Many in the United States worry about the erosion of democratic norms. Too few, however, exhibit concern for the steady deterioration over the last half century of the essential democratic norm of free speech.
True, the United States remains an exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government. Of all the Western-style liberal democracies, the nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” — as Lincoln put it in 1863 at Gettysburg — is grounded in the oldest written constitution, sustains the largest economy, enjoys the greatest diversity, possesses the largest capacity for projecting force around the world, and shoulders the most extensive responsibility for preserving the freedom and openness of the international order. Yet the increasing hostility of influential segments of its population to free speech — not least, speech that affirms American exceptionalism — shows the United States to be in an unwelcome respect all-too-similar to fellow Western liberal democracies.
The growing scorn for free speech in the United States — on campuses, in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, and in human resource departments and on corporate boards of all sorts of commercial enterprises — is on a collision course with the U.S. Constitution. Free speech is inscribed in the First Amendment, following religious freedom and followed by freedom of the press and “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Its position in the text of the First Amendment symbolizes free speech’s indissoluble connection to religious liberty and political liberty. One can neither worship (or not worship) God in accordance with one’s conscience, nor persuade and be persuaded by fellow citizens, if government dictates orthodox opinions and punishes the departure from them. Indeed, the more authorities — whether formally through the exercise of government power, or informally through social intolerance — prescribe a single correct view and demonize others, the more citizens lose the ability to form responsible judgments and defend the many other freedoms that undergird human dignity and self-government.
In the mounting hostility toward free speech within its borders, the United States is not alone, argues Andrew A. Michta in The American Interest. “Democracies across the West are at an inflection point on free speech,” he contends in “The Rise of Unfreedom in the West,” “and it’s not clear which way things will go on this issue in the next 20 or 30 years.”
The problem is manifold. “In some cases, ostensibly liberal governments have already made moves to police and suppress what they deem unacceptable speech; in others, rigid political binaries have threatened to crowd out traditions of free inquiry and debate,” Michta writes. “All too often, it seems not to matter what is said in an argument but rather who says it and how it was said.”
The dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Michta grounds his dire diagnosis in concrete empirical evidence. Barely a quarter “of American adults believe they have true freedom of speech.” Ninety percent of American universities censor speech or maintain policies that could authorize administrators to engage in censorship. In 2017, Germany enacted a law that obliges social media networks to be more “diligent in policing ‘hate speech’ on their platforms.” The next year, France adopted a similar law. A substantial plurality of British voters in 2018 believed that people do not feel free to express their opinions on “important issues.” And an annual report to the Council on Europe concludes that press freedom in Europe is, in Michta’s words, “more fragile today than at any time since the end of the Cold War.”