Great Antidote Extras: Nico Perrino on Individual Rights and Free Expression

political polarization free speech civil liberties

Kevin Lavery for AdamSmithWorks

Why is freedom of expression important and when, if ever, is the time to limit it? 
Is free speech an oppressive tool for the powerful and the discriminatory or is it necessary for the success of a free society? Guest Nico Perrino and host Juliette Sellgren discuss the importance of free speech legally and socially, the importance of neutral principles, and the problems with viewing words as violence in this episode of The Great Antidote podcast. Perrino is the Executive Vice President of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), host of So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast, and Co-Director and Senior Producer of Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story, a documentary about the life of former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Executive Director, Ira Glasser.

The paramount question is, why is freedom of expression important? Perrino’s answer begin by discussing FIRE’s attitude in defending civil liberties and the history of conflict resolution.
We see free expression as central to individual autonomy, innovation, creativity, artistic expression, peace, democracy, you name it…FIRE does not throat clear or genuflect before defending free speech...
Throughout human history we have solved disputes in mostly one way: through actual violence. If we didn’t like what you had to say we burned you at the stake, we threw you in prison, we burned your books, we tortured you, we forced you to drink the hemlock. One of the innovations of modern society that I think is most valuable is the use of words to solve our disputes. Sigmund Freud once said, "civilization was founded the day man cast a word instead of a stone."
FIRE has been incredibly successful in their fight against speech restrictions on college campuses. In 2007, 80% of college campuses had at least one ‘red light speech code’, which means it both clearly and substantially restricts protected speech. By 2019 this had been reduced to 28.5%, and marked the eleventh year in a row that red light speech codes had decreased. However, Perrino and FIRE are not just worried about free speech being enshrined in law. Having zero laws or institutional codes limiting free speech does not ensure a social environment of free speech, as Sellgren, a student at the University of Virginia (UVA), points out with a personal example, “UVA has really good speech codes, but we don’t have a free speech culture.”

What are the dangers of a culture which is against the sharing of certain ideas? Perrino believes the most significant consequence would be the implications of not living up to American institutional ideals.
The first amendment and the constitution are imbued with meaning by those of us who seek to live up to and enshrine those ideals in how we go about our lives, and if we don’t those protections for our rights become nothing more than a parchment barrier that can be thrown away by any authoritarian impulse that runs through society. So, it’s important that we live out the values that are enshrined in our law but that’s easier said than done.
Perrino explains how younger generations have forgotten or haven’t learned the importance of free speech, putting future free expression at risk in America.
I felt like my generation and some of the younger generations have forgotten the reason why we have freedom of expression in the first place and what it’s accomplished for our generations and past generations…over the years it feels like the understanding of the centrality of freedom of expression has been lost…after some of these movements for social justice have found success…younger generations are seeing it as a tool of the bully, the bigot, and the robber baron…but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Leading from this Perrino describes the importance of free speech to civil rights leaders, political minorities, and the legacy of civil liberties defenders, such as Ira Glasser. The reason young people have created a culture of censorship is because 
They had no power, all they had was their voices, the great civil rights activist John Lewis who passed away in recent years once said, “without freedom of speech the civil rights movement would’ve been a bird without wings”, and Martin Luther King Jr. in his last speech talked about how local governments were restricting the ability of civil rights activists to march in these towns through their permitting processes…freedom of speech protects those who do not have political power to agitate…even if you are a lonely voice out there in a sea of people who disagree with you the first amendment protects your ability to speak out.
Perrino concludes that the reason young people have created a culture of censorship is due to the lack of knowledge of these facts. He uses an Ira Glasser quote to prove this point,
How do you expect young people to know any of this history if no one tells them about it.
Censorship of speech is often attributed to the left, however the right wing has recently been incredibly aggressive in the censorship of expression. For example,  Republican-led states such as Texas, Tennessee, and Florida have banned  dressing in drag in public spaces,  teaching critical race theory in schools, and having certain books in schools. How is speech censorship different on the right than on the left? Perrino says

(Lightly edited)
People suffer from the censors’ curse. When they get into power, censorship is often viewed as a convenient tool to enact the change they want to enact. Wherever the locus of control is within these institutions, that’s where you’re going to find censorship. So, on college and university campuses where the left is predominately in control, most of the censorship is going to come from the left…but you spoke about efforts in state legislatures, particularly republican ones where they hold the institutions of power and they also see censorship as a convenient tool to go after ideas that they don’t like. I talk about how we live in the age of the politics of expediency where we seek out expedient tools to correct perceived problems…forgetting that the tools that we use or the principles that we exercise can be used by our ideological enemies were they to gain power…for years, because the left held power in colleges and universities, and in the media, there was a marriage of convenience between free speech and the right wing, but now conservatives are gaining power and they’re seeing censorship as an expedient weapon to go after speech they don’t like.

This is why neutral principles are so important for protecting freedom of speech. If there are allegiances to partisan political movements from civil liberties defenders, only one form of speech will be defended, and the others will be left to be victims of the “expedient weapon” of censorship.
Perrino gives an example of Ira Glasser to show the clear divorce cancel culture and republican authoritarianism from the American principle of defending free speech for all perspectives, even the most offensive.
Ira Glasser and his generation of civil libertarians decided that they were going to advocate for freedom of speech up to and including defending the rights of neo-nazis to march in a town of Holocaust survivors.
This section of the podcast reminded me about an experience I had earlier this year. I attend Western Carolina University, and a few times a year evangelical street preachers come to campus and preach supposed American decline along with heaps of homophobia and transphobia. Understandably, many students are offended by these views, and consequently protest, or if they’re like me: politely debate. During one of these protests, a student asked the Dean of Students, “why are they allowed to be here?” Later in the day, a group of right-wing students told me that the preacher should not be allowed to disgrace the American flag the way he did (the man had an American flag upside-down on his flagpole and had allegedly stepped on the flag.) This was interesting to me because it highlighted the animosity to offensive and radical speech from both sides of the political spectrum.
How can this problem of censorship from both sides be solved? Perrino believes it lies in understanding other arguments.
When Alan Charles Kors, the co-founder of FIRE, was a student at Princeton, he had a professor who was Marxist…All the students wrote a paper that tipped their hats towards what they thought the professor wanted to hear…as he’s returning the papers to the students, the professor says, ‘you have profoundly shamed me. You all wrote what you thought I wanted to hear. So, I’m going to assign you the book that I most disagree with in the twentieth century, and I want you to repeat its arguments in your own words so I understand that you understand arguments on the other side…’ This means that we need to introduce students to perspectives from across the political and ideological divides so that students aren’t expecting to hear only one point of view…we need students to have strong convictions that are loosely held.
Perrino and Sellgren also address the utilitarian view towards free speech: speech should only be ensured if it provides a net positive to society; free speech is valuable exclusively because of the benefits.
There are benefits to democracy, science, innovation…but there’s also a benefit to individual liberty, autonomy, agency…I say no to the argument that rights should only be protected insofar as they have a benefit for the larger society. I should be able to be free to be who I am and speak my mind as long as I’m not doing harm to other people…I should be able to exist in this world and bear witness to how I see it regardless of whether someone else sees benefits in what I have to say…there’s value and the right in people’s ability to tell their own stories.
Perrino defines harm as direct physical harm or the incitement to do so, while others view words as violence. How is the view of words being equivalent to violence harmful?
If you say words themselves are violence then logic dictates that you can use actual physical violence to respond to words. Once you make that argument then this whole civilization thing that Freud was referencing goes out the door…you throw out the distinction between words and physical violence and you lose a free society.
This section reminded me of Douglas J. Den Uyl’s views on education and stated in his essay Education as Civil Society within the Liberty Fund Basic Memorandum
There is a sense too that one is being educated when knowledge is being pursued for “its own sake” and not for instrumental reasons of skill development, career advancement, or information processing.
Education, similar to speech, and all other forms of expression is an end in itself. There doesn’t need to be some sort of external value, or some commanding authority of use for expression and education to be protected.


  1. Is cancel culture truly a chilling effect on free speech or does it simply hold people accountable for offensive or morally reprehensible views? How slippery is the slope of cancel culture towards legally enforced speech restrictions such as those found in Canada or the United Kingdom?

  2. Would a society of independent self-censorship be a culture of free speech? Is this scenario more preferable than a society of pressured censorship? How important is non-expression as a form or free speech relative to active expression? Is compelled speech a larger threat to freedom of expression than censorship of speech?

  3. Although some academic papers question the notion of Americans increasingly tolerating political violence, incidents of threats, harassment, and attacks against public officials have grown significantly. Are anti-speech attitudes to blame for an increase in political violence? If so, what is the future of freedom of exchange in an environment of violent political extremism?

  4. What are the ingredients of an anti-speech society? What is the level of overlap between cultures that are anti-speech and the legal restriction of other individual rights? Where does the United States fail in protecting speech and where does the nation excel?

  5. Individuals on the left and the right view debate of difficult subjects as potentially harmful due to platforming and spreading dangerous ideas but the ideas they fear are very different. How can a culture of free expression be created and preserved while also minimizing the spread of harmful ideas? Can a prioritization of discouraging harmful ideas over encouraging free exchange lead to a censorship-dominated future?

Other Great Antidote episodes of interest: