The free speech debate is about power, not principle

There is an intrusive canard in American politics that conservatives value free speech above all else, while liberals and leftists seek to compromise on free speech to suppress reactionary elements. In reality, neither side has ever been committed to free speech, and both only seek to silence what takes power from them and their base.

A recent New York Times op-ed chronicled the numerous ways in which Republican legislatures have been censoring critical race theory. They are wielding the authority of the government to ban discussion in public institutions on so-called un-American things like white privilege, social justice for certain groups and the idea that America is fundamentally racist or sexist. Furthermore, Republicans are waging legal warfare against critical race theory in all of its forms in American public institutions.

Let’s be clear; if you have an ideological commitment to free speech, you should be furious. The reason conservatives aren’t angry is simple: nobody is committed to free speech. Conservative news pundits and politicians alike will appropriate the principle of free speech to protect white supremacists speaking on college campuses, while at the same time coming as close to entirely banning critical race theory as they can. They are trying to silence an entire intellectual movement, one that many find to be absolutely essential to achieving racial justice in America and beyond.

Of course, liberals and leftists have sought to push certain opinions out of public acceptability as well. The only difference is that they are trying to silence white supremacists and reactionaries; they are engaging in the application of critical race theory. Furthermore, the Democratic Party is in an ideological position where it is rare that they pass legislation to censor things, so instead they often focus more on moving social mores.

Everyone has some things they don’t think should be allowed in public discourse. In fact, the whole conceit of the capital-L Liberal argument for free speech is that, over time, society will rule against certain ideas — because they are bad — and improve because of it.

Censorship and social mores around acceptability have never been about the principle of free speech — always it has been about the content of the speech. Socialists in America were not extended real free speech during the Red Scare, and the religious Right has fought to censor public depictions of LGBTQ+ families for generations.

Republicans have always given cover for other, more visibly extreme Republicans by feigning ideological commitments to American principles. This is exactly the move with the free speech debate. It is important to see through this political rhetoric and understand that the parties are trying to stop threats to their power through restricting public debate.

This of course all begs a simple question: Would you rather support a political movement that finds white supremacists a threat, or one that finds critical race theory a threat? The answer, for me, is simple.


graham10@stolaf.edu

Logan Graham ’22 is from Warrenville, IL.

His major is philosophy.