Politics & Policy

Free Speech Is Killing Free Speech

(Dreamstime image: Aleksey Egorov)
Increasingly, the First Amendment is being used to intimidate Americans into silence.

It happens every time. Every single time that I criticize a private corporation for progressive bullying — say, boycotting North Carolina even as it gleefully serves Saudi Arabia — or critique an online shame campaign, I get the same response: “How do you like free markets now, Mr. Conservative? What’s your problem with free speech, Mr. Lawyer?”

The thinking seems to be that if I support the existence of a legal right, then I should and must somehow support every single exercise of that right. This makes no sense, and any critic with a shred of intellectual honesty knows it. If a progressive supports the right to vote, does that mean they’re glad when someone votes Republican? Or do they protect the right and seek to change the vote?

As an argument, the notion that my support for free markets compels me to stay silent when Salesforce.com launches one of its periodic shame campaigns isn’t really worth my time. But it does point to a dangerous trend: Increasingly, Americans are using their right to free speech to destroy free speech. Rather than seeking to inform, they intimidate. Rather than seeking to persuade, they publicly shame.

Consider many of the highest-profile free-speech controversies of the last half-decade. When LGBT activists decided to boycott Chick-fil-A, for example, they were doing nothing more and nothing less than exercising their own rights to free speech and basic economic liberty. But the message they were sending was dangerous: Agree with us on a contentious and controversial point of constitutional law, or we will do our best to drive you out of business.

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Remember the plight of Yale’s Nicholas and Ericka Christakis? After Ericka reacted to a Yale e-mail that admonished against “culturally unaware or insensitive” Halloween costumes by encouraging students to think for themselves, the backlash was furious. In a now-famous video, Nicholas was surrounded by furious students. Some yelled, some screamed, and some called for him to resign.

Every bit of that screaming reflected an expression of free speech. The climate that eventually led Ericka and Nicholas to resign from their positions as faculty-in-residence at Silliman College was created by multiple, sustained acts of free speech. But, at the end of the day, it’s impossible to argue that this climate was the sign of a thriving marketplace of ideas.

The cumulative effect of shame campaigns and intimidation strategies is that millions of people simply flee the field.

Lest anyone think the radical Left has cornered the market on the use of free speech to suppress free speech, the alt-right is raising trolling to an obscene art form, bombarding opponents with the most vile forms of constitutionally protected expression imaginable. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen images of my youngest daughter in a gas chamber — with Donald Trump pushing the button — simply because I have publicly opposed Trump. Dozens of images of dead or dying African-Americans were put on the comment board of my wife’s blog because she publicly opposes Trump, as well. Free speech? Sure, but it is, again, impossible to argue that these actions are designed to do anything other than silence and intimidate political opponents.

It seems odd, given the widespread trolling on social media, to assert that America’s culture of free speech is under threat, but the cumulative effect of shame campaigns and intimidation strategies is that millions of people simply flee the field, leaving the battle to the most extreme voices or to those people who’ve slowly developed the thick skins necessary to maintain a public presence. If most people believe that the price of engaging in the world of ideas is direct attacks on their children — or the potential loss of a job they love — then they’ll simply bow out.

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The result is exactly the political climate we have: increasingly polarized, with self-righteousness driving ever-more-punitive behavior. In recent weeks we’ve been treated to the hilarious spectacle of leftist sportswriters who applaud Colin Kaepernick for making some Americans feel uncomfortable, even as they stayed silent or cheered when ESPN fired Curt Schilling for, yes, making some Americans feel uncomfortable. “Free speech for me but not for thee” is a philosophy that’s alive and well, and political radicals are dead set on using their rights to spread it, enforce it, and revel in the “victories” that follow.

The government won’t kill free speech. Americans will, and they will do so as loudly, as proudly, and as profanely as possible.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.

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