After a century of building free speech rights into our laws and culture, Americans are backing away from one of the country’s defining principles.
Set off by the nation’s increasingly short fuse, students, politicians, teachers and parents are not just refusing to hear each other out; we’re coming up with all sorts of ways of blocking ideas we don’t agree with.
In high schools across the country, teachers say they stay away from hot topics such as immigration and health care because so many parents complain when their kids encounter emotional issues in class.
At colleges from Berkeley to Middlebury, a year of protests, many aimed at blocking controversial speakers, led to congressional hearings last month that could end up in sanctions against some of the schools.
On the internet, scores of anonymous posters are drumming targets into silence. In one case, actress Leslie Jones temporarily fled Twitter, feeling like she was in a “personal hell” from an onslaught of hacks and hateful posts. In another, a congressional candidate in Iowa quit the race in early June after receiving calls and emails that included death threats.
The American concept of free speech was built into the Bill of Rights in 1789 and forged into laws over the past 100 years to become a global icon of freedom. Those who study history and the Constitution worry that in the past year, we’ve done real damage to a notion at the heart of democracy.
“I do think the First Amendment tradition is under siege,” said Jeffrey Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Pamela Geller, a firebrand commentator and founder of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, added, “Freedom of speech has never before been so poorly regarded by such large numbers of Americans.”
Where will this country be if its speech tradition falters? We can already see an awkward dynamic taking shape. In social settings, when we come face to face, we’re hesitant to say what we think, while online in mostly anonymous exchanges all manner of spite and bitterness pours forth.
This raises a question worth thinking about as we celebrate America’s birthday this week: What are the chances of resolving the country’s differences if we no longer talk or listen to one another?
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that the ability to speak our minds is one of the fundamental freedoms in self government,” said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute in Washington.
How we got here
A mix of developments, incidents and trends put us on this path.
At many colleges and universities, students say they shouldn’t have to put up with views they find offensive, racially insensitive or wrongheaded. The thinking arose over time, and then gained momentum with the Black Lives Matter movement and the stormy politics of the year.
The sometimes-violent protests have drawn lots of reaction, condemnations and solutions — but not much consensus.
“I find this really hard,” said Edward Wasserman, dean of the graduate journalism school at Berkeley, where protests earlier this year blocked conservatives Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. “But I don’t think the world is a worse place because Ann Coulter doesn’t get to say something she’s already said a thousand times.”
Others see a fundamental failing at work.
“It’s hard not to conclude that too many of our students haven’t had a civics course in junior high school,” said Floyd Abrams, the pre-eminent First Amendment lawyer who handled cases from the Pentagon Papers to Citizen’s United and just published a new book, The Soul of the First Amendment.
If the high school curriculum is part of the problem, that may be because teachers are hesitant about their roles. David Bobb, head of the Bill of Rights Institute, funded by industrialist Charles Koch to provide training to schools, said he hears regularly from teachers who avoid topics for fear of backlash.
“They have to wonder, ‘If I get into this controversial topic, am I going to be backed up by my department chair, or the principal?’” he said. “‘Or are the parents going to come after me and say it’s not your place to talk about this?’”
The internet is helping fuel what’s happening by creating a mob mentality and adding enormous speed and reach to what people say. “It’s become so much more chaotic,” said Lee Rainie, who directs Pew Research work on technology, science and the internet.
What can be done?
Almost every conversation on the state of free speech ends up on the question of what can be done.
Embarrassed by what’s happened, universities are writing new student codes and rules of engagement for visiting lecturers. “We’re working hard to get our act together,” said Wisconsin political science professor Donald Downs, who has led a push for civility.
Organizations such as the Constitution Center and the Bill of Rights Institute see solutions in education programs and better curricula for schools. In 18 states, legislatures think the problem rests in the unruly protests and are preparing bills that would limit mass gatherings.
Still, more than a dozen observers from every perspective interviewed for this column said we should expect more rocky times ahead.
They cite a political climate with a historic level of rancor, a president who’s been mostly on the attack since his inauguration and media that have embraced the conflict with a fervor that has brought record viewership and readership.
“When people quit listening to each other, there’s that lack of discussion and a lack of understanding,” said Bradley A. Smith, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio. “That’s when there’s a growing tendency to think the other side shouldn’t be able to say what they think.”
“If America becomes torn against itself, I think free speech sort of goes out with it,” said Downs, the Wisconsin professor.
“Sometimes I’m genuinely anguished over the kind of society we’re going to have if this keeps going,” said Christina Hoff Sommers, an author and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “It’s easy to take it for granted and not recognize that we’re jeopardizing these freedoms.”
Still, it’s important to remember that free speech rights were built over decades of conflict. They’ve been tested in every generation, through wartime, civil rights, the rise of new technologies and the threat of terrorism, and have been solidly supported by U.S. Supreme Court rulings as recently as last month.
Today’s conflicts are the most complicated yet and show no sign of easing. But as more than one scholar has pointed out, free speech is the starting place for all our other rights. We shouldn’t lose sight of what’s at stake: Without the free flow of ideas, the American experiment cannot succeed.
Mr. Gyllenhaal is a senior editor at McClatchy and former editor at The Miami Herald, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and The News & Observer in Raleigh. Contact him at Agyllenhaal@McClatchy.com.