Debate is healthy for a democratic society. Vigorous exchanges cause people to confront unorthodox ideas, examine their beliefs and develop informed opinions. Robust speech is akin to exercise machines in the gym: a tool to build democratic muscles and endurance.

Unfortunately, in the wake of protests over the Israel-Hamas war, many are calling for restrictions on free speech. For example, Professor Claire O. Finkelstein of the University of Pennsylvania lamented recently in The Washington Post that the First Amendment, which protects free speech and a free press, applies to public universities. She averred that “restricting poisonous speech that targets Jews and other minorities” should be a priority.

But what is “poisonous speech” or, as it is frequently framed, “hate speech”? Does it include someone comparing Israel’s treatment of Gaza civilians to the Nazi Holocaust? How about claims that the civilian death toll in Gaza amounts to genocide? Or is “poisonous speech” limited to vile assertions that the Israeli population should be annihilated by their Arab neighbors?

Of course, the big question is, who in government or on campus is all-knowing enough to judge such matters? Joe Biden? Donald Trump? An anonymous bureaucrat? The president of Harvard University?

The “safe space”

This recent call for speech restrictions is the latest manifestation of the campus “safe space” phenomenon. Rather than grappling with challenging ideas, students and their faculty enablers demand cozy echo chambers where only their views—no matter how silly or ill-informed—are praised.

An anonymous author writing for Teen Vogue defended the need for safe spaces this way: “Due to the frequency of incidents related to racism, sexism or homophobia on some college campuses, students have expressed a need for a space where they can have constructive discussions or receive support without fear of being subjected to implicit or explicit micro-aggressions.”

These “snowflakes,” as some call them, make college campuses sound like the haunts of knuckle-dragging conservative professors seeking to teach Western civilization, American history (without the 1619 Project’s gloss) or the classics. In reality, studies show that liberal professors outnumber conservative professors 12 to 1 at leading U.S. universities. Fear of the Neanderthal professoriate instilling terror in progressive freshmen is akin to the Army’s 1.2 million soldiers begging for Xanax because the Bahamas might invade.

The Sedition Act

Furthermore, speech restrictions in American history haven’t gone well. In 1798, President John Adams’ Federalist Party enacted the Sedition Act in response to the Quasi-War with France. This legislation made criticism of the federal government a crime punishable by two years in prison and a $2,000 fine. Multiple newspaper editors who were sharply critical of the Adams administration faced federal prosecution. The Sedition Act is remembered as a black eye for Adams and the Federalist Party.

Abraham Lincoln, author of the Emancipation Proclamation, shut down more than 300 Northern newspapers for questioning his leadership. He unilaterally suspended the writ of habeas corpus through which imprisoned editors could challenge their confinement. Roger Taney, chief justice of the Supreme Court, ruled that Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus was unconstitutional, but Lincoln ignored him. Lincoln’s record on this tarnished his supposed commitment to freedom.

During World War I, the United States enacted the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a crime to impugn the government, Constitution or members of the military. Jacob Abrams, a self-proclaimed “anarchist-socialist,” and four colleagues drew the ire of authorities for distributing leaflets in English and Yiddish criticizing the government for opposing the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Four of the five radicals were imprisoned for their activities, which should have been protected by the First Amendment.

History has harshly judged speech restrictions because safe spaces and curtailment of debate cause our democratic muscles to atrophy. We must exercise them by dealing with opinions we abhor rather than becoming intellectual couch potatoes.

Campus unrest related to the Israel-Hamas war is just the latest temptation to insulate ourselves from ideas.

Undoubtedly, most radicals chanting “from the river to the sea” probably could not identify which river and sea are referenced. Even so, the remedy for such speech is not to silence those who chant such things but to clearly explain why they’re wrong.