Our founding fathers created the First Amendment because they understood that a society that values freedom of speech is a free and stable one. It is a society that can arrive at the truth through discourse and avoid tyranny and mobocracy. But, this also requires some sacrifices. Mainly, it requires that people you disagree with should be free to express their views with impunity. Without this idea, free speech is a meaningless concept. Think about it – how many people do you know have actually sought the legal protection of the First Amendment? Probably not many. The First Amendment can only do so much. The real power of free speech lies in the people.
For decades, Americans have held the belief that dissent should be tolerated—in fact, they saw dissent as a good thing. Americans genuinely believed that those who disagree with them are not evil and most definitely should not be silenced. Herein lies the power of free speech. Your opinions did not put you at risk of losing your job or expulsion from school. People could express their views freely and did not have to worry about punishment. Today, the legal protections of our First Amendment rights are as strong as ever, and yet something has changed— many of us seem to have abandoned the principle of free speech.
Perhaps nothing represents the degradation of our freedom of speech better than the American Civil Liberties Union. This organization was once a fervent believer in the First Amendment; it was famous – maybe even notorious – for its unconditional defense of this American principle. Nobody represented the attitude of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” better than the ACLU. Free of charge, the ACLU was willing to protect anyone whose civil liberties were being violated, regardless of one’s political stance. In 1969, the ACLU defended Klansman Clarence Brandenburg. In 1977, they took up a case on behalf of a group of neo-Nazis attempting to march through Skokie, a town filled with Holocaust survivors. The ACLU itself supported neither the KKK nor the Nazi party. In fact, it strongly opposed both (and rightly so). Though the organization lost funding due to its controversial cases, it was committed to defending freedom of speech for all. Lately, however, the ACLU has reversed course. In its 2018 guidelines, the ACLU outlined new considerations for taking on a case. Among these are “the potential effect on marginalized communities” and “the extent to which the speech may assist in advancing the goals of White supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values.” All of a sudden, views that don’t adhere to the ACLU’s values may no longer be worth protecting? It seems like the greatest defender of free speech no longer believes in free speech.
The ACLU is just one institution, but the abandonment of its past values embodies a shift occurring throughout the country. In Silicon Valley, companies like Google carry the notion that dissent is a punishable offense. Across college campuses, dissent is either (virtually) non-existent or not tolerated. When speaker Milo Yiannopoulos arrived at the campus of UC Berkeley, the university historically associated with the free speech movement, students rioted. They set fires, threw rocks and destroyed property. Their reasoning? Yiannopoulos promotes violence and mob-mentality. Apparently Yiannopoulos’ racism and passion for violence is so dangerous, that he must be responded to with violence. The people leading our country are no better. During the 2020 presidential election, Kamala Harris came to the conclusion that Donald Trump, her political opponent, should be banned from Twitter. Not too long ago, Twitter did ban Donald Trump. But nobody opposes free speech more than Bill Nye. The self-proclaimed “science guy” possesses such a blatant disregard for free speech that he’s open to jailing people who disagree with him on climate change.
Some may argue that society ought to hold people responsible for their opinions. There is some merit to this view – there are, and always will be, certain extreme and inciting points of view that deserve our scrutiny. The problem arises when we try to cancel people even when their views are fairly common. Doing so hinders meaningful discourse that could lead to progress and further divides our country. People have begun to censor politicians with the support of millions, fire people for political tweets and describe entire political ideologies as “racist.” Even if we know that they’re wrong, we should recognize that people are capable of making mistakes and therefore be charitable with them. We shouldn’t try to destroy them – instead we should try to convince them otherwise.
If we are ever to get back to the values we once cherished, we must begin on an individual level. We need to stop contributing towards the pervasive influence of cancel culture. On the contrary, we should take a stand against it. We must stop labeling and dismissing anyone who disagrees with mainstream ideas as racist and sexist. Instead, look at disagreement as an opportunity. Use it to challenge yourself and those around you. Most importantly, use it to pursue knowledge and truth. A law represents the collective beliefs of a people. If we don’t actually believe in the principle behind the law, it’s only a matter of time before the law disappears.