Freeing the Flow

President Lee C. Bollinger’s new book argues that the idea of a free and independent press - and Internet - should be our principal export.

Interview by Michael B. Shavelson Published Winter 2009-10
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Illustrations by Keith NegleyColumbia magazine: You draw the title of your book from Justice Brennan’s opinion in the 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, one of the most important free-speech cases of the 20th century. Brennan wrote that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” We all learned in school that in the best of circumstances a plurality of voices can help us arrive at the truth, but — given the messiness — is that why we should value free speech as much as we do in the United States?

Lee C. Bollinger: You raise a profound question, one that has occupied my attention for several decades. It was the thing that puzzled me the most when I started as a young scholar and ended up writing the book The Tolerant Society about this issue. Why would a society take the principle of free speech — which everybody more or less accepts as a basic principle — and expand it as far as our society has? It’s the scope of the principle of freedom of speech and freedom of the press that is itself of interest.

There are classic arguments for unfettered speech. There is the one you’ve mentioned: we’ll get the truth if we just let everybody say what they want, without regard to whether it’s reasonable, unreasonable, or offensive. When this plays out in real life, though, we have people advocating horrible things like discrimination, the violent overthrow of society, hate, or genocide, and it’s pretty hard to make the case that all of this is necessary to search for the truth. A second argument concedes that not all speech is necessary to the search for truth, but insists that interacting with “false” ideas reinforces our understanding of and commitment to truth. John Stuart Mill made both of these arguments. In my view, this second argument is also weak in explaining the full range of speech we protect.

Columbia: We should also be aware of what people are thinking. Even people on the edge.

Bollinger: That’s the safety-valve argument, which says that we want people to be able to release what they’re feeling, and we want to know what it is they’re feeling.

Then there’s the traditional argument that it would be great if we could eliminate those ideas that we so detest and fear, reasonably so. But we can’t do that without threatening the speech we value.

Those points are all part of a reasonable debate, but they miss the profound meaning of what free speech has come to mean in the United States. Ultimately, I believe, we need to turn to a different understanding of what we’re doing with free speech — which is found in the lessons inherent in the toleration of bad-speech acts. There is something in the character of this country that strives to be open not only with speech, but with all kinds of behavior. Ours may be the most open society in history.

I just came back from a trip to Asia, where countries like China and Singapore have a very different philosophy of how to compose a society. Their idea is captured by the term harmony; a society should be harmonious, and any conflict should be minimized. They think that out of a more collaborative, harmonious community will come advancement. In our route they see divisiveness and eventually chaos.

Part of the genius of the United States is our warm embrace of a society in which individuals can say and do many things that we might not like. The brilliance is in the idea that the long-term stability and inventiveness of a nation will be enhanced by a character that can resist fear of our natural authoritarian tendencies to dampen differences.

That’s a recent idea. Free speech and a free press are really 20th-century inventions. It’s unclear how the experiment will turn out, but we have for now settled on a distinctive approach, which is highly successful. In free speech and press, therefore, we’re working not only on truth but on character as well.

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