Free Speech Under Threat

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. – The Editorial Board

On Sunday, March 29, The New York Times published an editorial titled “Free Speech is Under Threat.” In brief, the authors claim that the public’s freedom to speak freely has diminished. The article uses polls to buttress that claim.

The first question was “How much of a problem is it that some Americans do not exercise their freedom of speech in everyday situation out of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism?” The results show that 80% of the respondents agree that this is a problem. The question was poorly written; it suggests the answer that the poll-takers expected. It might better have been “If some Americans do not exercise their freedom of speech in everyday situation out of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism, is that a problem?” Still, the response is surprising.

The article discusses both online speech and other forums. These are different: online speech is anonymous, impersonal, raucous; almost anything goes. The authors write: “social media is awash in speech of the point-scoring, picking-apart, piling-on, put-down variety.” Speech in public is more likely to be civil.

I found “without fear of being shamed or shunned,” in the quote above, puzzling. I have been attacked at public meetings, but was mostly ashamed that my words could be so twisted. Shunned is often associated with religious groups which expel a nonconforming member. I don’t know what groups might shun one for public speech. Another reason given for fear is “retaliation and harsh criticism.” A reasonable fear of retaliation might well make one keep quiet, harsh criticism not so much. Surprisingly, half of the respondents claimed to have held their tongue in the past year out of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.

I would be most willing to express controversial views at a political forum, not so much at church, workplace, or a family dinner. More than any fear, it would have been pointless and futile in those situations. I didn’t often want to hear political views, particularly the second-hand views of talk show pundits, at work.

The editorial discusses limits to free speech. There is a dilemma: limiting speech spreading disinformation could justify restrictive legislation. The authors write:

Free speech is predicated on mutual respect — that of people for one another and of a government for the people it serves. 

Often the predicate of mutual respect and respect for our government is false.

The editorial board plans to identify a wide range of threats to freedom of speech in the coming months and to offer possible solutions. I am looking forward to that.

About whungerford

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3 Responses to Free Speech Under Threat

  1. josephurban says:

    Underscoring all these polls is the concept of “free speech”. It means different things to different people, making the polls useless. The first question should be one which asks the person to select a definition of free speech form a list of 3 or 4 . That should be the starting point if they really want to understand the issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. whungerford says:

    Joseph, I agree. On the second question, “Over the past year, have you held your tongue because you were concerned about retaliation or harsh criticism,” a surprising number responded yes. Without knowing where, how often, and why they did, the answers aren’t meaningful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. whungerford says:

    There are new categories of speech that can lead to harm:

    Now, there’s a concept of disinformation, where you deliberately engage in lies, in fact to cause harm, to cause injury, to exclude some people. But what it really means is our understanding of the First Amendment and our understanding of free speech is evolving. It has to evolve. — UC Berkeley professor John Powell, who studies civil liberties and democracy

    Liked by 2 people

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