The Georgia Public Policy Foundation (GPPF) hosted longtime National Review writer and free speech expert David French last week. Besides being his writing duties, French is a veteran of the Iraq War and has spent much of his career as an attorney fighting for free speech rights.
French is an outspoken conservative and his no-notes talk focused largely on issues conservatives have had to deal with regarding free speech over the last couple decades – largely since French graduated from Harvard Law and embarked on his career defending speech and advocating conservative ideas.
He recalled in the pre-internet days of his time at Harvard where he took the opportunity to try and raise awareness for the, in his mind, latent pro-life community at the school. It mostly resulted in what French calls “death aspirations” from opponents – not a death threat but merely a wish that he would die.
French talked about a number of cases he worked while senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom and the American Center for Law and Justice. Rutgers threatened a Christian group with sanctions if they required officers to be professing Christians. Other colleges demanded similar measures – particularly for Christian groups that were opposed to gay marriage.
French noted that many of the battles over the last couple decades have been won by and the courts sided in favor of free speech. Much of the fight today has shifted from fighting against the administration, to fighting against the student body. And this fight is more difficult. You can’t call in attorneys to ward off threats of boycott on social media. This is impacting both speech in public and private companies. As French was giving his talk, the Texas legislature was taking up legislation aimed at protecting Chick-Fil-A.
Another interesting note from French’s talk was the “law of group polarization.” The “big sort”, social media, and the nature of cable news has allowed political opponents to segregate themselves into increasingly ideologically aligned bubbles. Within those groups, the law of group polarization begins to develop. In short, if a group of ideological allies is having a discussion about an issue, the group will likely end the discussion having a view that was further to the extreme than the furthest extreme person began the discussion. Not necessarily a great scenario for government.
French’s solution is to encourage more speech. In an ideologically rigid environment, there may be many more people there that disagree with the prevailing wisdom than is believed. If one person disagrees, this may encourage more people to speak out. If no one disagrees, the law of group polarization kicks in and the beliefs go further to the extreme.
“David French gave us a reality check on today’s toxic climate in politics and policy in America. He reinforced that we’re in this place together, and it’s encouraging to know there are still ways to work things out,” said Benita Dodd, vice president of the GPPF.
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