Whenever The New York Times takes on as large and amorphous an idea as freedom of expression, it quickly escalates into a war of words about the Times itself. That was certainly the case with a nearly 3,000-word editorial it posted last Friday under the headline “America Has a Free Speech Problem.”
The piece launched a thousand hot takes, many of them dripping with mockery and sarcasm. I certainly don’t agree with everything in the editorial, and I find a lot of what the critics are complaining about — especially the paper’s patented “both-sides-ism” — to be right on target. But in the spirit of contrarianism, and in recognition that this is a Major Statement by our leading newspaper, I’m at least going to take it seriously.
But not until after I’ve dealt with the wretched lead: “For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.”
As many, many others have already pointed out, there is no such “fundamental right.” The right we have under the First Amendment is to speak and write freely without having to worry that the government will censor us before the fact or punish us after, notwithstanding a few narrowly drawn exceptions.
“How funny is it,” Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch wrote, “when the most prominent news organization in the United States — the one that tends, for better or worse, to set the agenda for all the smaller fish in the media pond — launches what it hopes will be a decade-defining campaign around free speech in America with a gobsmackingly wrong-from-the-git-go misunderstanding of what free speech in America actually means.”
Bad as that lead is, though, it's clear that the editorial board knows better, as it acknowledges further down in the piece: “It is worth noting here the important distinction between what the First Amendment protects (freedom from government restrictions on expression) and the popular conception of free speech (the affirmative right to speak your mind in public, on which the law is silent).” Still, you have to wonder how the editorial got off to such a hilariously awful start.
The Times itself has been a center of the culture wars over speech in recent years. No sooner did someone at the Times hit “publish” than observers brought up James Bennet, who, according to what has become the unquestioned (but incomplete) narrative, was fired as the paper's editorial-page editor in 2020 because he ran a controversial op-ed piece by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton calling for the use of military force against violent protesters. “New York Times slams cancel culture, attacks on free speech despite past Tom Cotton op-ed fiasco” is how FoxNews.com put it in a headline.
In fact, Bennet’s tenure ended after a string of damaging mistakes, including his editing a disastrously false line about Sarah Palin into an editorial that became the basis of a high-profile libel suit. Palin lost, but she’s appealed. As for the Cotton op-ed, Bennet admitted that he hadn’t bothered to read it before publication.
In other words, Bennet’s departure was not just about the Cotton op-ed, and that particular episode was worse than it is usually portrayed. If you want to consider a far more serious example of cancel culture and the Times, then you should look at what happened to Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. To my knowledge, though, no one has even uttered her name in connection with the free-speech editorial.
Hannah-Jones, you may recall, was denied a tenured professorship at the University of North Carolina that she had been promised after a wealthy donor began making calls to members of the board of trustees to let them know how offended he was by the 1619 Project. That Pulitzer Prize–winning effort, helmed by Hannah-Jones, reimagines American history from the moment that slavery was introduced. It has become an obsession in right-wing circles and is one of the causes of their freak-out over critical race theory. (Hannah-Jones was eventually offered tenure, but the damage had been done. She accepted a position at Howard University instead.)
Which brings us to the real problem with the Times editorial. We are, indeed, living through a period in which free speech is under attack from both the left and the right. But all of the power and money is on the right. Book bannings, Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill, state laws against the teaching of “divisive concepts” — these are the real threats to freedom of expression.
Lefty college kids shouting down a conservative speaker? Well, they should learn some manners. Of course, I don’t mean to limit my critique to that rather trivial example. There are cases in which people have lost their jobs or held up to public ridicule in the cesspool of social media because of some ill-considered remark they made. But there’s no way these incidents can be compared to the systematic right-wing assault on freedom of expression with which we are now contending.
What’s frustrating about the Times editorial is that it acknowledges all of this, yet still manages to mash it all together into one humongous both-sides smorgasbord. The whole thing has the feel of writing-by-committee, and that’s never the way to put forth a strong, coherent argument.
The Times also conducted a poll with Siena College, finding that 84% of adults believe it’s a problem “that some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism” and that 46% “said they felt less free to talk about politics compared to a decade ago.”
Those findings, too, underscore one of the major shortcomings of the editorial — the vague mashing up of phenomena that are not alike. If people feel less free to make racist, homophobic or transphobic remarks than they did years ago, well, good. But if people are legitimately afraid of giving voice to ideas that some might find objectionable, that’s a problem. Based on the poll results, though, we don’t know what the respondents had in mind.
“The old lesson of ‘think before you speak’ has given way to the new lesson of ‘speak at your peril,’” the editorial said in what I thought was its strongest section. “You can’t consider yourself a supporter of free speech and be policing and punishing speech more than protecting it. Free speech demands a greater willingness to engage with ideas we dislike and greater self-restraint in the face of words that challenge and even unsettle us.”
The editors promise follow-ups and “possible solutions” in the months ahead. I look forward to seeing what they come up with. They can start by doing a better job of distinguishing between the left-wing gnat and the right-wing gorilla. Everything is not the same.
GBH News contributor Dan Kennedy’s blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net. This will be his last regularly scheduled column — at least for a while — as he devotes his energies to a book he is writing.