“Cancel culture.” “Political correctness.” “Hate speech.” Americans have been arguing about free speech since passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Recently, there have even been reports of disagreement within that bastion of free-speech defense, the ACLU.
As we all know, no one is trying to shut up people with whom they agree. The First Amendment was designed, as Justice Holmes memorably put it, to “protect the idea we hate.” In an effort to explain why that insight is so important, I often shared with my students a personal experience from “back in the day”– early in my long-ago tenure as Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU.
Members of the KKK had applied to use the steps of the Indiana Statehouse for a rally. Then-Governor Evan Bayh (who surely knew better) refused to allow it. The Statehouse steps had routinely been used by other organizations, and despite Bayh’s posturing, the law clearly forbid the government from allowing or disallowing such use based on the content of the message to be delivered.
So the Klan came to the ACLU.
At the time, the people who ended up representing the rights of these odious people included the Jewish Executive Director (me), the affiliate’s one secretary, who was Black, and a co-operating attorney, who was gay.
Each of us knew that if the Klan ever achieved power, we’d be among the first to be marginalized or even eliminated–so why on earth would we protect the organization’s right to spew its bigotry? Because we also knew that– in a system where government can pick and choose who has rights– no one really has rights. The government that can muzzle the KKK today can muzzle me tomorrow–and as we have (painfully) learned, we can’t assume that good people will always be in charge of that government.
As one ACLU leader put it, poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.
As with so many other misunderstood elements of the Bill of Rights, the issue isn’t what you may say or do– it is who gets to decide what you say or do? And right now, at the same time state-level Republican legislators are accusing the left of “canceling” their messages and “censoring” Dr. Seuss, they are waging a determined war on protesters’ and educators’ right to say things with which they disagree.
In a number of states, Republicans have responded to last year’s racial justice uprising by cracking down on demonstrators. As The Times reported in April, during 2021 legislative sessions, lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills. An Indiana bill would bar people convicted of unlawful assembly from state employment. A Minnesota proposal would prohibit people convicted of unlawful protesting from getting student loans, unemployment benefits or housing assistance. Florida passed a law protecting drivers from civil liability if they crash their cars into people protesting in the streets.
Meanwhile, the right-wing moral panic about critical race theory has led to a rash of statewide bills barring schools — including colleges and universities — from teaching what are often called “divisive concepts,” including the idea that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist. Even where such laws haven’t been passed, the campaign has had a chilling effect; the Kansas Board of Regents recently asked state universities for a list of courses that include critical race theory.
As Goldberg says, there’s nothing new about the left growing weary of sticking up for the rights of reactionaries. Personally, I would find it really satisfying to shut down Faux News, or to tell the My Pillow Guy to go stuff a sock in it. The problem is, satisfying that urge won’t take us where we need to go. Goldberg’s last sentence is worth contemplating.
Maybe every generation has to learn for itself that censorship isn’t a shortcut to justice.
To which I would just add: and criticism of your position by people who aren’t using the power of government to shut you up isn’t censorship.
by Sheila Kennedy