Why is America free

Can the competition of ideas be won by suppressing the arguments of the other side? In theory, this seems absurd to Americans: no other country interprets the right to freedom of expression more generously, the unprotected exceptions are limited to a few cases such as calls to violence.

Pride in this tradition obscures the fact that support for a liberal interpretation of freedom of speech is waning - on both sides of the political spectrum. In a survey by the libertarian Cato Institute, 40 percent of those questioned recently spoke out in favor of the government sanctioning insults against groups ("hate speech").

University lecturers complain that many of their students do not even know that such expressions of opinion are explicitly protected by the first amendment to the constitution. "Our schools no longer teach students, right and left, the importance of the freedom to express one's thoughts and discuss them," says conservative political scientist Peter Berkowitz of Stanford University.

In the past 25 years there has been an astonishing role reversal: Once it was conservatives who wanted to set clear limits on freedom of expression. The progressives, on the other hand, worked - especially in the context of social movements and the culture of protest - to develop this basic right.

In the 1990s, however, liberal intellectuals began to call for greater restrictions on certain expressions to protect minorities and women. This attitude has largely prevailed at private universities: if the strong silence the weak, "free" opinion does not ensure real freedom, so the argument goes. The price of the resulting consideration, however, is often that a growing number of issues, debates and expressions of opinion (e.g. sticking slogans on dormitory windows) are taboo.

Taboo and staging

Under the impression that racism is now more openly shown, the progressive camp is also discussing outside the campus gates whether the absoluteness of freedom of expression is really still up to date or whether "Europeanization", i.e. a restriction of "hate speech", would be more up-to-date. However, it would not be possible to reach agreement on the definition, nor would corresponding laws or judgments currently be realistic.

But the attitude alone has its price, and the price is rising: 58 percent of the Americans surveyed now state in the Cato survey that the current political climate prevents them from expressing their opinion - the more conservative, the greater the proportion .

The political right has long been using this for their staging: Representatives such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter visit universities, controversial theses or provocative plans in their luggage. The regular result: either the university cancels the performance or demonstrators prevent it. Both of these move the conservative activists into the role of victims, as desired, and create the impression that the student body (code word for "future elite voting for democrats") is in fact intolerant of other opinions.

"What worries me most is the blending of freedom of expression and the ideas that are being propagated," says Wayne Batchis of the University of Delaware, a chronicler of developments. "From the hard right we hear all the time: 'We are only exercising our constitutional rights' - as if this morally justify hideous ideas." Sections of the left, in turn, fell for it - and in turn made the ideas a question of whether they were covered by freedom of expression. Anyone who says that all Muslims are terrorists can invoke their freedom of speech in the USA; However, he cannot expect this insult to be seriously discussed as an idea at all.