Freedom of speech is a legal right in America, within limits. The First Amendment and state constitutions protect you from the government: It can’t prevent you from speaking, and it can’t punish you for speech. Some laws also protect workers from retaliation for specific kinds of speech. But the law leaves a lot of room for private citizens, businesses, and other groups to punish and suppress speech they don’t like or find offensive. And in some extreme cases, that leeway allows private actors to express the necessary moral judgments of society.
But free speech is also a cultural value and a God-given natural human right. It had to be recognized as such before it gained legal protection. And if the cultural value of free speech collapses or is constricted to a very narrow range of approved opinions, the erosion of its legal protections won’t be far behind. It’s up to conservatives, who after all believe in conserving our cultural heritage and thinking through rules beyond each day’s individual controversy, to protect a broad space for that value — “if necessary for years, if necessary alone.”
That’s what David French argues in a fantastic New York Times essay knocking conservatives for abandoning free speech when it comes to NFL players kneeling to protest the National Anthem.