The fight over free speech in America has hit yet another low. In what could only be described as another stain on their already checkered history of commentary, The New York Times Editorial Board published a piece proclaiming “America has a free speech problem.” Ironically, the Times fails to understand the role of free speech and conveniently downplays the severity of right-wing censorship.
It is nearly impossible to hear this talking point among conservative activists and pundits alike. Nearly all enjoy of them massive platforms while preaching about their supposed silenced state. People like Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, and many others engage in this façade of martyrdom, seemingly unaware of their consistent growth online. This feeling of supposed laces almost every word of the Times piece.
From the very beginning, the Times piece fails to understand freedom of speech. They write, “For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.” Forgive me, but I must have missed the part where the First Amendment requires citizens not to shun people they disagree with. In fact, I am quite certain the right to avoid a person is guaranteed under the principles of freedom of association. But I digress.
Writing onward, this piece further argues that the reason for this is because “the political left and the right are caught in a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around cancel culture.” They argue that the conflict between the left and right results in a confusing mesh of control over intellectual debate and public thought that makes Americans self-censor and fearful of speaking out.
They support this argument through a poll that shows that only 34 percent of Americans say that all Americans completely enjoy the right to free speech. Nowhere in their piece did the Times mention that their poll showed that 42 percent of Americans said that all Americans somewhat enjoyed free speech and that only 8 percent of Americans said that they didn’t have free speech at all. To put this another way, 76 percent of Americans said that all Americans either enjoyed free speech completely or somewhat. Even if I were to grant that focusing on the percentage who said they believed they had a complete right to free speech was an issue, presenting data without including the larger result of your polling is dishonest. Even their supposed evidence from the Knight Foundation shows that most Americans—63 percent— see Freedom of Speech as ‘extremely important.’ Add in the 28 percent who say it is ‘very important,’ and it becomes clear that an overwhelming majority of Americans support the right to free speech. If you only read the editorial board’s piece, you would believe that there was a “crisis of confidence around one of America’s most basic values.” What a narrative.
The data presented shows that most Americans are conflicted about what cancel culture is, what it means in online discourse, and how that plays out in interpersonal relationships. Pew Research shows that 56 percent of Americans consider calling out someone on social media for their statement is holding them to account for their behavior, but 56 percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican say that it is an unjust punishment. The difference in opinion between Republicans and Democrats is even more pronounced.
This is not a rejection of free speech. It is the inevitable result of expanding the public forum to more people. Twitter sees hundreds of millions of people on its site, and Facebook sees even more people. For the first time, people around the world can comment directly on the issues that matter to them, and unlike what they would get in a bar or in a local newspaper, people can reach vast audiences that they never did before. It is one thing to worry about using vitriol in rhetoric online and in person, but it is completely inaccurate to suggest we are close to losing our ability to speak at all.