Book Review: “Defending Free Speech”


This review was written by Daniel Pryor, Communications Associate at Students for Liberty.

Freedom of speech is slipping away from us. More than ever, this vital aspect of civilization requires a passionate defence based on the principles of reason and individual rights. This is the overarching message of Defending Free Speech, a new collection of essays from the Ayn Rand Institute edited by former constitutional lawyer Steve Simpson.

The book is both a warning and a call to action, detailing the recent history of threats to free speech in America and imploring the reader to defend this precious right on the basis of Enlightenment and Objectivist principles. Regardless of whether one subscribes to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, the powerful essays in this book will help readers to understand and navigate the current areas of controversy in the contemporary free speech debate.

Part I of Defending Free Speech documents the “war on free speech” that continues to this day, and it begins with ARI founder Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s 1989 pro-free speech advertisement in the New York Times. The ad was written in the wake of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issuing of a fatwā calling for author Salman Rushdie’s execution for his publication of The Satanic Verses. The short piece introduces several themes that permeate the book: mysticism vs. reason, an unqualified defence of one’s right to offend, and a refusal to compromise individual rights in the face of terrorism. Perhaps the most powerful passage in the advertisement is Peikoff’s assertion that:

“Once death is threatened, there is only one issue to discuss and defend: an individual’s right to speak, whether anyone or everyone likes what he says or not.”

The opening section of the book continues with interviews and articles examining the reasons behind what were arguably the most prominent attacks on free speech in the past two decades: the Danish cartoon controversy and the Charlie Hebdo attacks. One piece that particularly stands out is ARI Director of Policy Research Elan Journo’s interview with Flemming Rose, the Danish author and journalist who commissioned the publication of Muhammad drawings in Denmark’s largest daily paper. The interview provides a fascinating insight into the circumstances surrounding the publication of the cartoons and explores the prevailing climate of fear and self-censorship existing in Denmark at the time.

Other especially interesting articles include Steve Simpson’s Condoning Violence; Destroying Free Speech. This highlights the essential difference between speech and coercive force. It also makes the important point that criticizing those who cause offence in the wake of threats and violence is not only victim-blaming at its worst, but also a hopeless strategy. Appeasement — or paying the Danegeld — simply incentivizes further instances of self-censorship and erodes the freedom of expression that forms the basis for a free and open society.

The essays and interviews in Part II of Defending Free Speech attempt to outline the philosophical underpinnings of those committed to free speech, as well as those of its opponents, in greater depth. Steve Simpson outlines the connection between Enlightenment ideas of reason and free speech in At the Heart of the Attacks on Free Speech, an Attack on Reason, whilst ARI Chief Content Officer Onkhar Ghate reveals the important connection between speech rights and property rights in the context of campus censorship in Free Speech on Campus.

The former article is perhaps the book’s most unequivocal attempt to tie a defence of free speech to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and although one may be forgiven for questioning Simpson’s blanket dismissal of “postmodernism,” there is no denying the boldness and clarity of this exposition. The latter piece concisely argues that the best solution to the recent scourge of campus censorship is radical, but simple: privatize the universities! Ghate states that, “only private universities can protect free speech,” since “owners of a university could…hire the faculty they endorsed, while others could refuse to fund the university if they disagreed with its teachings.”

Defending Free Speech concludes with Part III (the shortest section of the book), which centres upon the issue of free speech in relation to the public interest. All three pieces in the section focus on the history and nature of restrictive US campaign finance laws, with Steve Simpson’s essays arguing that they are predicated on the flawed idea of collectivism rather than respect for individual rights. In the closing interview, Simpson explains to Education News that the solution to cronyism and negative corporate influence in politics isn’t to limit the free speech of organisations, but to drastically reduce the size of government. As Simpson puts it, “the problem…is not that there is too much money in politics, it’s that politics controls too much money, property, business and personal freedom.”

Speaking to Students For Liberty, Simpson stated that students who support liberty should read Defending Free Speech “because if we want free speech to last, we need to show why the right is a value to everyone.” SFL considers free speech in all areas, but perhaps especially on campuses, to be an issue of paramount importance. This book is a valuable addition to the intellectual arsenal of anyone who wishes to preserve this right.

Defending Free Speech can be purchased here.

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