The same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. And laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice.In his The Atlantic column where he quotes this, Conor Friedersdorf mainly makes the case that today's campus activism, with its focus on microaggressions and racial insensitivity, is a terrible thing, far removed from the free-speech cases of the past, because it goes overboard in its zeal to defend the marginalized from anything that might do them the slightest harm. The American Civil Liberties Union quote is deployed, and then forgotten.
The Lessons of Bygone Free-Speech Fights
Which is a shame, because it's really the important piece. We in the United States tend to have a cartoonish understanding of abuses of power. The idea is that a tyrannical government will suddenly launch a coup, and suddenly, everything goes from white picket fences to tanks and jackbooted soldiers in the streets at the behest of some hidden schemer sequestered in a bunker somewhere with a white cat in his lap. But while dictatorial generals and rebellious warlords overthrow tottering democracies now and again, in the developed world, things tend to slide into chaos as the well meaning implement policies that rely on every executive who comes after them being as well-meaning as they are.
Whenever a government is given a power, one is saying, in effect: "I trust that the people who run the government tomorrow will use this power in the manner, and within the limits, that I am envisioning today." But right and wrong are not objective characteristics of the Universe. Things change. We may have the understanding that all changes are progress, because the arc of history bends towards justice, but every generation has considered itself enlightened. We cannot rely on our opinion that we are doing the right thing to put things in place that we would object to were they done to us.