When we break down the core institution of free speech, we lose a lot of what made America so successful in the first place.
Free speech used to be held up as one of the core American institutions. It was enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights for a reason: while other countries have also adopted free speech, it is a fundamentally American tradition.
More than that, free speech is essential on its own terms. It is the single best way for humans to make progress. None of us are perfect, and none of us know the full truth. Therefore we all need to engage in the marketplace of ideas in order to find the truth and develop the best path forward.
But free speech has been under attack for decades.
One of the earliest—and most influential—critics was Herbert Marcuse, a college professor and the father of the New Left. In an essay called Repressive Tolerance published in 1969, Marcuse recommended removing rights (including the right to free speech) from conservatives. Marcuse didn’t see the world in terms of human beings who all have equal worth; he saw the world in terms of power. Those with power should be forcibly silenced (at least, the ones he disagreed with) so that those at the bottom could have more freedom. For Marcuse, if a majority is being repressed, what is needed is “repression and indoctrination” of the powerful so that the weak get the power they deserve.
In recent years, Marcuse-style attacks on free speech have filtered down from academic institutions into the mainstream.
Subjective Rules Focused On Impact (Real Or Claimed)
Ilya Shapiro, adjunct law professor at George Washington University and the University of Mississippi, provides a case study on the new rules around who can speak and what they can say. Early in 2022 Georgetown Law School hired him to teach. When President Biden said he would only nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court, Shapiro expressed dismay at this form of blatant affirmative action. At the voicing of this heterodox view, the sky fell down on him.
Georgetown swiftly placed Shapiro on administrative leave, where he languished for months without knowing whether or not he’d be fired. An administrative investigation into the offending Tweets lasted 122 days.
Georgetown finally reinstated Shapiro, but only on the technicality that he hadn’t officially started at Georgetown at the time he sent his tweets. The Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action (IDEAA) said that his comments were “objectively offensive” and that saying something similar in future may be enough to get him fired.
Even more disturbingly, the IDEAA adopted a blatantly subjective standard for deciding whether or not speech by faculty would be punishable. “The University’s anti-harassment policy does not require that a respondent intend to denigrate,” according to the report. “Instead, the Policy requires consideration of the ‘purpose or effect’ of a respondent’s conduct.”
As Shapiro puts it: “That people were offended, or claim to have been, is enough for me to have broken the rules.”
This punishment of heterodox speech isn’t an isolated incident. A 2017 survey by the Cato Institute and YouGov found that over a third of Democratic responders said that a business executive should be fired if they “believe psychological differences explain why there are more male engineers.” A substantial number of respondents thus advocated stripping someone of their job for the crime of saying what many psychologists know to be true.
Walking On Eggshells
The new cultural norms around free speech aren’t just a problem for right-wingers. In an in-depth explainer on cancel culture, Julian explains the scope of the problem:
“Heterodox Academy surveyed 445 academics about the state of free inquiry on campus, asking them, ‘Imagine expressing your views about a controversial issue while at work, at a time when faculty, staff, and/or other colleagues were present. To what extent would you worry about the following consequences?’
One of the hypothetical consequences Heterodox Academy listed was, ‘my career would be hurt.’ How many academics said they would be ‘very concerned’ or ‘extremely concerned’ about this consequence? 53.43%.
To put it another way: over half of academics on campus worried that expressing non-orthodox opinions on controversial topics could be dangerous to their careers.
We see the same self-censoring phenomenon among college students. In 2021, College Pulse surveyed 37,000 students at 159 colleges. They found that 80% of students self-censor to at least some degree. 48% of undergraduates reported feeling, ‘somewhat uncomfortable’ or ‘very uncomfortable’ expressing their views on a controversial topic in the classroom.
In a panel on free speech and cancel culture, former ACLU president Nadine Strossen said, ‘I constantly encounter students who are so fearful of being subjected to the Twitter mob that they are engaging in self-censorship.'”
It’s not just students and professors. In an article titled “America Has A Free Speech Problem,” the New York Times editorial board noted that 55 percent of Americans have held their tongue in the past year because they were concerned about “retaliation or harsh criticism.”
Extremists on both sides of the aisle increasingly wield their power to shame or shun Americans who speak their minds or have the temerity to voice their opinions in public. This problem is most prominent on social media, but is spilling into offline conversations as well. Citizens of a free country should not live in fear that a woke or far-right mob will come for them because they express an idea that isn’t sufficiently in vogue.
Pretending That Speech Is Violence
The very concept of free speech is increasingly associated with violence. When former vice president Mike Pence planned to speak at the University of Virginia, the student newspaper Cavalier Daily published a furious editorial saying that Pence shouldn’t be allowed to speak. Why not? “Speech that threatens the lives of those on Grounds is unjustifiable.” It takes a lot of mental contusions to conclude that letting Pence give his opinion could threaten anyone’s life.
It’s not just students. Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett published an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “When is speech violence?”
According to Barrett, “If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech—at least certain types of speech—can be a form of violence.”
She continued: “That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school. He is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.”
The fact that psychologists are lending the veneer of science to the idea that speech is violence should be deeply troubling to every American.
Why Is Free Speech Essential?
When we break down the core institution of free speech, we lose a lot of what made America so successful in the first place. Robust norms of free speech helped people build the emotional and mental resilience to cope with ideas they disagreed with. It helped us build bonds with people who believed different things, because we were able to listen to and understand their position.
Free speech also enabled multiple parties to argue from competing worldviews and find a solution that was better than what any party had formulated going into the discussion.
The silver lining is this: Americans increasingly recognize that free speech is a value whose preservation is essential. The New York Times editorial board notes that “84 percent of adults said it is a, ‘very serious’ or ‘somewhat serious’ problem that some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.”
What Can You Do?
As a strong and integrous person, what can you do to limit the impact of the degradation of free speech on your own life?
First, speak up about what you know to be true—even if no-one else is speaking up, even if there are risks to you. Develop the courage to call a spade a spade. If you see insanity—in your workplace, in politics, in your home—call it out openly and honestly. You’ll sleep better at night. You’ll also become stronger through the act of speaking out. Speaking takes courage, but it also creates courage.
Second, seek out people who disagree with you. Listen to them. Go further; try to be persuaded by them. Skewer your sacred cows and let go of your ideology. Neither one is serving you.
Third, banish forever (if you haven’t yet) the infantile notion that words are violence. This notion is profoundly damaging, because it makes you weak. If mere disagreement can hurt you, after all, then so can everything else in life. So will everything else in your life. Instead, embrace the adage of the Stoics: other people are responsible for their actions, you are responsible for your response. Once you embrace the idea that mere words—whether vicious or merely heterodox—cannot hurt you, you are on the path to emotional strength and groundedness.
Fourth, don’t let yourself become a “tribe of one.” It’s easy, in this environment of chilled speech, to always feel scared to speak up. Find a group of friends who encourage you to speak your truth, and who speak their truth in return to you. Find people who aren’t afraid to share heterodox ideas and to challenge your sacred cows, nor to have their own challenged in return.
Find a group you’d trust to have your back in a firefight, and who will love you and expect you to have theirs in turn.
Julian is a former political op-ed writer and current nonprofit marketer. His work has been featured in FEE, National Review, Playboy, and Lawrence Reed’s economics anthology Excuse Me, Professor.
EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.