Harm and hegemony: the decline of free speech in the United States

Jonathan Turley:

Throughout its history, the United States has struggled with movements that aim to silence others through state or private ac- tion. These periods have been pendulous, with acute suppression followed by relative tolerance for free speech. This boom–or-bust pattern for free speech may well continue. However, the United States is arguably living through one of its most serious anti-free speech periods, and there are signs that the current period could result in lasting damage for free speech due to a rising orthodoxy and intolerance on our campuses and in our public debate. Where fighting for freedom of speech was once a near-universal rallying cry, opposing free speech has now become an article of faith for some in our society. This has led to a rising movement that justifies silencing opposing views, often on the grounds that stopping oth- ers from speaking is, in fact, an exercise in free speech. This move- ment has both public and private components, but it is different from any prior period due to new technological, political, and eco- nomic pressures on the exercise of free speech.

The struggle for free speech in the United States is interwoven with our history, from the colonial period to the present day. From the outset, there was a clear concept of free speech, but not a clear commitment to protecting it. Indeed, figures like Thomas Paine and John Peter Zenger raised many issues against the English Crown that are still debated today in conflicts over free speech and the free press.2 Anti-free speech movements tend to rise from deep fractures in our society in periods of unrest. The sense of great injury felt by many can be translated into a license to silence those who are seen as causing or exacerbating that injury. These periods provide an opportunity not only for government abuses but also for extremist groups to feed on social unrest. In recent years, various extremist groups have emerged on both ends of the ideological spectrum, from the Boogaloo movement on the far right to the Antifa move- ment on the far left. However, the greatest threat to free speech to- day is the growing support for censorship and speech codes in the mainstream of political and academic thought.

The intolerance for dissenting speech recurs across countries and historical periods. Orthodoxy is the enemy of free speech, and orthodox views are often the result of religious or social values. He- retical and immoral speech has long been the target of majoritarian anger, combining speech intolerance with religious dogma. At one time or another, virtually every religion has tried to compel outsid- ers to adhere to orthodox views, and blasphemy prosecutions con- tinue in many countries today.3 Even after the adoption of the Con- stitution and the Bill of Rights, dominant faiths continued to use social or governmental controls to perpetuate their values, includ- ing abuses directed at other faiths. Yet the most damaging anti-free speech movements in our history tended to be secular efforts in- volving government-mandated or government-encouraged speech controls. That is true of the current threats against free speech, in- volving private groups and companies that have imposed unprec- edented levels of speech controls across digital and educational platforms.