The most elementary observation about the principle of free speech is that if you only believe in it for speech you agree with, then you don’t believe in free speech. “Of course you have freedom: the freedom to agree with me” is the stance of a dictator.
Conservatives never shut up about free speech. In recent years, they have gotten particularly mad at the efforts of tech companies to combat “misinformation,” especially about COVID-19. Personally, I share the worry about the power of giant corporations to control the public square, and think platforms should be in the hands of the people. We should be passionate defenders of free speech and skeptical of the power of unelected bureaucrats to police our forums. The issues are more complicated than mere “liberty” versus “tyranny,” of course—if spreading lies about vaccines is likely to cause deaths, for instance, there are tricky questions about whether the right to speak freely should outweigh the public interest in stopping a horrible disease from killing people. But while it’s clear that conservatives believe they should have the right to spread their beliefs freely on any platform they like and spend as much money as they like to do it, it’s less clear that they support the same rights for that nebulous group of enemies known as The Woke.
Florida has just passed a bill called the “Stop WOKE” Act, as part of their silly moral panic about “critical race theory,” a concept they have no interest in understanding or engaging with but are convinced is poisoning the minds of the young. As TIME magazine summarizes, the legislation:
…prohibits workplace training or school instruction that teaches that individuals are “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously”; that people are privileged or oppressed based on race, gender, or national origin; or that a person “bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” over actions committed in the past by members of the same race, gender, or national origin.
During an appearance with the Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis, Christopher Rufo, the Manhattan Institute fellow who has been the intellectual architect of the anti-CRT nonsense,“warned Disney that an in-house program it had run that urged discussion of systemic racism was “now illegal in the state of Florida.” The right has recently been pissed off at Disney for vocally opposing the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, and the Florida legislature recently revoked a special tax district in the Orlando area that is used to make Disney World something like its own self-governing city. (Ironically, the ultimate effect of the legal change might be to punish Florida taxpayers rather than Disney, since with the dissolution of the district “local governments would… absorb all of the district’s liabilities, including the enormous amount of debt on its books.” (In the future, when someone asks what the expression “cutting off your nose to spite your face” means, Florida Republicans’ legislative retaliation against Disney may come to be used as the paradigmatic example.)
The Stop WOKE bill, notably, does not just restrict public schools from teaching about unconscious racial biases. In the public education case, the right argues that there is no “free speech” issue, because state governments always control the curriculums of schools. This isn’t quite honest, because it implies that there would be no free speech question even in a hypothetical case where the government was literally forcing teachers to indoctrinate children with Nazi propaganda and punishing those who dissented. But importantly, Stop WOKE reaches beyond the schools and into private workplaces, curtailing the right of businesses to run diversity training sessions that might make white people feel bad about racism.
Considering that the right is always going on about the importance of liberty, particularly the liberty of business owners to do whatever the hell they want to their workers, Stop WOKE is flagrantly hypocritical. After all, if it’s the principle of liberty that justifies letting corporations deluge workers with anti-union propaganda, then why does liberty not also grant them a right to talk about the operations of privilege in society? To justify the distinction, one must concede that by “liberty,” conservatives mean “the liberty to say the things we agree with.” All of a sudden, when companies in the free market start saying things conservatives disagree with, liberty becomes much less important.
Ben Shapiro, the cool kid’s philosopher, did his best to explain how his radical free market Corporations Can Do Whatever They Want principle could successfully be reconciled with Florida’s restrictive legislation:
I am the most free market person on the right. I’m an extraordinarily pro free market person. I don’t believe that generally the government should crack down on the operations of businesses. I think more freedom for businesses are good. [sic] I think that lower taxes for businesses are good, for the economy of Florida, for the company, for the economy of the United States more broadly. However, however, [sic] corporations have to stand up for their own free market bona fides, and they have to not become tools of the people who wish to destroy freedom in this country on behalf of leftist groupthink. If you decide to just become a woke corporation that does the bidding of your Democratic taskmasters, don’t be surprised when you get clocked with a legislative two-by-four. F around and find out. And that’s what Disney did.
Let us reflect on what Mr. Shapiro has argued. More freedom are good. [sic] Cutting taxes is good. But if corporations “become woke” they will be whacked with restrictive legislation. Corporate freedom, then, means the freedom to mistreat and exploit your workers. It should mean the freedom to pay less than minimum wage. If corporations indoctrinate their employees with right-wing propaganda, this is because those who own property cannot have their speech restricted by the state. But the freedom to speak depends entirely on what is being said, and the moment what is being said is Leftist Groupthink, then the government is justified in clamping down by force.
This is why conservative rhetoric about free speech and free markets cannot be taken seriously. They do not really believe in these things. They believe in rigging freedom so that they get to be free, but if others try to exert the same rights, they are deemed enemies of the state. Take another example: The choice of how to spend money in a market is the clearest possible example of something capitalists should believe is up to the individual. A boycott is a pure free-market mechanism. And yet when it comes to boycotting Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, the right is so rabidly opposed that they are willing to use the power of the government to punish anyone who dares advocate a boycott. So much for the First Amendment.
There is a great deal of selective attention paid to restrictions on speech. For instance, here is an essay by Jesse Singal in the Spectator warning about the crisis of free speech in the United States. Singal warns that in “progressive circles” there is too much skepticism of the value of free speech, and that there is “great enthusiasm for, in effect, public-private partnerships in which the government encourages social-media platforms to clamp down on unacceptable speech, sometimes providing them guidance on how to do so (as in the case of alleged Covid-19 misinformation).” Indeed, as I said, I worry greatly about the power of social media companies to censor. But by focusing on threats to free speech coming from progressives, these kinds of arguments treat “the right to lie about vaccines on social media” as the main front in the free speech wars. They seem to care less about threats to speech that are vastly more terrifying.
I have seen very little mention among these free speech advocates, for instance, of the case of Maggy Hurchalla, the late Florida environmental activist who spent the last years of her life fighting against a lawsuit by a mining company. The company was upset that Hurchalla had gotten her county government to cancel a contract with the company, so they secured a 4 million dollar judgment against her, leaving her broke. The lawyer for the mining company commented that:
“The First Amendment’s very important, but it has its limits. … You’re not allowed to tell falsehoods. You’re not allowed to lie. That’s not anything that’s new or exotic. And if, in fact, you do not tell the truth, and those falsehoods were designed to injure or harm a business, there’s a consequence for that.”
In fact, the First Amendment does not say that you are not allowed to say things that are false. If it did, we’d live in an Orwellian dystopia, where the government was in charge of adjudicating truth. This is what the mining company explicitly advocates: they want the government to police “false” statements that “injure a business” and to be able to extract the wealth of anyone who hurts their business. In Hurchalla’s case, that’s exactly what they got, meaning that activists who want to lobby their county governments about corporate wrongdoing are on notice that if they get a fact wrong, the corporation may come and ruin their lives.
In fact, I think there are plenty on the right who would love it if activists weren’t allowed to say anything that “hurt business.” The Heroes of Liberty on the right are all about coercion if it creates the kind of society they want. Rufo hasn’t hesitated to say things like “Abolish teachers unions. Ban racialist indoctrination.” Rick Scott has released a GOP agenda that includes the following new freedoms:
- “Kids in public schools will say the Pledge of Allegiance, stand for the National Anthem, and honor the American Flag. We must foster national unity.
- “Socialism will be treated as a foreign combatant which aims to destroy our prosperity and freedom.”
- “We must enforce existing federal obscenity laws. Our society has almost given up on demanding decency, we must aim higher.”
Treating political opponents as “foreign combatants,” banning “obscenity,” and forcing children to repeat bizarre loyalty oaths. This sounds to me much more like the social agenda of Saddam Hussein than a principled civil libertarian.
We should be principled civil libertarians, of course. The hypocrisy of the right does not mean that free speech is not worth fighting for. But it means that anyone who complains about Twitter censoring vaccine misinformation, but doesn’t pay equal attention to the corporation that bankrupted Maggy Hurchalla (or the ag-gag laws targeting animal rights activists), is not really talking about “free speech.” They’re talking about making a society where they, and people who agree with them, may say whatever toxic thing they like without restrictions or ramifications, while the left are persecuted as enemies of Prosperity. We know that the moment right-wingers see speech they don’t like gaining traction, even in the private sector, their concern will cease to be for Freedom and instead be about Saving The Children From Poisonous Ideology.