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Once Upon a Time, Newspapers Defended Free Expression

The New York Times building in New York City, August 3, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

On January 14, 1978, the Washington Post weighed in on National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, a case that revolved around a proposed neo-Nazi march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, which was not only heavily Jewish but home to a number of Holocaust survivors. The editorial, headlined, “Freedom to Be Vile,” offers a stark reminder of major media’s reversal on free expression over the past 40 years.

“The Supreme Court, unfortunately,” argues the editorial, “has followed a zigzag path in applying the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech in situations in which groups want to express views that so deeply offend other citizens.” The Post quotes Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who reasoned that most imperative principle of the Constitution was free thought, and “not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” (Holmes, apparently, forgot this foundational ideal when writing the majority opinion in Schenck v. United States.)

The Post goes on:

The rationale for this is that in a free society public policy will develop best through the open clash of ideas, evil ideas as well as benign ones. Noxious doctrines die more quickly in the sunlight than in the shade, and public exposure of the ideas of the Nazis and the Klan make them less, rather than more, dangerous.

Today, this brand of liberal sentiment is almost exclusively found in conservative periodicals. Entire networks such as CNN are mobilized to shut down speech they deem uncouth, unworthy, or dangerous. Editorial pages regularly run columns calling for hate speech — the conception of which is constantly expanding — to be criminalized.

Back in 1977, the New York Times maintained that as long as Nazis did not engage in any illegality, they were “entitled” to the protection of the law, and then put the onus of maintaining peace on the Skokie residents:

The argument that they will provoke violence simply by appearing on the streets of Skokie only emphasizes the obligation of the police to keep the peace—and gives an opportunity the people of Skokie to demonstrate their respect for the law.

These days, the Times board will chase you out of the building for allowing anyone to voice an opinion that chafes against the brittle sensitivities of its writers. The paper employs full-time speech monitors to vet wrongthink.

In another editorial on the Skokie march, the Post chided Jewish organizations who had turned on the ACLU, another group that has since abandoned the Constitution, for defending the speech rights of Nazis:

Freedom of expression, if it is to have any meaning at all, cannot be made dependent on the intellectual or emotional sympathy of the majority. And it must be extended to the most disagreeable and noisome of groups – and protected.

Indeed.

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