishers against violent reprisals—Peikoff wrote:

Civilization depends on reason; freedom means the freedom to think, then act accordingly; the rights of free speech and a free press implement the sovereignty of reason over brute force. If civilized existence is to be possible, the right of the individual to exercise his rational faculty must be inviolable.

Peikoff went on to point out that politicians and pundits on both the religious right and the relativist left were too timid to take action or even speak out against these atrocities. The reason? Both had abandoned the fundamental principles needed to defend free speech. The religious right was hamstrung by religion: How could they defend Rushdie’s blasphemy if they were willing to ban Darwin from classrooms? The left offered a tepid defense, but they were constrained by cultural relativism and collectivism, which they had learned from their university professors. “The clear and present danger,” Peikoff continued,

is that writers and publishers will begin, as a desperate measure of self-defense, to practice self-censorship—to speak, write, and publish with the implicit thought in mind: “What group will this offend and to what acts of aggression will I then be vulnerable?” (5)

Fast-forward nearly three decades to an Objectivist conference the Ayn Rand Institute hosted in 2016. During the Q&A following a presentation, an earnest college student publicly thanked the speakers for providing a “safe place” to speak out in favor of capitalism. Such a place, he said, did not exist on his university campus.

Older members of the audience—this writer included—were dumbstruck. Did this young person really have to travel hundreds of miles to a private conference just to speak his mind? Further, if students cannot feel “safe” defending a controversial point of view on their own campus, is it because they have been nudged into “self-censorship”?

In the years since Peikoff sounded his warning, attacks on free speech have become more blatant, including attempts by government itself to suppress speech. For example, prior to the 2012 election, the IRS attempted to restrict the political speech of Tea Party groups by denying them tax-exempt status. And recently, in a naked attempt at intimidation, the attorney general of Massachusetts issued a subpoena of ExxonMobil’s email correspondence, including the company’s correspondence with Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels and an outspoken critic of government energy policy. . . .

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