A few years back, I dropped in to see a lecture on “taboo speech” by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. At one point, Dershowitz asked his class if the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, then lit into a hapless student who answered in the affirmative.
No, of course, it doesn't, Dershowitz chastised. People who say what others consider to be the wrong thing can still be ostracized, fired, and sued. All the First Amendment does is constrain the ability of government to abridge speech, and even that is not absolute. There are still limits on “fighting words,” words that cause panic, and perceived threats to national security.
David Shipler, a former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, gets it: The First Amendment is only a starting point. Free expression is a noble ideal that creates continual tension in our society.
Shipler’s new book, Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword, covers a range of battles on the frontiers of free expression. He shines a light on efforts to remove books from school curriculum, talking to offended parents and defensive educators. He explores the courage of government whistleblowers, forged in the crucible of their life experience. He probes the mindset of an ex-cop in Maine who in 2013 thought it was a good idea to post this online about President Obama: “Shoot the nigger.” He looks at anti-Muslim myth-making, the U.S. Supreme Court’s equation of speech with unlimited political spending, and dust-ups over theatrical plays.
Shipler’s view of America’s free speech landscape is nuanced and complex. Yes, people say awful things, and sometimes seek to squelch expression with which they disagree. But in his book, good ideas and sentiments hold their own against bad and offensive ones.
Not so with Kirsten Powers. The self-described liberal columnist and Fox News commentator has a scary new book with a horror movie title, The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech. She seemingly has little faith in the power of free speech to withstand unfair attacks, even while presenting numerous examples of this happening.
In Powers’ telling, the right to speak freely in America has been effectively destroyed by ignorant bullies she dubs “the illiberal left.” They run roughshod over anyone who says anything that does not precisely conform to their narrow worldview. She warns darkly of “an ever expanding campaign to silence speech.”
Unlike Shipler, Powers’ purpose is not to promote understanding but to provoke anger. Her book is riddled with extreme pronouncements of the “Be afraid, be very afraid” variety, such as: “Any person who dissents from the illiberal left’s settled dogma is viewed as an enemy to be delegitimized, demonized, and dismissed.” In her world, an “Orwellian climate of intimidation and fear chills free speech and thought.”
Early on, in passing, Powers concedes that “most people who reside on the left side of the political spectrum can tolerate difference of opinion without turning into authoritarian speech police.” She then spends the rest of her book focusing on the lefties who are “terrorizing people who express dissenting views.”
Powers is articulate and earnest, but it is not hard to notice her thumb on the scale. For instance, she bases her claim that the illiberal left believes “racism is the only possible reason Republicans would oppose President Obama” in part on actor Robert Redford’s quoted comment that “there’s probably some racism involved.”
The examples of offensive and intolerant speech that Powers gives, some more than once, are genuinely disturbing and deserving of condemnation. She is right to defend controversial speech on campuses, and to oppose pegging women who hold conservative views as traitors to their gender. Yet the ease with which she exposes the naked meanness of such attacks undercuts her thesis that the people making them are supremely powerful.
Yes, Bill Maher is an obnoxious jerk, maybe worse, for calling Sarah Palin a “cunt” and a “dumb twat.” But has anyone noticed that Palin has been shunned into silence?
Powers admits it would be something of a stretch “to suggest that conservatives don’t ever engage in such behaviors.” She immediately justifies her decision to mostly ignore these, saying “conservatives simply do not control the primary institutions where free speech is most under assault: the media and academia.” The poor, poor pitiful right is just too powerless and insignificant.
So firmly are Powers’ blinders attached that she defends Bill O’Reilly against accusations that he is sexist by noting that he once attacked Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, a known male, as “beneath contempt,” questioning why the paper “would employ a guy like that.” It never dawns on her that O’Reilly’s call for firing a person over speech is precisely the sort of thing that elsewhere has her screaming bloody murder.
Here’s an example Powers doesn’t write about but Shipler does: In 2010, conservative radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger fielded a call from a black woman who complained about the use of “the n-word” by her white husband’s friends. Schlessinger repeatedly used the word “nigger” in response, arguing that black people say it all the time. After the caller objected, Schlessinger said this: “If you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry outside of your race.”
Powers was among those who criticized Schlessinger and her defenders, even taking Palin to task for asking, “Does anyone seriously believe that Dr. Laura Schlessinger is a racist?” (Powers’ response at the time: “Why, yes, Sarah. Yes, we do.”) Schlessinger apologized, but, as Shipler notes, her career did not suffer long-term damage. The story doesn’t fit Powers’ narrative because the offensive speech was from the right.
There are times, of course, when institutions and individuals cave to pressure to punish or suppress speech. Powers presents such consequences as the norm: “If you are a conservative—or even a liberal who says something deemed conservative—your speech will be cancelled or your award revoked for taking a view at odds with liberal dogma.” In fact, as her book describes, most such efforts look foolish and fail.
The agitator who berated a Chick-fil-A worker in 2012 over the company president’s opposition to gay marriage got fired from his job as a CFO. A professor who ripped a placard from an anti-abortion protester last year was convicted of battery and theft. Miami University and Michigan State University both rejected calls to disinvite speaker George Will.
Yet Powers remains deeply invested in portraying conservatives as cowering in justifiable fear before the illiberal mobs. She assures her readers that trying to talk with these anti-speech bullies is pointless, since “A ‘dialogue’ with the illiberal left is one in which they inform you of the ‘right’ way to think.” Her certainty on this point is unshaken by the story she tells about a Harvard commencement speaker, Michael Johnston, who met with student critics who wanted his talk cancelled and ended up getting a standing ovation.
“I’ve found that when you meet with dissenters face-to-face, there is often more agreement than you expect,” Johnston, a Democratic state senator in Colorado, told the Denver Post. ”They learned something [from this encounter], and I learned from them, too.” (Powers cites this article in a footnote but does not quote these comments.)
Shipler, for his part, notes that the protections offered under the First Amendment have become more expansive over time and are now widely accepted as a civic value. “Americans tend to take personally their right to speak,” he writes. Many accept, as does he, that “the real answer to offensive speech is more speech, not retribution.”
Americans, in Shipler’s telling, are inclined to open-mindedness. Attempts to ban books lead to spiked sales; whistleblowers are defended and admired and often exonerated by the courts; theatrical productions that come under concerted attack play to packed houses.
Shipler’s world is one populated by First Amendment heroes. Powers sees mainly victims, all of whom happen to be conservative. And still, she chides the illiberal left for employing “the language of overwrought victimhood.” Look who’s talking.
Bill Lueders is associate editor of the Progressive.