Samuel Clemens, Guest Writer
Despite entire careers built on leveling this criticism at the left, the reactionary right seems to fundamentally misunderstand what Freedom of Speech is, and the rights that it confers.
The First Amendment of the Constitution says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of these grievances”
If a news anchor launches into a racist tirade on air, and the network executives decide to fire her due to fears of lower ratings, no one’s right to free speech has been violated.
Similarly, if an employee uses homophobic slurs around the water cooler that make his gay colleagues feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in the workplace, his firing does not represent the totalitarian tyranny of political correctness, merely the enforcement of the legal waivers addressing workplace harassment and discrimination that he willingly signed when he accepted his job.
The First Amendment protects you from imprisonment and censorship by state authorities for voicing your opinion and how you choose to worship. It does not protect you from being ostracized by your peers for voicing opinions that are hateful or stupid. It does not protect you from employers who can prove that your opinions are causing a disruptive and hostile workplace environment. And for public figures, it certainly does not give you the right to voice your opinion free from criticism, protest, and boycotts.
None of these scenarios represent any limitation of civil rights or freedom of expression, simply shifting cultural norms. Many attitudes that might have been considered acceptable in the 1950s are now viewed as profoundly racist, sexist, and homophobic. I personally would argue that, on balance, this cultural change has been a good thing, but I’m open to debate on that assessment. What is not up for debate is that the limitations these changing societal values have put on expressing oneself have in no way undercut the legal protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.
What a profound irony, then, that in spouting alarmist rhetoric about the “attack on free speech” cultural commentators like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro are fabricating exactly the kind of hysterical self-victimization narratives that they accuse progressives, feminists, and advocates for racial equality of engaging in.
To be clear, black-clad Antifa enacting the heckler’s veto by attacking public speaking events of right wing figures like Milo Yanopolis and Ann Coulter on college campuses is an attack on free speech. I would also argue it reflects poorly on conservative student groups that they would choose to invite speakers whose only claim to fame is being bigoted agent provocateurs. But they have the right to do so, and on publicly-funded campuses, the far left doesn’t get unilateral authority to decide who can voice their opinion.
Private organizations, however, are entitled to spend their money how they want and associate with who they choose. A private company like Twitter can decide they no longer want to host a bigot like Yiannopoulos on their platform and delete his account, all without violating anyone’s Constitutional rights. I believe this minutiae has been lost on many people.
I think there can be salient arguments against unrestricted free speech. Countries across Europe have criminalized Holocaust denial, in an attempt to come to grips with that chilling history and prevent revisionists from trying to minimize it. I don’t think this makes these countries significantly less free than America.
Indeed, I think many of America’s woes in the modern era come from our inability to reconcile ourselves with our dark past as many other industrialized democracies have tried to do with Hate Speech and anti-revisionism laws. Our academia and politics are still filled with voices who claim that 1950’s Suburbia, the unregulated urban profiteering of the Gilded Age, and most disturbingly, the Antebellum South, constitute the “Good Old Days.”
But despite the historical illiteracy of these beliefs, I would not support any law that would seek to silence those who purvey them— I believe we should allow the greatest degree of free speech that can coexist with public safety. Yet freedom without responsibility has no value.
Yes, you CAN walk into a public park with an SS Officer uniform on, but you definitely shouldn’t. And if you do choose to make that horrible, horrible decision, you can’t pretend that old Jewish grandma in the park is violating your rights when she doesn’t let you pet her dog.
Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing, one of the most important rights that has allowed this country to edge closer to fulfilling the meaning and promise of our creed. Yet it was only designed to protect private citizens from ending up in the court of law simply for expressing themselves. It was never intended to protect private citizens who are too cowardly to answer for their actions in a court of public opinion.