Let’s talk about “cancel culture” and free speech.

A good starting point for this conversation is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the freedoms of speech and press in the United States. The text has been “incorporated” by the Fourteenth Amendment and now applies equally to federal, state, and local governments (i.e., not just to “Congress”):

Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. . . .

U.S. Constitution, First Amendment (excerpt)

An important point that we need to make right here at the beginning is that the text of the First Amendment does not create a freedom of speech. It doesn’t say that it is establishing or defining some new freedom out of thin air. Read it more carefully. It is saying that Congress cannot abridge the preexisting freedom of speech. It assumes that the freedom is already there. The freedom of speech is a human right that comes not from governments, but, depending on your worldview, from nature, evolution, or God.

So we have to make a distinction between the “freedom of speech” as a general principle or idea, and the “freedom of speech” as a constitutional limitation on government. They are related, but they are different. Both have value. Both deserve to be defended.

Plenty of times now, we have seen “woke” mobs on Twitter come after celebrities for saying something “un-woke” (or even just slightly controversial or out-of-step with the zeitgeist). Soon, these celebrities find themselves out of work. Sometimes their social media accounts are frozen. Their characters are written out of their television shows. They become industry pariahs. They are “canceled.” Critics of this phenomenon say that it violates victims’ free speech. The pro-cancel crowd responds, “The First Amendment doesn’t apply! Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences!”

It is true that the First Amendment only limits what governments can do. It imposes no restrictions on entertainment or social media companies, or on individuals. But freedom of speech—the principle and the idea—is more than the First Amendment. When the U.S. Constitution is a distant memory, a footnote in some history class a thousand years hence, the freedom of speech will still exist. I hope it will still have defenders.

The First Amendment is an important bulwark against encroachment on the freedom of speech. Because it is there, I have little fear of being fined or imprisoned for anything I might post on this website. And yet I still find myself carefully parsing my posts. Every time I compose an article like this, I worry that if I say something just a little bit too “wrong,” “offensive,” or “un-woke,” I might be fired by my employer, kicked off social media, de-platformed by my web hosting service, and ostracized by friends and acquaintances that I love. In other words, I am not really free to speak.

Of course those businesses and people have their own freedoms—freedoms that I defend and uphold as fervently as my own. My employer has the right to fire me if I say something they don’t like (or for any other reason). Likewise, Facebook and Twitter own their platforms and can delete posts and kick users off for any reason they like. My web hosting service can sell me space on their servers, or they can tell me to go pound sand. And my friends and acquaintances can unfriend me (on social media or “IRL”) if they wish. But the fact that they have the right to do these things doesn’t mean they should.

Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park (film)

We don’t ask the should question enough. All the time we talk about whether we can do something, but there are plenty of things we can do but still shouldn’t do. Yeah, Facebook and Twitter can de-platform whoever they want. Employers can fire employees who have unpopular political views. Web hosting providers can shut-down websites they don’t like. And you can un-friend people who hold social and political views different from your own. But should they? Should you?

Reality has nuance. It is possible to simultaneously think that Facebook has every right to de-platform political conservatives and to think it’s idiotic, counterproductive, and even hateful for them to actually do so. Yes, they can. No, they shouldn’t.

The same goes for employers, hosting providers, and friends. You can cut everybody you disagree with out of your life. You can block and unfriend everybody who says anything you find distasteful. And you can shoot off Tweets and emails to businesses demanding that they de-platform the people who say those things. They might do what you ask. The First Amendment doesn’t cover these cases. And yet you and they are rejecting the principle of the freedom of speech. If you believe in the freedom of speech, as I do, you believe that people should be truly free to say what they believe . . . without being de-platformed . . . without being silenced . . . without fear of repercussions.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire

It can be difficult to be a “true believer” in the freedom of speech. You’ll sometimes find yourself defending the most reprehensible people and the most disgusting organizations. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which used to be consistent in its defense of speech, made a name for itself by defending literal neo-Nazis. Why? Because if we think we have the right to say neo-Nazis can’t speak because their views are horrible, it’s only a matter of time before somebody else thinks they have the right to say you can’t speak because they think your views are horrible.

Today, it’s kicking people off Twitter because they don’t buy-in to newfangled ideas about “gender theory” or “critical race theory,” or they think the 2020 presidential election was stolen, or they subscribe to conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic. You might think that’s great. How reprehensible those people are! How terrible! How hateful! But are you confident that the “powers-that-be” at Twitter will never think that your beliefs are the reprehensible ones? Do you really trust them—or anybody else—to be the judge, jury, and executioner when it’s your speech and your ideas on the line? Are you sure you never said anything that the mob might be willing to condemn? What about a mob ten or twenty years in the future? Do you know how the ground will shift? Do you know how the culture will change? Are you certain that the things you believe and say today won’t be labeled “hate speech” in the future?

Consider, for example, former President Barack Obama (D). During his 2008 presidential campaign, he said, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.” Today, a public figure saying the same thing would be labeled a right-wing radical, a hater, and a bigot. Up is down. Left is right. “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” If President Obama couldn’t keep up with the rapidly shifting ground beneath his feet, what makes you think you can?

As a society—governments, businesses, and individuals—we must reassert the principle and the idea of free speech. It’s not just a narrow bit of constitutional law that only matters when we’re talking about government action; no, it’s a social virtue that should be running through your blood, and through the blood of our society and its institutions. We must re-learn tolerance . . . not in the irrational new-age sense of the word, but in the classical sense. We must tolerate those with whom we disagree. We must let them speak, even when we hate what they say. Not only that, but we should listen to them and think about what they’re saying. And we should respond, not by demanding that they stop speaking, or with punishments, but with our own speech. We must fight bad ideas with good ideas, not with totalitarianism and censorship.

Censorship by entertainment and tech companies, and by individuals, may be legal, but it is not right. Facebook and Twitter can police what people say on their platforms, but they shouldn’t. My hosting provider can police what gets posted on Off on a Tangent, but they shouldn’t. Except in certain narrow cases involving crimes, threats, and abuse, we should all just stay out of the way and let people say whatever they want. No de-platforming. No canceling. Because if we don’t really believe in the freedom of speech for everybody, we are likely to lose it for ourselves.

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

Reverend Martin Niemöller