In America today, free speech is under attack from all sides. Social media platforms like Twitter have permanently banned many political pundits, ranging from former President Donald Trump, banned for inciting violence with the January 6 Capitol attacks, to Ayatollah Khamenei, calling for an end to the Israeli state, and to David Shor, a political strategist fired from his high profile position for his tweets.
More worryingly, these restrictions have also entered the actual policy arena with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis proudly proclaiming, “We have banned ideologies like critical race theory from our K-12 schools.”
While activists on the left have historically been ardent advocates of protecting free speech through historic Supreme Court cases like Tinker v. Des Moines, where the ACLU successfully defended the freedom of students to protest the Vietnam War in public schools, there has been a worrying shift among progressives against free speech in recent years.
It’s true — First Amendment protections on free speech only apply to governmental restrictions, but through presenting such a harsh moralistic binary in speech the left is failing its own legacy.
By abandoning the cause of free speech and instead placing draconian restrictions on it in the name of identity politics, the left is alienating enormous swaths of people who would otherwise support progressive causes. Furthermore, the left is allowing reactionaries to gain ground in the name of free speech despite the radical right’s best efforts to restrict progressive ideology in classrooms and beyond.
The vitriol aimed at opinions that differ from the liberal party lines enables radical conservatives to adopt a victim status in the face of the “intolerant left.” More credence is given to this victim status when it is not only hate speech that is deplatformed, but also data on election trends, as in the case of David Shor. Or with Bright Sheng, who was strong-armed into resigning from his position at the University of Michigan for showing a clip of Laurence Olivier in blackface. When even members of the academic left are targeted, more credibility is lent to the radical right when claiming they are being censored for their beliefs.
Instead of allowing hate speech to be addressed on public social media platforms, extreme ideas are being driven into underground echo-chambers, further exacerbating radicalization. One example of how dangerous this cycle can be is the incel response to being banned from Reddit. Despite incel subreddits being banned from the platform, their communities still persist on other internet forums where they are further removed from criticism and public view.
On remaining incel subreddits, criticisms of their radical ideology from other platform users can be seen on almost every public post. However, on these new platforms that the average internet user does not seek out, statements praising the Toronto van attacks and “the gunman who killed 14 women at a Montreal engineering school,” remain unchallenged.
The marketplace of ideas, in defense of free speech, posits that “truth or acceptance of ideas depends on their competition with one another and not on the opinion of a censor.” This concept has been reasserted in a multitude of Supreme Court cases, including Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1996), where the Supreme Court granted the same levels of First Amendment protections to speech on the internet as in print media.
However, the marketplace of ideas can be extended to censors other than the government, including social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. While some worry that in the age of social media and mass disinformation liberal approaches to free speech may be naive, this assumption discounts the ability of the populace to observe discourse and form opinions independently and intelligently.
The paternalistic urge to filter information will only serve to further infuriate and alienate those who would otherwise be potential allies of the left. More importantly, progressives are allowing conservatives to claim the mantle of being the ultimate defenders of free speech by conceding it in the name of political correctness.
This comes in spite of the left’s storied history with civil liberties and the concerted efforts of Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and their radical allies to curb progressive speech through book bannings in public schools and the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
It is shortsighted to abandon free speech, a historically progressive cause. Criticisms of the coordinated attacks on free speech from radical conservatives cannot be taken seriously when the left has exerted much of their energy on censoring their opponents, their potential allies and even their own. By reclaiming the defense of this inalienable civil liberty against all potential censors, the left can begin an effective campaign against the radical right’s more pressing attacks on free speech.
The left ought to adopt the position claimed by the ACLU in a blog post from February 2022: a commitment to “the proposition that the First Amendment’s guarantees (like those of the rest of the Constitution) apply to all, not just to those with whom we agree.”
This spirit must be applied to platforms, even those beyond governmental institutions, if the left wants to regain the ground it has lost. It is through unfettered speech and the marketplace of ideas that harmful rhetoric is most effectively addressed, not through relentless cancellation and censorship.
The right to free speech is a right defended by the Supreme Court more vigorously than any other judiciary in the world. This civil liberty should not be taken for granted in the face of the rising trend of authoritarianism across the globe over the past 30 years.
According to the Human Rights Watch, governments such as Turkey, China, India and others have used the guise of the pandemic to further tighten the gag on the right to free speech and peaceful assembly. This has manifested itself in military forces physically assaulting dissenting journalists in 18 countries and security forces in Uganda killing dozens of protestors.
In a world where the right to free speech is increasingly chipped away, the fight to defend free speech is more pertinent than ever.
Bea Millan-Windorski is a junior studying History, International Studies, and Filipino (Tagalog) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Do you agree that free speech is under attack and should be defended by progressives? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.