First Amendment

The New York Times Admits That 'America Has a Free Speech Problem'

"Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all," laments the paper.


The New York Times published a terrific editorial on Friday that takes note of "America's free speech problem" and points to both right-wing legislation and cancel culture—enforced by an uncompromising strain of progressivism—as culprits.

"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," wrote The Times.

The editorial includes a predictable (and mostly well-deserved) condemnation of conservative attempts to legislate away uncomfortable discussions about sex and race in schools. But it stands out for directly attacking the left's censorship impulse.

"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," wrote The Times. "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."


The full-throated defense of free speech was once a liberal ideal. Many of the legal victories that expanded the realm of permissible speech in the United States came in defense of liberal speakers against the power of the government — a ruling that students couldn't be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, a ruling protecting the rights of students to demonstrate against the Vietnam War, a ruling allowing the burning of the American flag.

And yet, many progressives appear to have lost faith in that principle. This was a source of great frustration for one of those who responded to our poll, Emily Leonard, a 93-year-old from Hartford, Conn., who described herself as a liberal. She said she was alarmed about reports of speakers getting shouted down on college campuses. "We need to hear what people think even though we disagree with them. It is the basis of our democracy. And it's absolutely essential to a continuing democracy," Ms. Leonard said. "Liberal as I am — a little to the left of Lenin — I think these kids and this whole cancel culture, and so called 'woke,' is doing us so much harm. They're undermining the Constitution. That's what it comes down to."

In truth, the editorial reads like it could have been written by someone who works at Reason. (Rolling Stone editor Noah Schachtman cited it as evidence that I now "own the NYT ed board." If only!) The opinion pages of The Times host a diversity of viewpoints, of course; just last week, the paper published a guest essay by Emma Camp, a University of Virginia student and Reason contributor, about the culture of self-censorship she encountered on campus. Camp's piece generated a massive backlash on social media from the very sort of cancel-culture-denying liberals The Times is criticizing in its editorial. As Politico's John Harris put it, "The torrent of mockery that greeted her on Twitter made the case about the hazards of saying something unpopular more persuasively than she could have imagined."

As with Camp's op-ed, The Times editorial has caused some liberals' heads to explode. Here is an incomplete sampling:

If anything, people are angrier about the editorial than the op-ed; an op-ed reflects only the views of the writer, whereas a staff editorial speaks with the authority of the entire paper.

Of course, there's nothing particularly odd about The New York Times taking the ideological position that free speech is of vital importance to American society and democracy; that the legal protections of the First Amendment and a broader culture of social tolerance are both desirable norms; and that social progress is generally well-served by maximally permitting free and open discourse. In fact, this was the default position of most liberal-minded writers, thinkers, and publications until very recently. Self-described progressives who react with apoplectic fury every time The New York Times counsels against total abandonment of enlightenment principles are really the odd ones.

By now, it should be impossible to ignore the ill effects of free-speech hostility; what appeared to begin on elite college campuses has spread to broader society and is agitating for a world where the act of dissenting from progressive orthodoxy is treated as violence—and thus can be met with force. Indeed, colleges campuses continue to provide some of the most palpable examples of this phenomenon: Earlier this month, Yale Law School students shouted down a conservative speaker and a liberal one—as well as the school's own officials—in order to prevent a discussion about a recent Supreme Court case. (David Lat, an attorney, legal commentator, and Yale graduate, described the incident as "much worse" than many people know.) The student activists' philosophy is by now familiar to everyone who has paid attention to higher education for the past decade: Speech that perturbs progressives or their allies is illegitimate and should be prevented.

This philosophy must be countered by everyone who claims to hold liberal values. It is a relief to know that the Gray Lady still has some fight left in her.