Our Freedoms, Free speech as both a principle and an operational element of Western democracy is more threatened today than in living memory. News media, cardinal beneficiaries of the First Amendment, are among the most vociferous voices demanding that dissenters be gagged.
Left-wing publications such as CNN, the Washington Post, and Mother Jones cheered when the Twitter accounts of former President Donald Trump and thousands of others were nuked. Vengeful glee was the most obvious characteristic of supposed liberals when monopolistic Big Tech companies demolished Parler, a small competitor attracting right-wing users. Pundits pondered how best to put media companies they dislike out of business.
It is easy and right to be outraged by much of this. But since outrage is the cheapest commodity of our epoch, it is also good to remember that even some serious-minded people who seek the public good are inching toward this dangerous conclusion. Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, for example, recently lamented, “Those of us in journalism have to come to terms with the fact that free speech, a principle we hold sacred, is being weaponized against the principles of journalism.”
The fact that opposition to censorship is crumbling not just among charlatans and grifters makes the problem much more difficult and shows how far core American values have corroded. At the Washington Examiner, we realized several years ago that it was no longer sufficient in argument to point out that free speech would be impinged by a proposal or policy against which we were editorializing. A new era had dawned (if that’s the right word) in which people were abandoning the most important defense against tyranny; tell them that such-and-such a proposal would restrict free speech and their response would sometimes be, ‘Yes, that’s the point.’
The germ of this poisonous attitude, which has lately blossomed in news media, was planted in the sub-Marxist soil of university campuses. It was necessary there to a small but growing coterie of left-wing militants who could not otherwise protect their ideological fictions about race, class, and gender. These have now become so self-contradictory that they can survive only if free speech is crushed, only if no one is allowed to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
And news media are, in general, so down with the left-wing program that they have lost their immunity to the worst, most dangerous idea of all. They no longer fully believe that free speech is indispensable to a free society. Indeed, they are not quite sure anymore what a free society is.
Yes, free speech will be abused, as it always is, and many lies will be told. Claims that Trump colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election and that he won the 2020 election are examples. The past four years have demonstrated amply the danger of governments arrogating the people’s right to decide what’s true and what’s false.
But the solution to falsehood is not less free speech but more of it.