How Free Speech Is Under Attack in the United States
When someone says something we don’t agree with, should we silence them? In 1927, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis had an answer: “The remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Well, in this case, the Internet should solved everything, notes correspondent David Pogue – it’s nothing corn more talk. And yet, lately, the news is full of stories of people trying to limit the expression of others:
“I would say the culture of free speech is under attack in the United States,” said Jacob Mchangama, the author of “Free Speech,” a new book that documents the history of free speech. “And without a strong culture of free speech based on tolerance, laws and constitutional protection will eventually erode.
“People on the left and on the right are sort of approaching free speech from different angles with different grievances, which indicates a general loss of faith in the First Amendment.”
The erosion of free speech is happening even in schools. Since January of last year, according to PEN America, Republican lawmakers have introduced more than 150 state laws that would restrict how teachers can discuss race, sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom.
Jennifer Given, who teaches high school history in Hollis, New Hampshire, said of the laws, “It’s about making up false narratives to achieve a political goal of your own.
“It’s a really scary time to be a teacher,” she told Pogue. “We self-censor, we absolutely avoid certain things and ideas in an effort to stay within the confines of the best way we understand them.”
In New Hampshire, a new law limits what teachers can say about racism and sexism – and a conservative group is offering a $500 bounty to anyone who reports a teacher who violates it.
Given said, “Senator McCarthy’s ghost is alive and well in some of the hallways of our State House.”
Pogue asked, “What would happen to you if you broke this law?”
“It may result in the loss of your license,” she replied. “And so, not only would I be unemployable in my school, but I would be unemployable anywhere.”
“But what I don’t understand is that this is New Hampshire, whose motto is ‘Live Free or Die’!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Given laughed. “There’s been a lot of emphasis on the ‘or die’ part lately!”
UC Berkeley professor John Powell, an expert on civil liberties and democracy, said of the classroom bans: “It’s a very serious free speech issue. To me, it’s so out of place.”
He is particularly alarmed by the record number of books banned in schools across the country. Conservatives oppose books about sex, gender issues, and racial injustice (such as Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Alex Gino’s “George,” and “The 1619 Project”), and liberals oppose books containing outdated racial representations (including “Of Mice and Men”, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee).
“You can’t make the Holocaust a good thing – it wasn’t a good thing!” Powell burst out laughing. “You can’t make slavery a good thing. ‘It makes people uncomfortable.’ This should make people uncomfortable! The purpose of education is not comfort. So if someone really wants to challenge the Holocaust, let them challenge it. But don’t to forbid a discussion about it.”
In the mid-1800s, English philosopher John Stuart Mill proposed that governments limit free speech only when it would cause harm to others.
Powell said: “He wrote a book called ‘On Liberty’, [about] freedom. And he was very concerned that the government was silencing people, that citizens should have the right to speak out.”
Our laws have generally followed this guideline. In the United States, public discourse cannot include obscenity, defamation, death threats, incitement to violence – prejudice.
But Powell said the recent restrictions had more to do with culture wars than harm prevention: “I want to regulate this because I don’t like it. For me, that’s wrong. That is problematic.”
“So there’s a difference between saying something that makes you uncomfortable and saying something that harms society or incites a riot?” Pogue asked.
“Good, and discomfort is not the same as an injury.”
But these days there are whole new categories of speech that can lead to evil. “Now there’s a concept of misinformation, where you deliberately engage in lies, actually to cause harm, to cause injury, to exclude certain people,” Powell said. “But what that really means is that our understanding of the First Amendment and our understanding of free speech is evolving. It has to evolve.”
It’s probably no coincidence that the new culture of censorship emerged along with social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
“The First Amendment was designed as a protection of citizens from restriction of expression by government, not by private companies or other entities,” said Jillian York, director of free expression international at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and author of “Silicon Values.”
Pogue asked: “So, for example,and ? Is it censorship? Is it wrong censorship? Is it good censorship?”
“I think Trump getting kicked off Facebook and Twitter is a little complicated,” York said. “But what really worries me the most is that someone like Mark Zuckerberg, whom none of us elected, has the power to remove an elected official. I think that should really worry us, even if we think trump should be silenced.”
York said big tech companies censor our speech every day, sometimes by mistake, but always without oversight or transparency. “We have seen protest content around Black Lives Matter removed on Facebook’s platform, wrongly,” she said. “LGBTQ content was removed. along with things like art and satire.”
According to Jacob Mchangama, social networks censor us in another way too, by making us afraid at all to speak: “There was indeed this 2020 survey by the Cato Institute which showed that 62% of Americans censor themselves, who are afraid to somehow express their political views on specific topics.
“It shows this paradox: Americans probably enjoy the strongest legal constitutional protection of free speech in the history of the world. But they still fear the consequences of being fired for expressing certain political opinions. is not a healthy sign.”
But it’s not just America. Since 2019, at least 37 countries have passed laws that increase censorship (of individuals or media), including in Europe, where Jillian York lives. “There’s a lot of debate right now in Germany, for example, about a fairly recent law that restricts hate speech online,” York said, “but also creates penalties for things like the insulting the country. So, you know, insulting someone online could be penalized financially.”
All in all, it would be easy to be depressed by these attacks on free speech. Especially if you’re a teacher, like Jennifer Given.
Pogue asked, “What’s the end point for you, if this continues like this in New Hampshire?”
“I don’t know,” she laughed. “There’s a point where you start thinking, ‘Maybe I got it.'”
But if it cheers you up, Jacob Mchangama points out that we still enjoy more freedom of speech than most countries: “If we had this discussion in Russia or Turkey, you know, someone would come to me. pick up when I hit the street, and you might not hear from me for a long time.
He said we should fight to maintain our freedom of civil discussion – and never take it for granted.
“I’m not saying free speech is just great and has no consequences; it is,” he said. “You know, we should be thinking about how to mitigate misinformation? How can we make sure we’re combating hate speech without compromising freedom of expression?
“And, you know, it’s an experience. But I would say it’s been a very beneficial experience. And definitely worth pursuing.”
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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth. Publisher: Mike Levine.