In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, there's been an outpouring of solidarity that's both energizing and powerful. But we in the United States need to also think through the less-dramatic ways in which our speech and expression is constantly under attack. Here, it's less about Islamic terrorists and bomb threats and more about shutting down the marketplace of ideas through charges of racism, sexism, and disregard for the feelings of the aggrieved (a group whose numbers swell all the time, and include everyone from atheists to Christians to celebrities to elected officials).
We like to tell ourselves that we're different than Europe, with their stupid hate-speech laws, and the backward-looking Middle East, with their blasphemy laws. But the fact is that free speech has always been precarious in the U.S. and that threat is just as real in the Internet Age as it was when mailing a copy of Naked Lunch could get you thrown in jail.
From my latest Daily Beast column:
We Americans shouldn't be glib or smug in our devotion and commitment to free speech. Yes, we do typically do better than Europe (and Canada, too, which is frequently awful on this score). But even if free speech is guaranteed by law, it's hemmed in by countless other trends, customs, and especially mind-sets that seek to reduce, restrict, and in some cases even criminalize speech.
The simple, awful truth is that free speech has never been particularly popular in America. When they're not busy banning books such as the Harry Potter and Captain Underpants series (really), schools should drill into students that it's pathetic that Lady Chatterley's Lover and countless other books, films, and other forms of creative expression were banned for decades….
The atmosphere on campuses has gotten repressive enough that comedian Chris Rock no longer plays colleges. Citing examples such as University of California at Berkeley students trying to bar an appearance by Bill Maher because of his anti-Muslim jokes, Rock told New York that he "stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they're way too conservative… Not in their political views—not like they're voting Republican—but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody… You can't even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive."…
In fact, hate-speech laws may even become a reality. An October 2014 Economist/YouGov poll found roughly equal amounts of Americans supporting and opposing "a law that would make it a crime for people to make comments that advocate genocide or hatred against an identifiable group based on such things as their race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation." Thirty-six percent were in favor and 38 percent were opposed. Among Democrats, 51 percent supported such laws.