Not All Opinions Matter
Let’s say it again, once and for all: Free speech doesn’t mean that you get to say whatever you want, wherever you want, without consequence. Freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism, and whether your opinion is bad, boring, or brilliant — no one is required to listen to it, or to give you a platform.
I make this clarification because while police across the country are violently attacking peaceful protesters — actual state suppression of speech — powerful people are working hard to characterize disinterest or criticism as some kind of horrific rights violation.
In just the last week, Ivanka Trump bemoaned “cancel culture and viewpoint discrimination,” because a Kansas college rescinded their invitation for her to give a digital commencement address; Sen. Tom Cotton accused leadership at the New York Times of “surrender[ing] to a woke child mob” after editors apologized for running Cotton’s op-ed calling for the use of military force against anti-racist protesters; famed Harry Potter author JK Rowling called the backlash against a series of her transphobic tweets, “woman-hate;” and New York Magazine writer Andrew Sullivan was turned into a free-speech martyr because his editors simply weren’t interested in his take on the Black Lives Matter protests.
What these people have in common is not a moral concern that all controversial speech will be silenced — but a fear that their speech won’t be prioritized or applauded.
By mischaracterizing criticism as censorship, people with millions of followers, the ability to set national policy, or column space in some of the most renowned publications in the country are able to paint themselves as victims. But a newspaper or a school is not a statehouse: They are under no obligation to carry your column or subject their students to your speech.
While powerful people complain about their columns and speeches being censored, actual threats to speech are everywhere. On the day that Ivanka Trump tweeted about “cancel culture” to her nearly 9 million followers, a Maryland man was arrested for assaulting teenagers putting up anti-police brutality posters. And while Rowling — who makes about a million dollars a week — was complaining about criticism against her anti-trans tweets, a reporter covering the Minneapolis protests was recovering after being shot in the eye with a rubber bullet, permanently losing half her vision.
In the same way “free speech” outrage is disproportionately concerned with protecting the most powerful, the opinions deemed the “bravest” overwhelmingly seem to be those that hurt the most marginalized.
Here’s just one example: There were no frenzied columns on “safe spaces” when a Republican legislator suggested jailing librarians who carry books deemed sexually suggestive — but when The Atlantic rescinded a job offer to a man who called for women who had abortions to be executed, conservatives decried the “censorship.”
A newspaper or a school is not a statehouse: They are under no obligation to carry your column or subject their students to your speech.
The controversy over Sen. Cotton’s piece is just the latest example of the free speech fallacy. Before top Times opinion editor James Bennet apologized and resigned, he defended the decision to run the op-ed as a commitment to show readers “counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.”
The piece — which relied on false information debunked within the paper’s own pages — argued for “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain, and ultimately deter lawbreakers” during a week when police violence was on stunning display. Dozens of Times employees tweeted that the op-ed put black staffers in danger, and the union that represents Times staffers released a statement calling the decision “likely to encourage further violence.”
In response to the controversy, Times writer and bad-opinion enthusiast Bari Weiss described the anger in the newsroom as a “civil war” and suggested that those upset by the decision were neglecting free speech in an effort to feel “emotionally and psychologically safe.” That same evening, two police officers in Buffalo, New York, shoved an elderly man so hard into the ground that he began bleeding out of his ears and is now in critical condition. (Here’s hoping he was at least emotionally safe.) It’s not that the Times shouldn’t publish conservative viewpoints — they do, often. But pieces like Sen. Cotton’s — which editors themselves admit was not up to the paper’s standards — promote violence like we’ve seen in Buffalo, Minneapolis, New York, and beyond.
Ironically, the people who bleat the loudest over free speech are often the ones most eager to suppress it when it doesn’t suit them. After Weiss tweeted about her colleagues’ supposed obsession with “safetyism,” it came out that she had reported a Black editor to Times leadership for politely declining to get coffee with her. And Bret Stephens — who has made his career in part arguing that college students are coddled for wanting break out rooms with counselors during talks on sexual assault — is apparently well-known in the Times newsroom for trying to get colleagues in trouble if they criticize him on Twitter.
It is not a coincidence that powerful white people are painting themselves as the victims at the same time Black Americans are on the streets demanding to be treated with some semblance of humanity. For the first time perhaps ever, the national conversation is solely focused on racism and anti-Black police violence. For those who are accustomed to holding all the power and attention, that shift in focus feels “oppressive.”
That’s why we’ve seen everyday criticisms of powerful people described as “Maoist” or chilling warnings of a future without freedom. But as Osita Nwanevu put it last year in the New Republic, “Perhaps we should choose instead to understand cancel culture as something much more mundane: ordinary public disfavor voiced by ordinary people across new platforms.”
No one is owed a national stage for their opinion — no matter how powerful they are, and no matter how many people may believe it right alongside them. And despite protestations from mostly white-male media leadership and conservative pundits, denying someone a platform does not quash their speech, it just declines to elevate it.
We are witnessing actual speech suppression every day: members of the press beaten and arrested and peaceful protesters gassed on American streets. Those are the violations worth fighting.