Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution seeks to “share diverse and inclusive stories about our nation’s history with the broadest audience possible” and embrace “the voices, viewpoints, and experiences of others.”
But over the past few weeks, the museum came under heavy pressure to abandon that mission by canceling an event organized by the controversial parental rights group, Moms for Liberty. Thankfully, the museum stayed true to its principles, allowing the event to proceed as planned last Thursday.
Moms for Liberty comes to Philadelphia, faces stiff resistance
Moms for Liberty came to Philadelphia last week to host a four-day national summit at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown. The group also booked space in the Museum of the American Revolution to kick off the summit with a “Welcome to Philadelphia” reception on Thursday.
The backlash started last December, when thousands of people signed online petitions calling on the Marriott to cancel the summit. Protests against the hotel would continue in the months that followed.
Then, in early June, dozens of Museum of the American Revolution staffers demanded that museum leadership cancel the reception.
In a free speech culture, our default response to hearing speech we disagree with isn’t to silence or deplatform the speaker — which won’t make their ideas magically disappear — but to use our own voices to challenge those ideas. Instead of shutting down the conversation, we add to it.
“We do not feel that any dollar amount is worth endangering the safety of the museum staff members in the building on the day of the event, serving as a host to a group that does not stand with our values, and damaging the museum’s reputation that we have all worked so hard to build,” a petition signed by 39 staffers read. An advocacy group, Defense of Democracy, also started a petition to cancel the reception, which collected almost 3,000 signatures.
The suggestion that the event would endanger staff members’ safety follows a popular trend of conflating speech with violence, tenuously framing simply being in the same building as people who hold different political or social views as dangerous.
Fortunately, the museum rejected the cancellation demands, and the Marriott allowed the summit to go on. In a statement in early June, a museum spokesperson said:
The museum’s mission is to share diverse and inclusive stories about our nation’s history with the broadest audience possible. We welcome any opportunity to introduce visitors to these stories. In these polarizing times, our best hope to strengthen democracy is through dialogue. We understand that this can be difficult.
The spokesperson added, “Because fostering understanding within a democratic society is so central to our mission, rejecting visitors on the basis of ideology would be antithetical to our purpose.”
That’s exactly right, and the museum deserves praise for this response.
In the weeks following the statement, however, the museum continued to face calls to back out of its agreement with Moms for Liberty from activist organizations, historian groups, and — most concerningly — six Pennsylvania state senators.
In light of this mounting pressure — including government officials inappropriately leaning on a private institution to echo their own preferred political views (a problem we have seen across the ideological spectrum) — FIRE initiated a take-action campaign. We called on our supporters to act as a counterweight by encouraging the museum to continue resisting the barrage of censorship demands. We wanted to show the museum that it wasn’t alone, and that many Americans support its stand for free expression. More than 1,000 of our supporters emailed the museum to do exactly that.
Ultimately, the museum stayed faithful to its mission of strengthening democracy through dialogue.
And detractors exercised their own First Amendment rights by protesting outside the museum and the hotel throughout the summit. Those who protested peacefully also deserve recognition for taking Justice Louis Brandeis’ wise advice to respond to perceived “falsehood and fallacies” with “more speech, not enforced silence.”
Building cultural immunity to cancellation attempts
Moms for Liberty has faced accusations of censorship for, among other things, its efforts to ban books from school libraries. FIRE has opposed efforts to ban books from school and public libraries when those efforts are predicated on hostility to certain views or ideas rather than on legitimate considerations like age-appropriateness.
But whatever one thinks of Moms for Liberty’s views and advocacy, the museum made the right decision.
As FIRE wrote just last Friday, responding to illiberalism with more illiberalism is “a dangerous mistake.” The Supreme Court on that same day lamented the “unfortunate tendency by some to defend First Amendment values only when they find the speaker’s message sympathetic.” If you don’t uphold free speech for people with whom you disagree, including those you think would deny you that same freedom, you don’t believe in free speech at all.
The Marriott and the Museum of the American Revolution are private institutions, so they aren’t bound by the First Amendment. If, however, we want to reap the greatest possible benefits of free expression, restraints on government are necessary, but not sufficient. (And government officials were involved in the calls to cancel the reception, even if their conduct didn’t quite cross a First Amendment line.) We need a culture of free expression.
A dynamic culture of free expression requires a broad consensus on the value of free expression and a desire to see that value reflected in our institutions. It arises when we tolerate expression of unpopular and controversial views, see value in listening and dialogue, and recognize the difference between speech and violence. In a free speech culture, our default response to hearing speech we disagree with isn’t to silence or deplatform the speaker — which won’t make their ideas magically disappear — but to use our own voices to challenge those ideas. Instead of shutting down the conversation, we add to it.
Each time an institution committed to free speech on paper shrinks from those commitments under the weight of social or political pressure, the free speech detractors are emboldened to keep the momentum going by trying to silence others, and everyday Americans receive a clear message: Don’t dare challenge the prevailing orthodoxy.
But when institutions unequivocally reject cancellation demands, they send the opposite message. They discourage those with censorial impulses, improve the climate for free expression for everyone, and show other institutions that standing on principle isn’t a suicide mission.
Jawboning rears its ugly head again
If nothing else, the involvement of six Pennsylvania state senators in the campaign to cancel the Moms for Liberty reception should worry everyone. It’s one thing for museum staff, activists, and other private individuals to pressure the museum to cancel an event for ideological reasons. It’s quite another for political leaders to do so.
In a June 20 letter to museum president and CEO R. Scott Stephenson, the state lawmakers wrote:
The Museum’s leadership has demonstrated a lack of judgment in agreeing to host a hate group. Fortunately, the mistake can be fixed with a simple and elegant solution: cancel the Moms for Liberty event scheduled for June 29. We look forward to your prompt actions.
FIRE has repeatedly criticized jawboning — that is, government officials’ practice of applying pressure on private platforms or institutions to limit the expression of disfavored speech. As we wrote previously, “Even ‘requests’ can feel like demands when they come from government officials who may be all too willing to use their powers of office to punish noncompliant platforms” or institutions. The lawmakers’ letter may not rise to the level of coercion that would violate the First Amendment, but they shouldn’t try an end-run around constitutional limits on their authority by stopping just short of an express demand.
A dynamic culture of free expression requires a broad consensus on the value of free expression and a desire to see that value reflected in our institutions.
The letter also employs a common tactic of censorship supporters, conflating the act of providing a forum for speech with endorsement of the views of every person or group that uses it: “Hosting a hate group at the Museum of the American Revolution sends the message that the museum endorses [Moms for Liberty’s] views, undermining its role as a bastion of historical accuracy, enlightenment, and inclusivity.”
No reasonable person would think that a museum renting space to a group for that group’s own private event is necessarily an endorsement of the group’s views. The museum’s own statement confirms the more obvious explanation: It doesn’t screen visitors based on their ideological beliefs.
Upholding the ‘promise of the American Revolution’
FIRE applauds the Museum of the American Revolution for rejecting calls to abandon its commitment to free and open dialogue, and we thank our supporters for urging the museum to stand by that commitment as it faced mounting pressure to cancel the Moms for Liberty event.
By sticking to its principles and declining an invitation to take sides in the culture war, the museum stayed true to its vision of “ensuring that the promise of the American Revolution endures.”
Hundreds of FIRE supporters joined FIRE to call upon the Museum of the American Revolution not to cave to illiberal demands. If you want to join FIRE in a future campaign to protect Americans’ fundamental rights, subscribe to FIRE Updates.