Bipartisan Hypocrisy on Free Speech

From the Dixie Chicks to Mozilla, free speech is under fire from both right and left.


Do conservatives owe the Dixie Chicks an apology? It sure looks that way. Liberals, meanwhile, owe some apologies too.

A little over a decade ago the Chicks' lead singer, Natalie Maines, told a London audience: "Just so you know, we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas." This was less than two weeks before the shooting started in the Iraq war, and patriotic fervor was running high. Blowback came swiftly. Country-music stations stopped playing the Dixie Chicks. Their No. 1 single "Travelin' Soldier" fell off the charts. Critics started calling them the "Ditsy Twits" and the "Vichy Chicks" and even less flattering things. They received death threats.

To the left, this epitomized the "stifling of dissent" that all truly patriotic Americans should abhor. To conservatives, this was simply the free market in action. As a later piece in National Review put it, "fans were also only exercising their own freedoms, in choosing not to buy albums. Radio stations were exercising their business freedom in choosing not to play songs that outraged their listeners and repelled their advertisers."

Back then, you didn't see conservatives expressing the sort of alarm they have been voicing ever since Brandon Eich resigned as head of Mozilla. Six years ago Eich donated to California's Proposition 8, upholding traditional marriage. His recent elevation to CEO ignited a debate over that. Within days, Eich bowed to the pressure and stepped down.

To the right, this was a "purge" carried out by the "thought police" and the "gay mafia" that banishes the "politically incorrect" to the "liberal gulag." Not quite government censorship—but certainly a dangerous stifling of dissent and an example of, in Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf's words, "mob rule." On the other side, many liberals defended the ouster as entirely appropriate. As one piece in The New York Times put it, Mozilla had simply realized its "CEO's worldview is completely out of touch with the company's—and America's—values and vision for the future." Companies have a right to live their values, after all.

Really? As Jonathan Tobin pointed out in Commentary, that's hardly the orthodox liberal view of Hobby Lobby. According to the liberal view, Hobby Lobby's desire not to arrange contraception for its employees is not an expression of the corporation's viewpoint, because corporations aren't people and they don't have any rights. Rather, liberals say Hobby Lobby is forcing its owners' values down its employees' throats. By that reasoning, Mozilla was forcing its values down an employee's throat—Eich's—and violating his right to have his own political opinions.

Liberals have not been so understanding of other corporate entities, either. Two years ago the breast-cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure found itself instantly reviled when it halted grants to Planned Parenthood. The blowback was so intense 26 U.S. senators signed a letter urging Komen to recant—which it did only three days later. Komen's president and founder, Nancy Brinker, stepped aside. Conservatives were aghast.

Nor were liberals overly worried about the free-speech implications of the backlash against Chick-fil-A two years ago, when president Dan Cathy provoked outrage by expressing his own personal opposition to gay marriage. Conservatives, on the other hand, declared this a dangerous development in a culture war that threatened to silence anyone who strayed from the progressive party line.

This is a strange position for conservatives to take—and not simply because of the Dixie Chicks episode. As a general rule, conservatives think social norms are best upheld not through government coercion but through the moral suasion of community mores. Since Hobby Lobby is the only case involving government compulsion, conservatives ought to feel sanguine about the other developments: Americans are working out their differences through the marketplace of ideas, even if the process sometimes looks rather unpretty.

Of course there is more to it than that. Even when the First Amendment isn't implicated—as it isn't in the Mozilla case—it's reasonable to wonder where lines should be drawn. Few would object if a company fired a Nazi or a member of the Klan. But as Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit notes, Eich has been ousted for a 2008 view shared at the time by Barack Obama. (Obama, unlike Eich, has changed his position since then.)

If companies start policing executives' beliefs, then there is no reason to limit the scrutiny to one issue. Suppose abortion becomes a litmus test—with some companies firing pro-life executives and others firing those who are pro-choice. Should companies vet their leaders' views on gun rights? Or drug legalization? What about universities—many of which already view any conservative as barely tolerable? Should nonprofits and civic groups also enforce ideological conformity? They certainly have a right to. But having a right to X does not make X the prudent thing to do.

People have a right to express—and advocate for—their opinions, and other people have a right to object. But there also is something to be said for the principle of live and let live: It's possible to disagree about an issue without despising those you disagree with. 

Unfortunately, as Barton Swaim put it in a recent Wall Street Journal review, America increasingly resembles a place where people "speak of their country as if it has been overtaken by a hostile force with whom they share no premises or aims." If we all start excommunicating one another at the first sign of apostasy, it's going to become a very cold and lonely place.

This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.