Defend the Indefensible: Freedom of Speech and Intellectual Freedom

Censorship, General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Issues

by Dustin FifeNeil Gaiman

“If you accept — and I do — that freedom of speech is important, then you are going to have to defend the indefensible. That means you are going to be defending the right of people to read, or to write, or to say, what you don’t say or like or want said.”–Neil Gaiman

Freedom of speech is essential to art, politics, and everyday life. If you have never read one of Neil Gaiman’s passionate defenses of freedom of speech, I suggest you read the link above. He could teach a master class in why freedom of speech is important, and, to some extent, still unique in the United States when compared to other countries. This does not mean that freedom of speech is simple. Defending freedom of speech and intellectual freedom is incredibly nuanced and can mean defending the expression of ideas you revile.

Did you see what I did there? The first time I wrote that sentence, I wrote, defending ideas you revile, and not, defending the expression of ideas you revile. At the heart of librarianship are the incredible principles of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression. Yes, we are driven by many other principles as well, such as, diversity, inclusion, and universal access to information, but intellectual freedom cannot be denied as one of our essential pillars. And what I am wondering is, in a season of political unrest, are we robustly defending freedom of expression?

Though I am fairly sure that Neil Gaiman is not stumping for Donald Trump, I am incredibly certain that you would fight for Donald Trump’s right to say whatever he wants, and we should too. For political speech to be free, it all has to be free. Yes, I understand that some speech seems freer than others because of money or other societal inequities, but you risk limiting your own speech, and future speech, by not fighting all barriers to free speech now.

Marc Randazza, a First Amendment attorney, recently wrote about Mr. Drumpf and free speech for CNN. One thing that he made perfectly clear was that violence should not be an option.

“When the shadow of violence threatens discourse, we all lose. It doesn’t matter whose message suffers. Whether police thugs pepper spray nonviolent Occupy protesters or otherwise-right-thinking-people attack the KKK, any American should look at the scene, and forget about what message either side was hoping to convey.”

I know many believe that Mr. Drumpf is inciting violence, and it should be his job, along with all other candidates, to reject violence. Regardless though, freedom of speech is paramount. Fear and intimidation have no place in politics, and whether you love or hate Donald Trump, protests should not be used to stop him from presenting his message (which does not mean they cannot be politically disruptive) and protesters should not be physically assaulted. Our political system allows for discourse and the rejection of ideas without violence. Mr Randazza explains this well.

“It is a fair opinion to think Trump’s speech is offensive, problematic, or hateful. But, the First Amendment requires neither tact nor politeness. It requires that we  permit all views to set up stalls in the marketplace of ideas, and we let that marketplace decide which ideas prevail.” 

Let me be clear, I hope the marketplace of ideas unequivocally rejects Mr. Drumpf. I also hope, however, that we all fight for his right to have and articulate those ideas. Do not think that violence and intimidation are only happening at Trump events though. Lena Dunaham recently reported that she receives more hostility from the political left than right because of her support for the incredibly qualified Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. 

Freedom of speech and intellectual freedom have to be protected. If we allow this cornerstone of our profession and country to erode because we do not want to hear what is being said, it creates precedence that adds up over time. Principles cannot be situational. At times competing principles come into conflict because life is nuanced, but regardless, principles cannot be abandoned without consequences. I leave you with the incredible words of Mr. Gaiman.

“I loved coming to the US in 1992, mostly because I loved the idea that freedom of speech was paramount. I still do. With all its faults, the US has Freedom of Speech. The First Amendment states that you can’t be arrested for saying things the government doesn’t like. You can say what you like, write what you like, and know that the remedy to someone saying or writing or showing something that offends you is not to read it, or to speak out against it. I loved that I could read and make my own mind up about something.” –Neil Gaiman

Dustin Fife is the Outreach and Patron Services Librarian at Utah Valley University Library. Prior to coming to UVU Library, Dustin spent six years as a public library director for San Juan County, Utah. Dustin is currently the President of the Utah Library Association. He can be reached at

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