The Free-Speech Debate Is a Trap

Andrea Long Chu in New York Magazine: Last week, I was meant to deliver a talk at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center. That talk, along with the entire speaking series to which it belonged, was canceled back in October after the Y abruptly scrapped an event with the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen because he had signed an open letter condemning Israel’s war on Gaza. (I signed the same letter.) The 92NY debacle, which resulted in the resignation of the Poetry Center’s entire staff, was part of a much broader stifling of dissent within our liberal cultural institutions, where a decidedly pro-Israel consensus holds strong among donors and executives. Since Israel began its brutal bombing campaign in Gaza, where the death toll has reached 20,000, we have seen waves of suppression roll across the culture: the editor-in-chief of Artforum has been fired; an award-winning writer has been pushed out of The New York Times Magazine; the actress Melissa Barrera was dropped from the upcoming horror movie Scream 7. The situation has become especially dire on college campuses, where pro-Palestine students groups are facing doxing and disbandment — even as Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, in a contentious House committee hearing, rebuked several university presidents for failing to discipline students for chanting slogans like “From the river to the sea.” (Penn president Liz Magill has since resigned over this supposed failure.)

We should call this what it is: a one-sided, McCarthyist crackdown on pro-Palestine speech. But it is not an ironic new phase of cancel culture, as a score of commentators have already claimed. “Far from being a culture-war canard, cancellation turns out to be a weapon that many people on both the left and the right are willing to wield to silence anyone who violates their orthodoxies,” wrote the pundit Yascha Mounk for the Atlantic last month. In this view, it is the left which has created a climate of censoriousness by recklessly pursuing the firing and deplatforming of those whose views it deems ideologically unacceptable; now those same tactics are being employed against the pro-Palestine left, which yearns too late for the guard rails it helped remove. It is as if the worst fears of the infamous Harper’s letter from a few years ago, in which a number of very serious people admonished the left for abandoning liberal norms of open debate and good-faith disagreement, have come true. To the liberal mind, the only solution to this crisis is for both sides of the aisle to recommit to, as Mounk put it, a “principled defense of free speech” regardless of political content.

Now it’s true: A left that supports the deplatforming of transphobes but opposes the deplatforming of anti-Zionists cannot justify itself by appealing to free speech — nor should it. For the liberal, freedom of speech is a deliberately empty principle. It allows a liberal institution to mediate peacefully between differing political views without any (apparent) reference to the content of those views — all while quietly promoting its own views under the banner of neutrality. The left can do better. In fact, the current political moment provides the left with an opportunity to clarify its often poorly articulated position in the so-called culture wars: namely, that the freedom of speech is a crucial public utility in a democratic society but it is not the soul of justice; and that to install it as such eclipses and ultimately degrades the left’s substantive values.

It is worth remembering the vast majority of what we call free-speech issues have little basis in the First Amendment, which only forbids the abridgment of speech by the government, not private organizations like magazines, cultural centers, or Hollywood production companies. In most states, for instance, it is perfectly legal for employers to fire workers for speech, as a Westchester synagogue did last year after a teacher wrote an anti-Zionist blog post. So when advocates talk of freedom of speech, they are usually referring neither to the Constitution nor to statutory law but to a set of civil norms imagined to promote the health of the republic but which cannot be directly enforced by the government. Had the House committee hauled in the chancellor of Florida’s state schools for his attempts to shut down pro-Palestine campus groups, then it might have found a genuine First Amendment issue — but only because the government cannot set aside its constitutional duties when it steps into the role of educator. By contrast, when a private university promises to safeguard free speech, it does so in excess of its legal obligations.

More here.