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Walter Williams
Walter E. Williams
18 Nov 2015
Education Disaster

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11 Nov 2015
Attacking Our Founders

Many of my columns speak highly of the wisdom of our nation's founders. Every once in a while, I receive an … Read More.

4 Nov 2015
Destroying Your Vote

Voter ID laws have been challenged because liberal Democrats deem them racist. I guess that's because they … Read More.

Free Speech


Recent events at the University of Missouri, Yale University and some other colleges demonstrate an ongoing ignorance and/or contempt for the principles of free speech. So let's examine some of those principles by asking: What is the true test of one's commitment to free speech?

Contrary to the widespread belief of tyrants among college students, professors and administrators, the true test of one's commitment to free speech does not come when one permits people to be free to express those ideas that he finds acceptable. The true test of one's commitment to free speech comes when he permits others to say those things that he finds deeply offensive. In a word, free speech is absolute, or nearly so.

No doubt a campus pseudo-intellectual, particularly in a law school, will chime in suggesting that free speech is not absolute, bringing up the canard that you can't shout "fire" in a crowded theater. Shouting "fire" in a crowded theater is not a free speech issue. A person who shouts "fire" violates the implied contract that theatergoers have to watch a performance undisturbed. Of course, if all patrons were informed when they purchased tickets that someone would falsely shout "fire" during the performance, there would be little problem.

Then there is speech called defamation, which is defined as the action of making a false spoken or written statement damaging to a person's reputation. Defamation is criminalized, but should it be? That question might be best answered by asking: Does your reputation belong to you? In other words, are the thoughts that other people have about you your property?

The principles that apply to one's commitment to free speech also apply to one's commitment to freedom of association. Like the true test of one's commitment to free speech, the true test of one's commitment to freedom of association does not come when he permits people to associate in ways he deems acceptable.

The true test of one's commitment to freedom of association comes when he permits people to be free to associate — or not to associate — in ways he deems offensive.

Permitting discriminatory association practices in publicly owned facilities — such as libraries, parks and beaches — should not be permitted. That is because they are taxpayer-financed and everyone should have a right to equal access. But denying freedom of association in private clubs, private businesses and private schools violates people's right to freely associate.

Christian Americans have been prosecuted for their refusal to cater same-sex weddings. Those who support such attacks might ask themselves whether they would also seek prosecution of an owner of a Jewish delicatessen who refused to provide services for a neo-Nazi affair. Should a black catering company be forced to cater a Ku Klux Klan affair? Should the NAACP be forced to open its membership to racist skinheads? Should the Congressional Black Caucus be forced to open its membership to white members of Congress?

Liberty requires bravery. To truly support free speech, one has to accept that some people will say and publish things he finds deeply offensive. Similarly, to be for freedom of association, one has to accept that some people will associate in ways that he finds deeply offensive, such as associating or not associating on the basis of race, sex or religion.

It is worthwhile noting that there is a difference between what people are free to do and what they will find it in their interest to do. For example, a basketball team owner may be free to refuse to hire black players, but would he find it in his interest to do so?

I am all too afraid that most of my fellow Americans are hostile to the principle of liberty in general. Most people want liberty for themselves. I want more than that. I want liberty for me and liberty for my fellow man.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



10 Comments | Post Comment
Mr. Williams,
Thank you for a thoughtful article. I too am appalled by the illiberal wave sweeping our society, especially at the universities but also in politics and in public discourse in general. This is a truly dark path.
While the libertarian in me finds your argument about not requiring a christian to cater a gay wedding or a black caterer to cater a Ku Klux Klan affair to have some merit, a counter example occurs to me. How would you, as a black person, react if you were to stop at a hotel for a room only to be told that the owners did not accept black guests; that the rooms were for whites only? Would you really rejoice in the exercise of liberty? Clearly the example of a whites-only hotel would make all but the purest libertarian feel that a line had been crossed, but where is the line to be found?
"Permitting discriminatory association practices in publicly owned facilities - such as libraries, parks and beaches - should not be permitted. That is because they are taxpayer-financed and everybody should have a right to equal access." Does this apply to the KY court clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses?
When I read about the conservative support for the court clerk in KY who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, I had a similar question: Is religious objection a sufficient reason for her to refuse to do her duty? What if she believed interracial marriages were against God's law? Second marriages? Many Christians believe that there is no such thing as divorce and thus any subsequent marriage is living in a state of adultery. Should the clerk be able to refuse such couples based on her understanding of God's law?
Comment: #1
Posted by: Mark
Mon Nov 23, 2015 9:34 PM
Mark, thank you for expressing your argument so clearly. You will not be surprised to hear that I agree but feel that in the situations you describe the government response should be of small caliber. Fining a bakery or florist out of existence is not nuanced and judicial, it is ham-fisted and totalitarian. In these cases it is not who you are but what you do that is decisive in being refused service. The most oft repeated example is could a Neo-Nazi group demand a Jewish printer create anti-Semitic posters for and event? On whose side would you fall? Like me, I bet you don't know.

Civility has been lost to activism. The need to punish other Americans for their beliefs overrides respect for personal space. These civil conflicts are primed and fed by an activist government that wants you to be angry and upset with fellow citizens in the hope that you will not notice the hell they are creating in so many other parts of the world. Wars that last for decades are the new normal, has anyone noticed? Nah, we attack each other over whether a man in drag should be called a woman and whether he can pee where the she's pee. How uplifting, how nuanced, how disgraceful.

We focus on the silly because it requires no courage. All that is required is a sense of moral high ground from whence pot-shots at those we deem morally lower than us are easy.

We are divided because someone wishes it so, and we acquiesce. Divided, however, will not work if times get truly tough. We might wind up all peeing in the same trench.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Tom
Tue Nov 24, 2015 5:32 AM
The Declaration of Independence declares all men are created equally, in this we should abide. However, we do not finish equally, Jeffry Dahlmer did not finish equal to Einstein. What distinction is illustrated by this? That although created equally a man's actions define him.

Say a Public School denies giving a job to a convicted pedophile. The man was created equally, the school is a public accommodation, he has served his time. Upon what grounds is the school denying him access to a job?

His actions. We may not refuse service upon the basis of creation, but actions define the man. At what point should a government bureaucracy allow a free man to define for himself the actions he deems acceptable within his moral frame of reference? Must a gun store sell a gun to a man they know will rob a bank with it? Shoot his mother-in-law with it? He has passed the legal requirements, is the store owner infringing upon the rights of the purchaser? Are they denying him public accommodation?

If you agree this is a tangled web with no clear escape you are correct. As I said, this is the moment all government activism has led us to - to questions that are truly unanswerable in the realm of human strength and frailty yet successfully deflect attention from the evil perpetrated upon foreign and domestic citizens in the name of profits for corporations and power for government.

Logic? Honesty? Accountability? None. None needed. Drone attacks and sorties render a sovereign foreign nation unlivable and a candidate insists that if I buy a gun I will anger an immigrant coming here because the homeland is Government Issued fubar. It's my fault you see, I am behaving un-American, it's not who we are.

Free Speech? Yeah, as long as we talk about the stupid stuff.

Comment: #3
Posted by: Tom
Tue Nov 24, 2015 6:47 AM
Re: Mark

"How would you, as a black person, react if you were to stop at a hotel for a room only to be told that the owners did not accept black guests; that the rooms were for whites only? Would you really rejoice in the exercise of liberty?"

I took a class with Dr. Williams a handful of years ago, and he addressed this specific question. He was perfectly content with the idea, since the market would provide for black people by way of an enterprising, racially tolerant, entrepreneur. Considering how the general public reacts to this behavior, that entrepreneur would make a hefty profit by opening up next door to the racist hotel.
Comment: #4
Posted by: GL
Tue Nov 24, 2015 7:48 AM
It is really nice to read a thoughtful discussion of Dr. Williams' column.

Tom, in regard to your statement "The most oft repeated example is could a Neo-Nazi group demand a Jewish printer create anti-Semitic posters for and event? On whose side would you fall? Like me, I bet you don't know. "

I don't really see a problem here. This falls under "freedom of association". If the Jewish printer is a private commercial enterprise, he has every right to deny service to whomever he chooses. A tax-supported press might not find the solution so clear cut. Example, if a publicly funded university press gave free access to its services to campus organizations, and there was a neo-nazi campus organization (kind of hard to envision, but let's suppose) then that press would be obligated to give them equal service.

I sincerely hope you gentlemen are familiar with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education - aka "FIRE." They have been fighting the good fight on college campuses for years with encouraging results. They were founded by two Consitutional lawyers who were appalled by the free speech restrictions that were spreading like disease over American campuses. I contribute to them and hope you will check their web site.

Comment: #5
Posted by: Maggie Lawrence
Tue Nov 24, 2015 9:55 AM
And just a quick other thought regarding the clerk in KY. Conservative groups might applaud her actions and agree with her, but that has nothing to do with her legal standing. The job she is paid - with tax money - to do, does not include imposing her own beliefs on that job. That is what she did, which is why she was jailed and, I suspect, enjoyed a certain martyrdom. If her beliefs could not let her do her job, then it would be incumbent upon her to leave that job to those who could.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Maggie Lawrence
Tue Nov 24, 2015 9:59 AM
In the pre-civil rights era, businesses were free to discriminate and many did so. In many cases, they stopped only when it became illegal to continue discriminating. The social cost of doing so NOW would be high, but not in that era. In 1952, Sammy Davis Jr. took a swim in the whites only pool at a casino in Las Vegas. After he was done, the manager ordered the water drained out of the pool. In that era, I suspect that it was, at least in some areas, a lot more profitable to be racist. Your tale from Mr. William's classroom does, however, give me pause. Mr. Williams is certainly old enough to remember that era and yet you report that he expressed to a pure libertarian view on the matter.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Mark
Tue Nov 24, 2015 9:51 PM
GL, Wow, I think how demeaning it would feel to be rejected by a hotel because of your race. I just can't fathom that in modern America, it seems so wrong.

Maggie, free association has not worked for the bakers in Colorado who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding. Over $350,000.00 in fines were levied upon the couple. Going to a hotel is one thing, but a marriage touches directly upon religious beliefs and there is certain to be conflict. This is why I suggest no or small caliber response from government when dealing with religious matters.

Great conversation....
Comment: #8
Posted by: Tom
Wed Nov 25, 2015 3:57 AM
Tom, you might be relatively young not to "fathom that" example. When I was growing up in Oklahoma, there were "white" and "colored" drinking fountains and rest rooms in stores, and "coloreds" were required to sit in the balconies of theaters. This existed right up until the forceful integration of schools which led to the liberalization of other restrictions in the '50s.
Comment: #9
Posted by: Derel Schrock
Wed Nov 25, 2015 6:38 AM
Your comments about OK City reminded me of my benchmark racist, a great uncle uncle who was a WW1 vet. I remember having dinner at his home in OK City in the 1960's. During dinner, he talked about how he would never ride in a taxi with an African American (using other words), that he would never let one touch his food, that he would never eat at the same table with one, etc. I remember being shocked by the depth of his hatred. My mother later explained to me that he was proud of two things in his life; that he was a WW1 vet who was wounded in combat and that he was white. She explained that if he accepted that being white is is a simple fact of his birth and not a personal accomplishment, he would left with much less to be proud of.
He, I am certain, would have preferred "whites only" in all accommodations, public and private.
Comment: #10
Posted by: Mark
Wed Nov 25, 2015 4:36 PM
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