photograph of mic on graduation stage before empty chairs

On June 2nd, The Christian Post reported the story of Savannah Lefler, a high school valedictorian in Michigan whose “Christianized” honors night speech was facing censorship by school officials; after a legal nonprofit urged administrators to reconsider, Lefler was informed that she will be allowed to deliver her prepared remarks as desired. According to First Liberty, a law firm dedicated “to defending religious liberty for all Americans” who wrote in Lefler’s defense, “Too often, we have seen well-meaning school officials thinking they are complying with the Establishment Clause mistakenly go too far and censor the private speech of students, violating students’ rights under the Free Speech Clause.” (First Liberty has also defended other high school graduates from Pennsylvania and Michigan in similar cases.)

One day later, on June 3rd, The Christian Post reported the story of Paxton Smith, a high school valedictorian in Texas who delivered a graduation speech criticizing the so-called “heartbeat bill” recently signed by Governor Greg Abbott; rather than delivering the pre-approved remarks she had written and submitted, Smith spoke for roughly three minutes against Senate Bill 8 that, among other restrictions, bans abortions performed after six weeks of fetal development. According to Smith in her surprise, unapproved commentary, “I cannot give up this platform to promote complacency and peace, when there is a war on my body and a war on my rights.”

Rather than discuss the details of religious freedom or the debate about legal abortion in this article, I’m interested in thinking about what happened on June 4th — or, more accurately, what didn’t happen. As I comb through the recent archives of several large-scale news media organizations, many of them are only reporting about one of these two high school graduates with controversial speeches.

On one hand, as of this writing, sites like Fox News and Christianity Daily are promoting Lefler’s story, including excerpts from First Liberty’s letter to the school; in one of several articles it ran on the subject, Fox News also includes multiple excerpts of the religious language from Lefler’s draft and ends with additional comments from First Liberty on Lefler’s constitutional right to free speech. (In a similar — though inverted — fashion, NewsMax and the National Review have published pieces criticizing Smith while remaining silent about Lefler.)

On the other hand, sites like CNN and The New York Times are promoting Smith’s story, including by linking to the viral video of her graduation speech; the headline for the June 4th article from CBS News reads “Dallas high school valedictorian scraps speech, makes impassioned plea for abortion rights” and ends with a statement from Smith’s school district that reads, “The content of each student speaker’s message is the private, voluntary expression of the individual student and does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position or expression of the District or its employees.” (As far as I could tell, no large-scale news outlets who have remained silent about Smith have also published opinion pieces critical of Lefler.)

It might well be true that no single news source could hope to comprehensively report on every newsworthy event, so it might be unfair to imply that Fox News or CNN is doing something wrong by only reporting on one of these stories. It might also be true that one (or both) of these stories is not actually “newsworthy” (in a broadly agreeable sense) — certainly there are differences between what Lefler and Smith did, and we might not want to oversimplify those distinctions for the sake of an easy comparison.

But it seems like defenders of “free speech” (as a blunt principle) are required to support both Lefler and Smith for exercising their right to express their private beliefs in a public forum.

John Stuart Mill is perhaps one of the most famous defenders of an inherent value in free speech; in his 1859 essay On Liberty, Mill argues that opinions are a kind of public good and the absolutely free exchange of differing opinions is the best way to promote ideal outcomes for the epistemic community. No one can hope to know all that there is to know on the complex topics relevant to social life, so we must rely on each other to raise alternate perspectives for our consideration; as he says, “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.” In short, because he also thought that false opinions would naturally give way to true ones, the more opinions we have on the table, the more likely Mill thought it would be that we would discover the truth.

Furthermore, because he found value in the process of inquiry itself, Mill saw absolutely free speech as an opportunity for the development of individual virtue; as he explains:

“No one can be a great thinker who does not recognise, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.”

Akin to common refrains today about “doing your own research” and “thinking for yourself,” Mill believed that free speech was a necessary precondition for an optimal environment to promote intellectual activity (and, by extension, epistemic virtue).

So, suppose that Moe has a social media account and shares on it a story from Fox News about Savannah Lefler’s speech nearly being censored; if Moe believes that this is simply a matter of Lefler’s freedoms being threatened, and he also believes that justice was indeed upheld in Lefler’s case, then he should (upon pain of inconsistency) also be proud of Paxton Smith exercising those same freedoms in her speech. Similarly, if Calvin believes that Smith was doing something honorable by speaking freely (despite going off-script), then he might also be required to view Lefler in a similar light.

If, however, Moe or Calvin only feel like one of these two high school valedictorians was actually doing something praiseworthy, then it must be for reasons other than the value of free speech. This is, of course, as unproblematic as it is likely (indeed, Moe might well approve of public religious speech or not approve of outspoken abortion defenses while Calvin believes the opposite on both counts). In a society where people enjoy the freedom to hold and express such different opinions, neither Moe nor Calvin is clearly doing anything inappropriate by disagreeing on these matters.

But it does seem inappropriate (or, at the very least, confusing) to wave the concept of “free speech” around as a defense of ideas that others might criticize. As Mill stresses, Lefler and Smith being free to express their ideas does not automatically make those ideas correct — indeed, their free expression (on Mill’s view) is one of the best ways to recognize which one (if either) is actually false.

For clarity’s sake, it would be better for Moe, Calvin, and everyone to just say what they truly support and what positions they believe to be correct, rather than hiding behind the double-edged sword of “free speech.”