Socratic Reason, Free Speech, and White Supremacists

by JMC faculty partner L. Joseph Herbert

Pretending that our government is neutral actually undermines our rights, since a government that enforces manmade “rights” while denying their basis in reality moves dangerously close to using force without right—the very essence of tyranny.

The escalation of politically motivated violence in America today raises important questions about the nature and scope of our constitutional right to speak freely. To fight political correctness, it is more crucial now than ever to promote a legal and cultural climate of robust intellectual and political dialogue. However, defenders of free speech should resist adopting the simplistic formulations of this freedom advanced by current Supreme Court jurisprudence.

As the recent debacle in Charlottesville illustrates, an absolutist reading of the first amendment makes it difficult for responsible citizens and their governments to make prudent decisions about how to uphold law, order, and genuine liberty against very real threats to these fundamental goods. Recapturing a reasonable view of free speech requires us to revisit the original understanding of this constitutional clause. Its wisdom becomes even clearer in light of the Socratic account of reason and freedom underlying our legal order.

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Joseph Hebert is Professor of Political Science and Leadership Studies at St. Ambrose University. This essay was written in preparation for remarks at a Constitution Day panel at St. Ambrose, funded by a grant from the Jack Miller Center for Teaching America’s Founding Principles and History.

For more on freedom of speech, check out the Jack Miller Center’s freedom of speech resource center at its new Constitution Day website.



Socrates at his deathbed