Free Speech is an End in Itself

Tirein Steinbach wrote this: “Free speech and diversity, equity and inclusion are means to an end, and one that I think many people can actually agree on: to live in a country with liberty and justice for all its people”.

I could not disagree more strenuously. Free speech is not merely the means to an end. It’s the end in itself. To suggest otherwise is to allow that if we could get to our ultimate goal in some other way, including trampling on free speech, that would be okay. It is not, not in my book.

You probably would like some context, so here it is.

Steinbach is the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Stanford Law School. She wrote the above line at the end of a guest essay she penned last week for the Wall Street Journal. She wrote that in response to an editorial in the same paper which blasted her for how she handled a messy and ugly situation that developed during an appearance at the school by a conservative Federal judge named Tyler Duncan. Duncan provided his own account of what happened here.

The facts aren’t in dispute. Duncan was invited to speak by the Stanford chapter of the conservative Federalist Society. Some hard-left student groups demanded that he be disinvited or allowed to speak only remotely because they didn’t like some of his opinions. When Stanford administration, to their credit, refused and he showed up, he got shouted down. As the situation spiraled out of control, he asked Steinbach, who was present, to intervene. But when she did, she only made things worse by seeming to side with the shouters. She asked him and the crowd (perhaps rhetorically), “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

By that she apparently meant to imply that his judicial decisions and his originalist views (which I myself oppose) were so repugnant that it wasn’t worth arousing the gentle feelings of Stanford law students by allowing those views to be aired in their presence. (Why they just didn’t avoid his lecture to save themselves the trauma of being exposed to his “harmful” ideas is not clear.)

I thought Steinbach actually did a reasonably good job of defending herself in her response to the Journal. That is until the very end. But I’m happy she wrote that line, which again was: “Free speech and diversity, equity and inclusion are means to an end, and one that I think many people can actually agree on: to live in a country with liberty and justice for all its people”.

I’m happy she wrote that because it provides among the clearest distillations I’ve seen of the hard-left point of view. The fact that she seemed to offer it as a platitude to sooth conservative and moderate readers of the Wall Street Journal only underscores how differently she and I view the world.

To be clear I am very much in favor of liberty and justice for all. The trouble with that, though, is that the hard-left would trample on things like free speech and other classical liberal, Enlightenment values in order to get to their version of “justice,” which differs starkly from mine.

I define justice as each individual getting what he or she deserves based on their own effort and native abilities. The hard-left defines justice in terms of good and bad tribes, with oppressed groups needing to be the beneficiaries of discrimination (no matter how successful any individual of that group might be) to make up for past discrimination against the group (even if an individual member never experienced it). I find that to be quite unjust.

Moreover, if I was forced to rank classical liberal values I’d put free speech first followed closely by reason. Equality would be in there, but somewhat down the list. That’s because every other good thing (including equality, liberty and justice) flows from freedom to think and to express your thoughts, but also to be held to account for your command of the facts and your ability to think logically and clearly. That’s the only way to evaluate ideas so that bad ones can be sorted out and good ones can be advanced.

So, I suppose in that sense, free speech is a means to an end, but it’s a means that will always be essential. To discard it is to discard any hope for progress in any realm.

But those are fighting words to the hard-left these days. I’m told that this sort of thinking is just the white patriarchy at work. Sloppy thinking must be valued as long as the sloppiness is expressed by a member of the oppressed group. Air-tight logic can be dismissed if it is proclaimed by an oppressor.

So, in my view, Steinbach’s platitude is actually radical, dangerous and wrong. Free speech is not just a means to an end. To live in a society where we have maximum freedom of expression — even expression of ideas that sensitive Stanford law students might find offensive — is at the heart of classical liberalism and, for me at least, the very meaning of freedom.

Postscript: An alert reader sent me this story from Slate, which charges that Judge Duncan welcomed the confrontation as a means of pressing his case for a Supreme Court nomination from a future Republican president. It’s possible. Duncan does seem like a provocateur, not a good quality for a judge at any level. But the incident at Stanford was a jumping off point to make a broader case about the importance of free speech. Duncan may be a jerk. He may have set this up. It doesn’t make the statement that free speech is just a means to an end any more palatable. And, of course, the Stanford students didn’t have to take the bait. Had they ignored him there would have been no national story and Duncan would have remained in the obscurity to which I hope he returns.

Post-postscript: And for yet another perspective try this on from liberal New York Times columnist Pamela Paul. She writes in part, “Students at Stanford Law School would do well for themselves to hear out their opponents. In the professional world, it won’t be enough to deem their opponents evil and declare the battle won.”

If you vote in Madison please consider Badri Lankella for school board. He’s a sensible alternative to the current board majority.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “Free Speech is an End in Itself

  1. Equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome. Society will never, nor should it, achieve the latter, at least not without trampling the liberties of everyone (including the supposed recipients of this skewed definition of “justice”). And yes, I acknowledge that I am a privileged white male, but I can’t do anything about that except to lend my puny support to leveling the playing field (not leveling the final score before the game is even played).


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