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Free Speech

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Column

Lessons from the busiest two years of my professional life — and arguably the worst stretch of modern American history

The Women’s March in New York City, 2018. Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

I’ve been writing columns for years; sometimes once a week, sometimes a few times a week, sometimes (back when I was blogging a million years ago) a few times a day. No matter how infrequently I publish, finding subjects to write about can be tough. There’s always a week when the news feels sparse or inspiration just doesn’t strike. That hasn’t really been the case of the last two years, the time I’ve spent writing at GEN.

Between Donald Trump’s presidency, the resulting rollback of hard-won reproductive rights, and a global pandemic, there’s been no shortage of headlines to stress…


A letter published in ‘Harper’s’ mistakes critiques of the powerful for the silencing of free speech

J.K. Rowling. Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

A few years back, my old high school found itself embroiled in a controversy over dress codes. The girls were protesting what they believed were sexist rules: bans on bare shoulders and midriffs and code violations that almost entirely targeted female students. What I remember most, though, was the response by the school principal, who said, “Some things are a distraction, and we don’t need to distract students from what is supposed to be going on here, which is learning.”

But whose learning was he talking about? Surely not the young women who were being pulled out of class just…


Censorship always exists. The question is to what end.

Illustration: Daniel Zender

The one thing speech isn’t is free. There are costs to those who produce it and costs to those who are subjected to it. Of course, the term “free speech” does have a clear meaning under the Constitution: If you want to say something, you don’t have to ask the government’s permission, and you won’t be punished by the government for saying it. But even this freedom from state interference with your speech has its limits, and it does not protect you in private life, where speaking out carries with it the risk of censorship and penalty.

Supreme Court First…


Illustrations: Mark Wang

One of the most contested spaces in American discourse is on the back of cars

Whenever Paula Perry looked at the license plate on her car, SHTHPNS, she felt soothed.

By July 1997, the 46-year-old state administrator for Vermont lost her father, endured four painful back surgeries, and divorced her first husband. “‘Shit happens’ means that bad things happen to good people,” she told me. “You just have to pick up your feet and can’t let anybody get you down.”

The phrase came to her when she was renewing the registration for her Ford pickup truck. It was Perry’s first vanity plate. One month later, though, the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles revoked her plate…


‘These are not American values’

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The NBA’s China controversy has made protestors out of its fans.

A tweet from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey expressing his support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong prompted sharp condemnation from Chinese authorities and an apology from the NBA for Morey’s “regrettable” language. (Not long after the NBA weighed in, Morey’s original tweet was deleted.) The backlash to the league’s refusal to side with Morey was swift. Even when league commissioner Adam Silver said Tuesday the NBA would not censor its employees, he still refused to condemn China for its crackdown in Hong Kong.

In response, fans have…


Oversight

Any precedent set for his news-gathering activities could be used against news outlets that report on Trump

Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

The Trump administration is counting on the public’s dislike of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange to potentially curtail press freedom rights. Don’t fall for it.

In a stunning series of events on Thursday, Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London — where he’s taken refuge for the last seven years — was forcibly revoked, and he was quickly arrested by British authorities. Shortly after his arrest, the Department of Justice released an indictment alleging Assange engaged in a conspiracy to commit computer crimes and indicated it would attempt to extradite Assange to the United States to stand trial.


Oversight

The California congressman’s lawsuit against a cow parody account is ridiculous, but it’s also dangerous

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty

California Rep. Devin Nunes opened himself up to widespread ridicule across the internet yesterday after he reportedly filed a lawsuit against Twitter, a conservative strategist, and two parody accounts — including one called “Devin Nunes’ cow,” which purports to be, well, an online manifestation of the Republican congressman’s livestock.

Speaking about the lawsuit with Fox News later that day, Nunes claimed that critical comments posted online were part of “an orchestrated effort” to smear his name. He is suing Twitter and the individual critics for “negligence,” “libel,” and “insulting words.”

Paradoxically, at various points in the complaint, Nunes accuses Twitter…


Oversight

Stomping out speech we dislike will cause more harm than good

Photo by Kyodo News/Getty Images

If you read the New York Times op-ed page or make the mistake of looking at political Twitter for more than two minutes, you’d think “free speech” had become an obscenity.

The argument — put forward by Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss, and countless others — goes something like this: Students, young people, and progressives are now actively hostile to the free speech protections that are afforded to everyone under the Constitution. Colleges are full of undergraduates demanding “safe spaces” and refusing to recognize the rights of those they disagree with. …


Great Escape

My affair with the intellectual dark web

Illustration: Rebekka Dunlap

This is the story of the past three years of my life. It’s romance in a way, but it’s also a breakup story. It begins sometime in 2015, a year during which my life was coming apart in various ways. In addition to the unraveling of my marriage, I began to sense some fraying around the edges of my social circles. Both online and in real life, people who’d once shared a common set of assumptions about the realities of the world and the nature of human behavior now seemed oddly divided. …

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