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Josh Hammer / February 5, 2021

The Limits of ‘Free Speech’

Marjorie Taylor Greene should not be formally punished.

When embattled freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., took to the U.S. House floor Thursday morning in advance of a chamberwide vote to possibly strip her of all committee assignments, she spoke through a face mask embroidered with that most iconic of all American rallying cries: “FREE SPEECH.” Greene thus followed in the footsteps of many others on the right who respond to a domineering and increasingly illiberal ruling class with rote proceduralist appeals to free speech and open discourse — whether in the context of media/academia-driven “cancel culture,” ideologically homogenizing Big Tech censorship or elsewhere.

On the merits, it would be mistaken to strip Greene, who has previously flirted with the QAnon conspiracy theory and has voiced numerous other ludicrous beliefs, of all House committee assignments. While punishing duly elected congressmen and senators for post-election statements and actions is an issue of case-by-case prudence, punishing congressmen and senators for preelection statements and conduct would set a chilling precedent and undermine rudimentary notions of republican self-governance. There are other remedies for Greene’s myriad foes to pursue, such as a 2022 primary challenge or, as The Washington Post’s Henry Olsen argues, congressional redistricting.

But the fact that Greene — an erstwhile QAnon adherent, 9/11 truther and believer that the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting was a “false flag” operation — can so effortlessly retreat to the comparatively safe terrain of “free speech” ought to concern conservatives. It is a reminder of the inherent moral limitations of appeals to liberal procedure in lieu of underlying substance. Moreover, conservatives would be making a tactical error if they were to lionize Greene and like-minded fringe figures as valiant martyrs for “free speech” ideals.

Just as Ethics and Public Policy Center President Ryan T. Anderson recently argued in The Wall Street Journal that “religious liberty isn’t enough,” so, too, is “free speech” perhaps necessary but ultimately insufficient as a tool with which to implore elites to grant conservatives basic societal legitimacy. Every argument that begins and ends with cries of “free speech,” whether in opposition to the latest noxious manifestation of “cancel culture” or censorious Big Tech account ban, is necessarily an argument eschewing any focus on underlying claims to justice or truth.

The left’s implacable obsession with insular intellectual gatekeeping and quashing of conservative participation in the public square does make necessary, to some degree, appeals to free speech. But such an intense focus on free speech as an intrinsic end — encapsulated by the Supreme Court’s sophistic 1971 musing, in Cohen v. California, that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric” — is to engage in the very sort of moral relativism that conservatives rightfully decry. Worse, it misunderstands the historical understanding of free speech, which was not that of an intrinsic good unto itself but instead that of a merely convenient instrumentality in pursuit of genuine truth and knowledge. Conservatives who are confident in their convictions should not be afraid to defend their substantive beliefs, whether about human sexuality, immigration levels or any other contemporary issue of public policy, without pleading to be left alone due solely to pluralistic commitments to religion or speech.

It would also be tactically short-sighted for conservatives to depict Greene’s trials and tribulations, let alone the broader cult of QAnon, as a fight for free speech or a rejection of “cancel culture” (itself just a proxy for free speech). There are plenty of prudential reasons to oppose punishing Greene based on information that was readily available at the time the voters of Georgia’s 14th congressional district sent her to Congress. To punish an elected official based on preelection actions would set into motion a very slippery slope; presumably, poring over elected officials’ high school newspaper editorials to scour for all traces of “wrongthink” would be fair game. This isn’t a particularly appealing vision of self-rule. But we can avoid it without cabining the looniest of conspiracy theories under the veneer of “free speech.” To do so is morally infelicitous, frustrates the defense of conservative beliefs that should be protected and promoted for their inherent worth, and confuses First Amendment-protected speech with colloquial conceptions of broadly permissible speech.

Marjorie Taylor Greene should not be formally punished by either the current House Republican minority or Democratic majority for her previous beliefs, no matter how noxious they may be. But it is imperative that we understand such lenity as prudence — not myopic free speech absolutism.

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