This op-ed by FIRE Vice President Nico Perrino originally appeared in The Detroit News on Dec. 28, 2022.
The constituency for principled free speech advocacy grew smaller in 2022.
It was never that big in the first place. However, in recent years, free speech advocates benefited from a marriage of convenience with conservatives justifiably concerned about their side being censored in higher education, the media and by Big Tech. But now, some conservatives see “wokism” as a greater threat — and censorship an expedient tool to combat it.
Perhaps that’s why in April, Florida politicians enacted the Stop WOKE Act, which bans debate and discussion of eight topics related to race and sex at the state’s colleges. It was only a year earlier that the same conservative Legislature passed a separate law, prohibiting colleges from censoring ideas some find “uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable or offensive.” Support for free speech sure can deteriorate fast.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, where I work, filed a lawsuit challenging the Stop WOKE Act’s higher education provisions. A federal judge recently struck those provisions down as a violation of the First Amendment, calling them “positively dystopian.” But strikingly, in defending the act in court, Florida’s lawyers wielded some of the same arguments used by the political left for decades to write unconstitutional speech codes that punished conservative speakers on campus.
A federal court halted enforcement of key parts of Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” in the state’s public universities, declaring that the law violates the First Amendment rights of students and faculty.
Rejecting censorial arguments when you have the opportunity to wield them requires standing on principle. Florida lawmakers chose political expediency instead. Fortunately, a judge said not so fast.
Speaking of the left: There, the argument that words are violence grows in popularity. “We don't want you here, your words are violence,” screamed one heckler who joined in shutting down conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s recent appearance at Cornell University.
But if words are violence, logic dictates we’re justified in meeting words with actual physical violence. In recent years, we saw this happen when conservatives were set to speak at Penn State, Berkeley and Middlebury College. At the University of California, Davis, they’re flinging manure to stop documentary screenings. The great virtue of a democratic society is that we use words, not violence, to settle our disputes. Toss out the words-violence distinction and there goes the ballgame.
Some on the left have been tepid about free speech since the 1990s. Before it was “words are violence,” it was microaggression policing and demands for trigger warnings.
There remains an older generation of liberal who understands the necessity of free speech. They saw it used to defend the expression of civil rights marchers, gay rights activists and heavy metal rockers. So they weren’t willing to compromise free speech rights even for their enemies. They understood, as former ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser put it, that censorship is like poison gas: effective when your enemy is in sight — but the wind has a way of shifting. Now Glasser’s generation is fast retiring from the barricades. Are the lessons they learned retiring too?
The call to censor social media is no different than the call to censor the printing press, the radio or the internet.
As for libertarians, they have oftentimes been reliable partners in the free speech fight. But the libertarian movement is currently in turmoil. America’s third largest political party recently took a significant rightward turn in the culture war that could compromise its support for free speech principles much in the same way it has for some conservatives. At the same time, they have little to no political power, so the threat is admittedly far less.
And then there is Elon Musk. Where to even begin? Every news cycle demonstrates a new way in which the self-described “free speech absolutist” is clearly not. He began 2022 with a bid to buy Twitter in order to restore free speech to the platform and ended it by arbitrarily suspending the accounts of journalists and writing a new policy to prevent sharing content from other social media platforms. To be sure, Twitter is a private platform. Musk owns it. He can run it as he pleases. But it’s bad for the free speech brand when a vocal free speech advocate succumbs to the desire to censor.
So who are we left with? A smattering of principled people who don't hew closely to a political tribe and are harder to identify and mobilize. But if we are going to sustain a culture of free speech in America, we need to establish a constituency for free speech: to restore what the original founders of Twitter once called the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party” — a party they later abandoned.
The challenge is that censorship is always an enticing tool to accomplish one’s political goals — even if the arguments for it are never new and history repeatedly demonstrates its consequences are damaging.
Today’s “misinformation” is yesterday’s “fake news.” The call to censor social media is no different than the call to censor the printing press, the radio or the internet. Recent book banning efforts bear a striking resemblance to 20th-century efforts to ban comic books: What about the children?
We now look at past attempts at problem-solving through censorship as misguided. But we’re repeating the same mistakes. Danish lawyer Jacob Mchangama calls the erosion of support for free speech over time “free speech entropy.” He writes that “leaders of any political system — no matter how enlightened — inevitably convince themselves that now freedom of speech has gone too far.”
What, then, are principled free speech advocates to do?
We must defend free speech without fear or favor. We must defend it even when the speech offends us. We must win converts one victory at a time. We must understand that defending free speech has always been an unpopular cause. We must not abandon it even when everyone around us calls for censorship. We must remember that a commitment to principle is often later admired: Even the defense of the right of neo-Nazis to rally in Skokie, Illinois, is now respected. At the time, it was reviled.
“The moment you limit free speech, it's not free speech,” said writer Salman Rushdie, who was repeatedly stabbed this year because he exercised his right to author a book some called blasphemous.
Fortunately, Rushdie survived. But the question remains: Will the principle of free speech?
It will, but only if we say “enough” whenever the censor comes for our words or — in the case of Rushdie — our lives.