By Edward Achorn
Freedom of speech is the bulwark of all our liberties. Take it away — no freedom.
It is being taken away.
Strategies developed at universities to silence dissent and drive out those who support freedom have infiltrated our culture. People are being fired, doxxed, threatened, punched, smeared, and otherwise bullied for expressing views that were once at the heart of America.
Views such as that we are all brothers and sisters; that racism (against any group) is wrong; that the rule of law under ordered liberty is preferable to mob violence; that America is the greatest nation in the history of the world because of the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
Many people fear that unrestrained violence against cultural symbols of America will soon be turned against Americans themselves. Indeed, that transition has already begun, with rioters wantonly beating up people and armed thugs breaking up a pro-police rally in Denver.
A new poll by the Cato Institute underscores the growing fears of Americans.
Cato found: “62% of Americans say the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive. This is up from 2017 when 58% agreed with this statement. Majorities of Democrats (52%), independents (59%) and Republicans (77%) all agree they have political opinions they are afraid to share.”
Only a majority of those on the hard left — 58% of them — believe they are free to say whatever they please.
If people with a hard-left perspective are free to express themselves, and centrist Democrats, independents and Republicans are not, something is very wrong.
It is the birthright of every human being to speak freely. Free speech is the essence of the American experiment.
Through free speech, justice has been advanced, slavery has been destroyed, wisdom has been spread, scientific inquiry has flourished, and the crimes of the powerful have been checked. The liberty to speak and think without restraint was behind America’s extraordinary explosion of wealth, power, and freedom for every citizen.
As a journalist for 41 years, and an American historian, I can attest that the First Amendment — which protects free speech, a free press, peaceful protest, and the free exercise of religion — has been an immensely powerful force for good.
Totalitarians despise it because they do not want individuals wielding that kind of power.
The totalitarians are gaining. Free speech is under steady assault from within. Americans’ fear of speaking out is growing, Cato found.
“In 2017 most centrist liberals felt confident (54%) they could express their views. However today, slightly less than half (48%) feel the same. The share who feel they cannot be open increased 7 points from 45% in 2017 to 52% today. In fact, there have been shifts across the board, where more people among all political groups feel they are walking on eggshells.”
Even some on the left are feeling the need to shut up, according to Cato’s findings.
“Although strong liberals are the only group who feel they can say what they believe, the share who feel pressured to self‐censor rose 12 points from 30% in 2017 to 42% in 2020. The share of moderates who self‐censor increased 7 points from 57% to 64%, and the share of conservatives rose 70% to 77%, also a 7‐point increase. Strong conservatives are the only group with little change. They are about as likely now (77%) to say they hold back their views as in 2017 (76%).”
People fear losing the chance to advance economically if they express their political views.
“Nearly a third (32%) of employed Americans say they are worried about missing out on career opportunities or losing their job if their political opinions became known. Americans across the political spectrum share these concerns: 31% of liberals, 30% of moderates, and 34% of conservatives are worried their political views could get them fired or harm their career trajectory.”
These fears do not seem to me to be unfounded. Orwellian speech codes have taken hold of corporations, including the news media. Arrant cowardice prevails among leaders of business, government, education, and entertainment.
George Washington, the founder of our freedoms, warned in 1783 that if freedom of speech were ever taken away, then “dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.”
I think he was on to something.
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)