The American Civil Liberties Union calls the United States “the most speech-protective country in the world,” where our First Amendment protects speech one might be imprisoned for elsewhere. The US’s ability for anyone across the political spectrum or any other spectrum–no matter how extreme–to say whatever they like without government restrictions or punishment is unique in the world. Freedom of expression is a bedrock liberty of our republican democracy.
I’m worried we might be losing it.
When the Biden administration announced a “Disinformation Governance Board” in the spring, it was certainly controversial. So much so, they eventually nixed the idea. It was likely ditched due to the widespread criticism and pushback.
But what astounded me was how many Americans approved of it.
About half of voters agreed with creating it. Think about it, an agency that by its very name implies that the government will decide what is and is not true and regulate their findings accordingly was given a thumbs up by about 50% of people living in the most pro-free-speech country in the world.
Thankfully, we have a First Amendment to legally protect our speech. But culturally, how did we get to a point where so many Americans thought this might be a good idea?
In a May Morning Consult poll, Democrats were roughly twice as likely as Republicans to support a new government agency to regulate speech. Obviously, we have a Democratic administration currently, so that might be more favorable to Democratic voters, though it boggles the mind that certain people don’t have enough foresight to imagine what a second Trump administration might do with a “Disinformation Governance Board.” (Particularly regarding certain election results…)
But I am not shocked at how we arrived here. Some on the Left were jarred by the Trump era as a whole or the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol and related controversies. It’s hard not to notice a trend among left-leaning Americans who increasingly believe that more censorship might be good for the country.
To be clear, most Democratic voters are not going to tell you they don’t support free speech. Those conversations usually go something like this (and I have had more than a few, they almost all end up in this same way):
Me: Do you believe in free speech?
Democratic voter: Of course I do.
Me: What about hate speech? Or supposed disinformation?
Democratic voter: No, we can’t have that. That’s bad.
Me: But it’s not protected speech under the First Amendment?
Democratic voter: No, that’s different.
I’m not making this up. The New York Times reported in March of its own poll, “66 percent of respondents agreed with the following: ‘Our democracy is built upon the free, open and safe exchange of ideas, no matter how different they are. We should encourage all speech so long as it is done in a way that doesn’t threaten others.”
Then came the follow up, “Yet a full 30 percent agreed that ‘while I support free speech, sometimes you have shut down speech that is antidemocratic, bigoted or simply untrue.”
“Those who identified themselves as Democrats and liberals showed a higher level of support for sometimes shutting down such speech,” the Times noted.
Obviously one doesn’t truly support free speech if they believe certain speech, as judged by presumably people who think like them, shouldn’t be allowed.
— hypervocal (@hypervocal) June 7, 2016
Conducted when Trump’s first presidential campaign was showing momentum, a 2015 Pew Research Center poll revealed that 40% of 18-to-34-year-olds believed “the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups” in some circumstances.
These Americans either don’t know or don’t care that arguably one of the greatest landmark cases in protecting free speech in America was precisely about the worst people imaginable saying the worst things imaginable to a long persecuted minority group living in the U.S.
“Free speech is predicated on mutual respect,” the Times editorial board writes. When public discourse in America is narrowed, it becomes harder to answer the many other urgent questions we face as a society. https://t.co/LAfLLoGyv1
— New York Times Opinion (@nytopinion) March 18, 2022
And it’s not just about extreme speech. These days, merely disagreeing with left-wing orthodoxy can be grounds for being censored or dismissed in some industries.
The New York Times observed in a March editorial titled “America has a free speech problem,” that “The progressive movement in America has been a force for good in many ways: for social and racial justice, for pay equity, for a fairer system and society and for calling out hate and hate speech.”
“In the course of their fight for tolerance, many progressives have become intolerant of those who disagree with them or express other opinions and taken on a kind of self-righteousness and censoriousness that the right long displayed and the left long abhorred.”
Indeed. It was the American Right that did so much damage to the First Amendment and free speech during the Red Scare of the 1940s and 50s, in which politicians frightened many into believing that a domestic communist menace threatened the U.S. American citizens were hauled before Congress where they were pressured to explain their political views and giving wrong answers could have landed them in prison or ruined their career.
The House Un-American Activities Committee functionally served in the way a Disinformation Governance Board many likely hoped also would. The January 6 committee could have been the model for other committees. Expose and weed out the dissenters. Drag them before Congress. The Communists. The Capitol Terrorists. The Hatemongers. The Disinformationists.
If too many Democratic voters have been eager to suppress free speech at the federal level, we’re seeing a Republican censor craze at the state level, where many have decided that trying to regulate the speech and actions of others is a new conservative mission. Some even seek to trample the First Amendment in the name of free speech.
This eagerness by some high profile Republicans to use the state to wield power—often arguing that this is what the Left is going to do to conservatives anyway, so why not do it back?—even has an intellectual support system.
I fear what Republicans might try to do at the national level given some of these state pushes, if the GOP finds itself in the White House and control of Congress again.
Neither Democrats or Republicans should be allowed to trample the First Amendment.
It is crucial to promote a free speech culture in this country. Even though we had a First Amendment since the day the Constitution was ratified, it wasn’t fully enforced for most of our history with war protesters, social activists and dissenters of different stripes punished merely for their expression. The eras and issues change, but the government overreaching the Constitution in the name of some supreme cause is always the same.
We could end up there again.
All people need is a reason. Trump. Biden. January 6. Summer 2020. Hate speech. Woke speech. Communism. Disinformation. Disney. People can always rationalize that their current personal beef is an exception to the First Amendment rule.
Outside of directly inciting violence and a few other extremely-narrow exceptions defined by the Supreme Court, there are no exceptions. For anyone. At any time. In any party. As Americans, we’re all going to need to get back to agreeing on this basic premise again.