Free speech has long been one of the most sacred American values. Until recently, commitment to free speech in general was bipartisan and widespread. Almost every American from every political persuasion valued free speech.
There used to be some debate on the margins. Conservatives were wary of extending free speech protection to corrosive things like pornography, and liberals were wary of official speech endorsing religion. But, as recently as the 1990s, neither side believed its opponent should be censored, and the idea of exempting “hate speech” from the normal rule against censorship did not have much traction.
In recent years, the therapeutic culture began to undermine free speech. Instead of a nation of independent and free-thinking men who relied on speech to investigate the truth and understand politics, commerce, and life in general, we and our leaders began to view ourselves as fragile and gullible subjects, who needed protection from one another for our own good.
Novel concepts like trigger words arose from an excessive and unhealthy concern for the feelings of the audience. This began first in the paternalistic rules governing universities. But it has since spread to employers, lawmakers, and, most damaging of all, social media companies.
These companies act as monopolistic chokepoints in the marketplace of ideas. When they coordinate their behavior, their impact is greater still. While once a bastion of free speech, the new generation of Silicon Valley executives believed they should ensure we do not see any poisonous ideas, lest we believe things not approved by consensus or that prove otherwise unfashionable.
The Military-Industrial Complex has hopped on board the censorship bandwagon, dressing up its desire to control the flow of information as another facet of protecting national security. Of course, government censorship is often used to avoid embarrassment or scrutiny for wrongdoing. As for the fig leaf concern for protecting national security, the underlying threat does not involve terrorists or foreign attackers, but something picayune: the supposed scourge of misinformation and disinformation. This talk really exploded in the wake of the 2016 election, when the Svengali-like Russian Twitter bots somehow tricked the whole nation into voting for Donald Trump.
After this surprise, the managerial class embraced censorship as part of its larger embrace of rule by experts in order to secure “true democracy.” This alliance became further cemented during the Covid-19 episode, where the ordinary rules of scientific debate were abandoned in the name of a public health consensus. The consensus, it turned out, was often wrong. But many lives and the economy were ruined because this false consensus persisted longer than it would have otherwise due to widespread censorship and group-think.
The recent revelation that the FBI and DHS were asking Twitter and Facebook to throttle certain accounts and suppress stories because journalists and influencers were saying things critical of the government’s policies has a strong whiff of authoritarianism. Even so, almost all of this censorship activity wraps itself in the flag and purports to be necessary to protect democracy and the American Way.
Sadly, many conservatives, who were complaining just yesterday about cancel culture, are now endorsing its underlying principle when protesters say things they don’t like about Israel. Many have cheered on as law firms and other institutions have doxxed and retaliated against young people not for what they said, but simply for belonging to clubs and organizations whose other members said things deemed offensive and anti-Semitic.
Nikki Haley took this further and called for the removal of anonymous social accounts, arguing that it was a national security priority, and that such strong measures would increase accountability and get rid of Russian, Chinese, and Iranian bots. I guess she never heard of Publius or Cato or the many other anonymous pamphlet authors of the American Revolution. Anonymous speech is an important protection from a run-amuck majority and a government’s authoritarian impulses.
Haley, of course, is no dissident and generally favors consensus priorities, particularly on foreign policy. But many in the Dissident Right intellectual ecosystem, as well as ordinary Trump supporters, depend upon anonymity to develop, test, and disseminate ideas that are hostile to elites, whether those elites are in academia, government, or the private sector.
Among conservatives and Israel-supporters horrified by the recent revelation of widespread nihilism in higher education, almost none of these people were asking for investigations or cancellations during the expressions of genocidal anti-white hatred during the 2020 riots. As offensive as most of these expressions were, the Dissident Right knew that, in the absence of institutional power, any scheme of censorship would ultimately hurt more than help. It would do so because the people who would manage any system of censorship—leadership at tech companies, universities, the government, and other nodes of power and influence—were all on the same page ideologically.
Free speech is more than a legal principle, but an important, endangered belief at the core of Anglo-American culture. It finds its roots in respect for individuals and their minds and rests on a foundation of “epistemic uncertainty.”
In other words, a commitment to free speech comes from the recognition that our beliefs about the truth and the actual truth may have some distance between them. The principle of free speech also recognizes that besides truth and error, there are other categories, like opinion, taste, myth, hypothesis, fantasy, confusion, and the possibility of incorrect consensus, along with many variations in between. Modern censorship in the service of the managerial class, on other hand, presumes whole truth comes not from the Bible or some other divinely inspired source, but the consensus of half-educated bureaucrats and their thinly veiled self-interested propaganda.
The right will lose if it embraces censorship. Our strength arises from commitment to tradition, truth, and common sense, while the left requires obfuscation, fraud, and concealment of their intentions to succeed. We need free speech to allow us to tell the truth and expose their lies.
Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.