“Free speech” has now become a quintessential conservative value. That it has always been a classical liberal value is true enough, but its association with conservatism is due to the historical anomaly of American conservatism being the English commonwealthman ideology interspersed with Manchester liberalism, notwithstanding historically trivial exceptions like Orestes Brownson, the Southern Fire-Eaters of DeBow’s Review (and their Copperhead allies), and various latter-day tradcons at Brent Bozell’s Triumph, or Kirk and Regnery (now ISI)’s Modern Age.
Free expression is the underpinning of the “public sphere,” the public sphere being the engulfment of all social relations by the values of literary salons, coffeehouses and book clubs. Once instrumental in leveling the distinctions among magnates and between magnates and commoners, as well as fostering a new consciousness of the “active citizen,” they proceeded to outlive their usefulness as the would-be salonnieres of the past made their long march into the institutions of the present.
From this point on, the same people who once claimed they “just want to debate ideas,” showed their true colors in working to transform society into a secular monastery where the unbridled ego would be allowed to define its own essence and own being by sheer force of will alone against any constraints of tradition and material reality. This represents a bastardization of henosis, where instead of working to reach union with the transcendent, one instead reaches union with one’s own vanity, conceit and pride. The liberation from social bonds reaches its culmination in a totalitarian existentialism where a completely self-imagined identity is lived out, and moreover, is coerced into being unconditionally accepted by all bystanders.
In the face of a post-New Left cultural onslaught imposing this existentialist project, the modern conservative now foolishly champions yesterday’s free speech fundamentalism as somehow being the corrective. The alt-right, too. When Richard Spencer spoke at Auburn University in April 2017, he chose the rhetorical weapon of presenting himself as a freethinker fighting against left-wing dogma. And just recently, on June 25, 2017, a “Freedom of Speech Rally” was held at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. with Spencer, Identity Evropa and other figures present. Such is free speech: when one is the underdog, it is sweet like honey. When one is the overdog and has to enforce certain institutional axioms of social conformity to maintain a desired order, it is a nuisance. Hence, free speech is necessarily an appeal sought by the weakling. A free speech fundamentalist is a man who believes in nothing but eternal dissent.
Let us not forget that one of the errors condemned in the encyclical Exsurge Domine (1520) against Luther was “That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.”
But, to take a more modern context, I would like to direct your attention to a parliamentary speech given on December 13, 1817 by one of the most eminent ultra-royalist ministers of the Restoration of 1814-1830 — Joseph de Villèle. 13 days later, a bill was passed prohibiting “papers and other periodicals which treat of political news” from being published without royal authority, before being relaxed 4 years later, although some nominal form of censorship would last until 1828 by which point ultra-royalist influence was waning. The speech is a concise and topical one, but it is also a succinct illustration of the perils of unfettered expression (particularly the press) in a representative government, as the Restoration one was with its Chamber of Deputies sanctioned by the Charter of 1814. A worthy reminder that free expression is not something a conservative can value as an absolute.