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Editorials

A Free Speech Problem?

By The Crimson Editorial Board

“America Has a Free Speech Problem,” says the New York Times Editorial Board. No it doesn’t, says Salon. Free speech is again the topic du jour (if not du siècle), and it’s a complicated issue. Much of the discourse is muddled, and the latest contributions are no exception. We approach the issue with the humility of a student Editorial Board, but we do feel the Times has hit on some common, misguided tropes of the anti-cancel-culture discourse.

Progressive support for stigmatizing some ideas certainly exists. But its threat, relative to other past and present interferences with free speech, is overstated. Looking back at the legally-imposed self-censorship of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” or further back to an American culture generally hostile to people of color who spoke their minds, it’s difficult to believe that America has historically had a better approach to free speech. Instead, the costs of our prior restrictions were disproportionately borne by the underprivileged. Perhaps the redistribution of that burden feels, to some, like its net increase.

Similarly, properly recognizing legal restrictions on free speech as more dangerous than social stigmatization allows us to contextualize the effect of “cancel culture.” When Republican-led state legislatures impose restrictions on critical race theory and discussion of some gender identities, they impose restrictions that can be enforced by the state, not by uncomfortable seat-shifting and ambiguous gazes. We are emphatically and unequivocally against legal restrictions on constitutionally protected speech, no matter their source.

The Times, to its credit, has covered these legal restrictions. But their editorial page is valuable real estate, and the balance of words they devote to one cause or another sends a message about their priorities. It would be a mistake to suggest, on the slender reed of some questionably phrased polling questions about “race relations,” that cancel culture is the greater threat. Society has always set some social costs to less “acceptable” speech — most Nazis don’t have a lot of friends, and haven’t for a while! — and we suspect that even the Times would not want to stop doing so. A more productive discourse would recognize this fact and frankly discuss where these soft lines should be, rather than pretending anyone is in favor of having no lines at all.

To be sure, we are broadly in favor of a healthy sphere of discourse in which participants feel empowered to share their beliefs. But by clarifying the anti-woke talking points that so often dominate the discussion, a clearer roadmap to safeguarding such a sphere emerges.

Students, professors, and Americans more generally should advocate forcefully for their views. As a culture, we should learn to live with criticism. In turn, we should focus our reproval not on those who criticize but on the powerful people who sometimes suspend, fire, or ban when they shouldn’t.

The way to beat back a cultural stigma you think unfair isn’t to speak in generalities about cancel culture; it’s to defend your specific ideas and alternatives. Contest the cultural terrain, if you're so inclined! Call out views you disagree with, and sign your name when you do. If your critics respond, sometimes harshly, so be it. So long as administrators and governments hold fast in their responsibility to protect you from unreasonable institutional recrimination, let the best speech win out.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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