Opinion | Is Free Speech Endangered? – The New York Times


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First of a two-part series: Readers discuss “cancel culture,” civility and the First Amendment, in response to an editorial. Next: Speech and self-censorship on campus.
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To the Editor:
Re “Free Speech Is Under Threat” (editorial, Sunday Review, March 20):
Free speech, as defined by the First Amendment, remains healthy. One need only review various widely available left-wing and right-wing news outlets, not to mention Twitter, to conclude that political speech today is extensive and vigorous, if not always edifying.
Whether so-called cancel culture restricts speakers is questionable at best. Poll respondents across the political spectrum report fear of “retaliation or harsh criticism.” So what? People are free to speak their minds, but they have never been free of the reaction that might result.
It seems as if people want license to say whatever they want, no matter how ridiculous or offensive, without risk of being held to account. They don’t fear cancellation; they fear consequence.
Perhaps people ought to hold their tongues a bit more. A more civil and illuminating debate might result. Just because you can say anything at all doesn’t mean you should.
Philip Dunn
Chicago
To the Editor:
I cannot disagree that “Free Speech Is Under Threat.” But your editorial does not portray that threat accurately because of its insistence on what has to be called “both-sides-ism.”
It defies reality to equate the vague concept of “cancel culture” with the current wave of state laws that ban classroom teaching about controversial political and social issues. In states like Florida and Texas, educators have already been fired. Because of these educational gag orders, teachers are already censoring what they say in class.
Am I naïve in believing that preventing students from learning the truth about their own society is a much more dangerous threat to our political freedom than whatever discomfort conservatives might feel when they encounter opposition to their political beliefs?
Civility has value. But it should not be prioritized over honesty. A nation that avoids confrontation with reality is in serious danger. There may be two (or more) sides to an issue. But not all are deserving of respect. Especially if they are based on ignorance or deliberate misinformation.
Ellen Schrecker
New York
The writer, a historian who studies higher education and political repression, is the author of “The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s.”
To the Editor:
Thank you! Just when this independent voter was giving up on The Times, you identify a significant problem and accurately attribute it to actions taken by both the left and the right.
Our polarized nation desperately needs the fair, balanced, ongoing discussion you seek to initiate. Might I suggest, for those who posted negative comments questioning why you would even bother with this — arguing that it’s nothing more than a “false equivalence” — that you begin with the March 10 Federalist Society event at Yale Law School that was disrupted by future lawyers who are supposed to be our best and brightest?
James Gavigan
Syracuse, N.Y.
To the Editor:
The right to freedom of speech in this country is not “the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.” Rather, freedom of speech has always been the right to speak your mind without fear of reprisals from your government — i.e., imprisonment, torture or death, as is the case in countries such as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and several others.
This right does not immunize the free speaker from legitimate criticism, economic pushback or any form of the same freedom exercised by other citizens.
Susan Joseph
Burlingame, Calif.
To the Editor:
That your editorial defending free speech against all those who infringe it should itself be controversial tells all one needs to know about the subject. What is needed now is the recognition across the ideological spectrum that frenzied intolerance of speech with which we differ is ultimately destructive of us all.
George Orwell said it best: “If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”
Floyd Abrams
New York
The writer, a First Amendment lawyer, is the author of “The Soul of the First Amendment.”
To the Editor:
You write, “Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all.” That is correct. Cancel culture is a meme, not a reality. It is a right-wing talking point, and I am sorry to see that The Times has fallen for it.
Brian Rose
Brooklyn
To the Editor:
Freedom of speech, as provided for in the First Amendment, is the cornerstone of our constitutional democracy. Its meaning and crucial importance to a free society have been and continue to be misunderstood and not sufficiently respected.
The First Amendment limits the power of any government agency to violate the right to generally express oneself, regardless of the content of the view or whether it’s offensive, politically incorrect or wrong. That means the government is prohibited from determining which views are permitted and which are not.
But the First Amendment does not limit the power of private, nongovernment actors. The private sector, including newspapers, private universities and businesses, have their own rights to free speech but sometimes improperly repress or punish the speech of their employees. The private sector should be encouraged to develop and enforce free expression policies that allow individuals in their employ to express views that are not job-related without fear of retaliation.
Historically, the struggle to achieve justice (e.g., civil rights, women’s rights, the labor movement, L.G.B.T.Q.+) has always depended on the right to free speech. As John Lewis said, “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings.”
Norman Siegel
Ira Glasser
New York
The writers are former executive directors of the New York and American Civil Liberties Unions, respectively.
To the Editor:
I was checking out at a small owner-operated grocery store in southern Missouri when the owner made a political comment that I felt compelled to counter. What followed was a cordial, straightforward sharing of our different views. As our conversation progressed I noticed a gun on the counter. When I commented on the gun, the owner proceeded to outline for me her Second Amendment rights while at the same time asserting that she welcomed our conversation.
I immediately turned to walk out the door, noting that her Second Amendment rights had just canceled my First Amendment rights.
Dean Hubbard
Kansas City, Mo.
To the Editor:
The freedom of speech problem in today’s American culture is one that this founding principle shares with every other “freedom” that we Americans justly celebrate and protect: With freedom comes responsibility. It’s the responsibility part of this freedom that has eroded in our contemporary culture.
We demand our freedoms — to speak freely, to own deadly weapons, to assemble and so on — but are reluctant to accept the restraint needed to exercise them properly. The right to speak and act freely is a precious one, indeed an essential one in a properly functioning democracy. But these freedoms were established in the Age of Reason. Absent the discipline of reason, freedom descends into dangerous and destructive anarchy.
Peter Clothier
Los Angeles
To the Editor:
I am reminded of the Buddhist guidelines for speaking: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Wouldn’t it be a better world if only …
Pam Flohr
Carmichael, Calif.
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