NY Times editorial: America has a free speech problem (Update: Progressives react!)

(AP Photo/Josh Edelson)

The NY Times editorial board published a lengthy piece today titled “America Has a Free Speech Problem.” There’s a lot of both-sidesing of the issue here as you might expect but we’ll come back to that in a moment. First here’s how the piece opens.


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.

This social silencing, this depluralizing of America, has been evident for years, but dealing with it stirs yet more fear. It feels like a third rail, dangerous. For a strong nation and open society, that is dangerous.

How has this happened? In large part, it’s because the political left and the right are caught in a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around “cancel culture.” Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all, believing that those who complain about it are offering cover for bigots to peddle hate speech. Many on the right, for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness as a bulwark against a rapidly changing society, with laws that would ban books, stifle teachers and discourage open discussion in classrooms.

I’m sorry but we have to stop here to just look closely at that last paragraph. It’s a paragraph about cancel culture, obviously, since cancel culture is mentioned in every sentence. In the first sentence “cancel culture” is in scare quotes to indicate some detachment from the idea we’re discussing. In the second sentence, the Times castigates the left for refusing to acknowledge that cancel culture exists (no scare quotes this time). Then in the third sentence the Times accuses the right of “braying” about cancel culture which is another indication that this isn’t a serious concern. Is cancel culture real or is it “real.” Is it worthy of serious attention or not? After that confusing introduction, the editorial says Americans are confused. I guess you could argue the Times is cleverly using language to mirror the confusion Americans feel but you could also argue they’re just adding to it:


Many Americans are understandably confused, then, about what they can say and where they can say it. People should be able to put forward viewpoints, ask questions and make mistakes, and take unpopular but good-faith positions on issues that society is still working through — all without fearing cancellation.

However you define cancel culture, Americans know it exists, and feel its burden. In a new national poll commissioned by Times Opinion and Siena College, only 34 percent of Americans said they believed that all Americans enjoyed freedom of speech completely. The poll found that 84 percent of adults said it is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.

So without saying it outright, there’s the Times saying cancel culture is real. It exist and is a concern for most Americans. The piece then leans on data from the poll to back that up:

Consider this finding from our poll: 55 percent of respondents said that they had personally held their tongue over the past year because they were concerned about retaliation or harsh criticism. Women were more likely to report doing so, 61 percent compared to 49 percent of men. Older respondents were less likely to have done so than other age groups. Republicans (58 percent) were slightly more likely to have held their tongues than Democrats (52 percent) or independents (56 percent).

Why is this happening and whos is responsible. Well, the Times editorial board says this is part of an ongoing series that will dive into those questions but it does offer a hint. [emphasis added]


While the level of national anxiety around free speech is apparent, the solutions are much less clear. In the poll, 66 percent of respondents agreed with the following: “Our democracy is built upon the free, open and safe exchange of ideas no matter how different they are. We should encourage all speech so long as it is done in a way that doesn’t threaten others.” Yet a full 30 percent agreed that “While I support free speech, sometimes you have shut down speech that is anti-democratic, bigoted or simply untrue.” Those who identified themselves as Democrats and liberals showed a higher level of support for sometimes shutting down such speech.

I read through their full poll results and on that particular question 41% of Democrats agreed you sometimes have to shut down speech while only 26% of Republicans and 25% of Independents agreed. Among every cohort shown (age, sex, race, political view, etc.) 41% among Democrats was the highest level of support shutting down speech received. Conversely, on the previous question about encouraging all speech, 56% of Democrats said they supported that, the lowest level of support for free speech among any cohort in the poll. The second lowest was Liberals at 58%. The highest level of support (72%) was from conservatives and those aged 50-64.

It sounds like the Times is going to drag this out for weeks but if you want to know where cancel culture is coming from, there’s your answer.

Update: Some progressives are taking this mild editorial about as well as you’d expect.


The line taking the most heat is this one at the end of the first paragraph.


Also taking heat is this paragraph (which I did not excerpt above) which explicitly cites progressive intolerance.

The progressive movement in America has been a force for good in many ways: for social and racial justice, for pay equity, for a fairer system and society, and for calling out hate and hate speech. In the course of their fight for tolerance, many progressives have become intolerant of those who disagree with them or express other opinions, and take on a kind of self-righteousness and censoriousness that the right long displayed and the left long abhorred. It has made people uncertain about the contours of speech: Many know they shouldn’t utter racist things, but they don’t understand what they can say about race or can say to a person of a different race than they are. Attacking people in the workplace, on campus, on social media and elsewhere who express unpopular views from a place of good faith is the practice of a closed society.


The reaction:

There’s lots more where this came from. The left is not going to stand for being accused of cancel culture. They are going to accuse the Times of being complicit in white supremacy if necessary.

Elie Mystal clearly missed the point.

And like a lot of progressives Rep. Ted Lieu can’t even imagine any grey area between his approved opinions and “racist sh*t.”

But mostly it’s just this:


But I don’t think there’s really much difference between those complaining about that opening paragraph and what Ted Lieu is saying. Both assume the Times is defending the right of Nazis to spout off without being criticized. I don’t think that was the editorial’s point at all.

The problem is that the left increasingly sees no room for discussion on any number of social issues (from school masks to white fragility to the 1619 Project’s view of history to Lia Thomas winning an NCAA title). Disagreement is now taken merely as proof of racism, sexism, etc. You are either with them or you are against them.

But people who disagree with Ted Lieu and Elie Mystal really shouldn’t be afraid of being shamed or shunned for merely having a different opinion. The space for discussion is valuable in itself.

Update: A much better take from Megan McArdle.

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