Note: This is the first in an occasional series of short essays about the perils of what I call one think, a pernicious type of censorship in which voices and opinions that veer outside the guard rails of what is deemed “acceptable speech” are themselves banned, canceled, humiliated in the public square, and often branded as some form of bigotry.
I made my first trip to London in 1981 to visit the family of my soon-to-be wife, author Patricia Posner. One day, while walking in Hyde Park, near Marble Arch and Oxford Street, I came across a few dozen people listening to a speaker ranting that the “illuminati are the masterminds” of a recently failed assassination on the Pope.
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“I wonder what’s going on?” I asked Trisha.
“Oh, that is Speakers’ Corner. People are free to turn up and talk about whatever they want.”
She gave me the capsule history. For 600 years the British had hanged criminals there before huge crowds, some of whom bought tickets for the best seats. The more than 50,000 who were executed got a couple of minutes to say their final words. A century after the executions had moved from London, Parliament passed an act setting aside Speakers’ Corner. It was a safe haven used by suffragettes in their campaign for the right to vote, as well as by political firebrands such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and black-nationalist, Marcus Garvey. 1984 author, George Orwell, himself an occasional speaker, called it “one of the minor wonders of the world….Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
For me, as an American, raised in liberal San Francisco on principles of free speech and vigorous debate, I thought Speakers’ Corner simply unnecessary.
“I guess the whole of America,” I told Trisha, “is the equivalent of Speakers’ Corner.”
I returned there many times in subsequent London visits. There was always something interesting going on. A Muslim preacher adamant that Jesus was a fiction. A Christian cleric scolding young Muslims that Islam was a faith of demons. An atheist calling out Catholics to demand they implore the Pope to stop “counting his money and smoking his dope.” An apoplectic man screaming that feminism was a fraud and that women were more violent than men.
Some could be dismissed as religious fanatics or slightly unhinged. Others, however, pressed a rational and persuasive case for Western intervention to stop the Serbian slaughter of Bosnian Muslims or against a British military role in the war in Iraq. Those gatherings, some of them huge, provoked vigorous and often heated arguments. Although few people left with their minds changed, they had at least engaged in the debate.
In all my visits I never saw any effort to silence the speakers, who at times relished expressing views that others found shocking and disturbing.
No one called the often offensive speeches a smokescreen for hate.
There was no movement to close Speakers’ Corner over charges it subjected marginalized groups to harmful prejudice.
I never once heard anyone say that speech, by itself, could sometimes be violence.
Speakers’ Corner showed me why the English were proud they did not need a “first amendment” to enjoy freedom of speech. A British high court judge summed it up when he overturned in 2009 the conviction of a bible-thumping, evangelical minister who had become a near public nuisance: “Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having. Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, provided it does not tend to provoke violence.”
Fast forward to 2023 America.
Imagine a Speakers’ Corner, an unrestricted bastion of “say whatever you like, no matter how many people you offend,” in New York’s Central Park or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. A free-flowing discussion about today’s hot button issues, such as abortion, bail reform, climate activism, puberty blockers for adolescents, and race reparations, would quickly devolve into shouting and possibly violence.
Too many people have become accustomed to having their opinions amplified in an echo chamber of social media and cable news. Most follow those who reinforce what they already believe. Few like having their opinions challenged. Fewer yet have an open mind to changing what they think if presented with alternative evidence and arguments.
For those who do have independent opinions, fear of the consequences of speaking out has created a tsunami of self-censorship. Little wonder that people stop themselves from saying or writing something that they believe will produce some blowback.
That became abundantly clear when my wife, Patricia, wrote a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed in May 2022, “When Did ‘Woman’ Become a Dirty Word?” She put a spotlight on the trend in medicine to degender language. While trans rights, she wrote, were important to protect, so were women’s rights. Defending the rights of men identifying or transitioning to change their gender should not be at the expense of women. Trisha got almost a thousand direct messages and emails, mostly from women who overwhelmingly thanked her for saying what they felt unable to express in their workplace since they feared it meant they could be tagged as “transphobic.” That risk forced them to stay quiet.
Heated discussions today abruptly end when someone charges racism or some phobic bias (transphobic, homophobic, Islamophobic), or interprets and condemns an opinion as the product of ableism, the patriarchy, or misogyny.
All those biases and prejudices undoubtedly exist and should be condemned when publicly exposed. But in many instances, they have been reduced to empty labels used as cudgels by which to end immediately uncomfortable discussions or unpopular ideas. Evidence to the contrary is never welcome. One think has replaced divergent points of view. Fit in or get canceled. Afraid of losing your thousands of followers on Twitter or Facebook? Do not post or like anything too controversial.
This is the opposite of what I was taught in school. I was on the debate team at a San Francisco high school and then later at UC Berkeley. That instilled in me the concept that societies that evolve the best are those that do so through a battle of ideas. Let the nastiest opinions be expressed, my first debate coach said, and then destroy them with logic and evidence. I grew up on the idea that a consensus on divisive topics could only be had after a robust public discussion in which different views were constantly criticized and questioned.
For school debates, a single controversial issue was assigned every year. To be a champion debater, one had to at different times persuasively argue both sides. The challenge was to understand so thoroughly what the advocates on each side believed that it was possible to credibly present their case.
Imagine that today? More likely that both sides would be intent only in making their own points, not in listening to what the other said. Intellectually stimulating debate is a relic of a quickly fading past.
The growing shadow of censorship has also fallen across college campuses, which should be bastions of free speech. There are dozens and dozens of examples in the past few years in which protestors have insisted their schools withdraw an invitation to a speaker they judge as controversial. When that fails there are efforts to block the entrance to lecture halls, shout down the speaker, and even storm the stage.
At my alma mater, UC Berkeley, conservative speakers were shouted down even during the school’s much touted Free Speech Week. That is right, you read it correctly. Berkeley devotes a week a year to “free speech,” seven days when opposing points of view can be expressed. Except, of course, it is a façade. Only points of view that are sanctioned by the one think police are allowed. This is the same school that in 1964 ignited the Free Speech Movement. A 21-year-old student, Mario Savio, led 500 fellow students demanding an end to the numerous restrictions on political speech that were leftovers at public universities of the rabid 1950s Red Scare of McCarthyism.
Most of the canceled speakers are conservatives; however, progressives are also sometimes canceled if they step on some unidentified one think land mine. “Protests against liberal speakers have drawn less media attention and appear to be less frequent,” concluded two constitutional law professors in a review of free speech problems on American campuses. The College of William and Mary sponsored a “Free Speech Event” a few years ago in which the ACLU’s Executive Director for Virginia was invited to talk about “Students and the First Amendment.” BLM protestors interfered, chanting “ACLU, you protect Hitler, too,” until it was canceled. Why? “Liberalism is white supremacy,” said one organizer.
Protestors also blocked a “Stand Against Fascism” speech by the very progressive University of Oregon President, Michael Schill. Demonstrators chanting he was a “white leader,” who ran the university as a “business firm,” forced him to cancel.
At UCLA, a panel discussion, “What Is Civil Discourse? Challenging Hate Speech in a Free Society,” was hosted by the university, the Los Angeles Times, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Protestors shut it down by shouting that the panel was “normalizing fascism.” One demonstrator said, “This is what the people in Nazi Germany were facing.”
Colleges should be the places where the most repellant views are sometimes presented so that students can learn how to demolish those with logic and evidence as opposed to protesting and screaming the loudest. Administrations are craven, however, buckling often to the shrillest voices.
Times are changing fast and not for the better. A few years ago, the fabled Oxford Union debating society refused to withdraw the invite it had extended to France’s right-wing politician Marie Le Pen. In the ensuing debate, Oxford published a paper that argued that it would have even been in the best interests of free speech to have invited Hitler to speak there in 1933: “It seems to me that freedom of speech, particularly in the context of politics and democracy, is a fundamental moral principle and shouldn’t be abandoned based on our feelings of whether we like the speaker or not.”
In sharp contrast to that defense of offensive speech, this month the UK’s University of Derby added trigger warnings to Shakespearean and Greek tragedies because it is “a genre obsessed with violence and suffering, often of a sexual or graphic kind.”
There is not a lot of good news beyond campuses when it comes to the protection of free speech in modern America.
For me as a journalist, one of the most sobering instances that demonstrated how quickly the protections for speech can be lost, transpired at The New York Times in June 2020. One of the paper’s opinion editors invited Republican Senator Tom Cotton to write an Op-Ed about the protests sweeping the nation in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Although its title, “Send in the Troops,” made it seem as if Cotton were calling for military force against the demonstrators, his piece suggested the military be available as a backup only if the police were overwhelmed and there was no other way to stop the riots.
“The column immediately drew fierce backlash, dozens of Times journalists voicing their opposition, tweeting the headline, caption and a form of the phrase “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger,” according to Politico.
What did the Times do?
The day after Cotton’s Op-Ed, James Bennet, the paper’s editorial page editor, wrote “Why We Published the Tom Cotton Op-Ed,” an unprecedented defense of his decision. Bennet emphasized that he “strongly oppose[d] the idea of using federal troops.” However, he said, “We published Cotton’s argument in part because we’ve committed to Times readers to provide a debate on important questions like this. It would undermine the integrity and independence of The New York Times if we only published views that editors like me agreed with, and it would betray what I think of as our fundamental purpose — not to tell you what to think, but to help you think for yourself.”
At a long and tense internal meeting the following day, Bennett and other top editors apologized to the paper’s staff. While the Times publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, said the paper’s leadership regretted publishing Cotton’s opinion piece, he nevertheless backed Bennett, who he said had “as tough a job as anyone I can imagine in any newsroom.”
Two days later, June 7, Bennet resigned, saying he was “proud of the work my colleagues and I have done to focus attention on injustice and threats to freedom…” The paper issued a statement that the Cotton Op-Ed had not met its “editorial standards.”
The Times leadership may have ultimately had little choice because a fair percentage of its newsroom was in open revolt, mostly on Twitter, after the Cotton Op-Ed. Bennett’s departure, and the reassignment of James Dao, the editor who personally oversaw the Cotton piece, was likely the fastest way to quell the staff uprising. It was also, however, a sign of how one of the country’s most influential papers had itself come up short when it came to protecting speech.
The express purpose of an opinion page is to run a mix of opposing viewpoints on the important issues of the day. I have written nine New York Times Op-Eds (all available here). The most recent three were on the drug industry and vaccines, and two about how the billionaire Sackler family were using the bankruptcy courts to avoid personal liability for the lethal opioid crisis they had ignited and fed with their blockbuster hit drug, OxyContin.
Those who disagreed with me could write an opposing opinion piece. The Washington Post, for instance, published Jillian Sackler’s Op-Ed “Stop blaming my late husband, Arthur Sackler, for the opioid crisis.”
That is how Op-Ed pages should work. Opinions presented on both sides of tough issues and the readers can make up their own minds. There were many good arguments against the case Cotton made, but not wanting it printed was not the right approach.
A month after Bennet left, Times opinion writer and editorsubmitted her resignation. While Bennett had left with a statement that talked about how he “was honored to be part of it [the Times],” Weiss left with a stinging resignation letter that she published on her website. Central to her disillusionment was that at the Times “truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.” Weiss concluded, “And I’ve always comforted myself with the notion that the best ideas win out. But ideas cannot win on their own. They need a voice. They need a hearing. Above all, they must be backed by people willing to live by them.”
Weiss nailed it.
It is great to champion free speech. If, however, the guardians of such speech are frightened every time a tweet in opposition goes viral, there will be little room indeed for an energetic and lively exchange of ideas. Those heated discussions might often be uncomfortable and trigger a lot of sensitive people, but they are also the only way to reach a consensus on key issues in our fragile democracy. The alternative, one think, an inflexible orthodoxy in which only sanctioned opinions and beliefs are championed, is already changing the definition of free speech in America. If we allow it to become an insufferable and permanent form of censorship, we will only have ourselves to blame for not speaking out earlier and forcefully.
For now, I would settle for a Speakers’ Corner in Central Park as a starter.
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Thanks for this excellent essay, looking forward to your next pieces on the subject. The assault on free speech is probably the gravest threat to our civilization in modern times. Three years ago, censorship was rife already, but nothing compared with what has been going on since the start of the pandemic. The machinery is getting more sophisticated every day and most of the media are part of it. Without free speech and independent media, democracy is in fact impossible. This is why the biggest, in fact the only task for those who wish to preserve free democratic society, is to fight back to restore freedom of speech.
First, the snark: Boy, the left sure changed their minds about using federal troops to quell popular uprisings when the aggrieved turned from assaulting police stations, small businesses, the White House, war memorials, and poor neighborhoods to chasing out the congress critters in our Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Suddenly, Speaker Pelosi loved the National Guard.
Now, the important thing: Thank you, Mr. Posner. As you suggest, it takes a lot of courage in this America to speak your mind in a public forum. You're a brave man and courageous reporter in the face of the screaming, hyperbolic hoards of Woke. America needs more of you and less of them.
An afterword: Your Orwell quote is so damned appropriate.... "Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”