America has a New York Times-doesn't-get-the-First Amendment problem
It may be the most classic bit during the nine-season run of the iconic TV sitcom "Seinfeld": The time that Jerry shows up at the airport car rental place with his reservation, only to be told there aren't any cars. Like every other annoying aspect of everyday life, the mishap causes the comedian to go into full didactic, observational-humor mode about the meaning of a reservation, sparking the annoyed clerk to blurt out, "I know what a reservation is!"
"I don't think you do!" Jerry responds. That was hilarious, but how funny is it when the most prominent news organization in the United States — the one that tends, for better or worse, to set the agenda for all the smaller fish in the media pond — launches what it hopes will be a decade-defining campaign around free speech in America with a gobsmackingly wrong-from-the-git-go misunderstanding of what free speech in America actually means.
"For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned," begins the New York Times editorial board in its roughly 2,500-word broadside headlined simply "America Has a Free Speech Problem."
I don't think The New York Times knows what a fundamental right — those enshrined in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights — actually is. The First Amendment's rightly revered protections of free speech and a free press only hold that the government can't silence your rights to speak freely. When someone in the wider public conversation puts forth an opinion that's controversial or even highly unpopular, America's free speech protections say the answer is not censorship but criticism — which in its not-prettier forms can comprise getting "shamed or shunned." The nation's leading journalistic outlet has the First Amendment bass-ackwards.
It was the editorial that launched a thousand "hot takes" from every angle — progressives "shamed" the piece on Twitter to fulfill its prophecy, the libertarians at Reason exploded in joy, and Fox News sort of did the same but with some digs at the instances it thinks The Times itself committed "cancel culture." At a moment when people are fighting and dying for freedom on the front lines in Ukraine, this may seem like a weird time to elevate this small-ammunition American culture war to such prominence. But the conversation that The New York Times wants to drive with this editorial is actually an important skirmish over the future of democracy — even if it's probably not the argument that Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger thinks that he's starting.
Who's getting canceled?: It's certainly true that the ability to have open public debates — whether on college campuses, at school board meetings, or in virtual spaces like Twitter — is a mark of a healthy society, and that the nature of these conversations has changed in the 21st century. The Times' editorial claims America is in "a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around cancel culture" without ever putting much effort into defining what a "cancel culture" really is.
Weirdly — and, some would argue, tellingly — the lengthy Times treatise fails to put forth one single specific real-world example of the cases where an individual has lost their reputation or their livelihood after cancellation from the left. Instead, the paper hangs its arguments about the salience of "cancel culture" on a survey it commissioned with Siena College and on comments from some of those surveyed.
For example, the paper quotes self-proclaimed liberal Emily Leonard from Hartford, Connecticut, as stating, "I think these kids and this whole cancel culture and so-called woke is doing us so much harm," although the 93-year-old woman acknowledged her views come from "reports" of what's happening at college, not firsthand experience. Given the frenetic cable-TV news coverage of "cancel culture" or "woke mobs," such opinions are not surprising.
Nor is it shocking that poll respondents listened to a litany of problems around free speech before 84% said back to the pollsters that "it is a 'very serious' or 'somewhat serious' problem that some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism." The journalist Michael Hobbes noted, "This is evidence of a moral panic, not that the panic is justified."
The reality here is that the technological upheavals of the 21st century — most importantly, the birth and explosion of social media — have altered the power dynamics of a national conversation that was once dominated by a handful of elite voices, most of them in elite hangouts like the op-ed pages of (cough, cough) The New York Times, and too overwhelmingly the opinions of older, white, straight men.
Like any revolution, this upheaval has brought its occasional moments of ridiculous excess. I've condemned specific acts like stealing campus newspapers, barring access to journalists or blocking speech rather than "shaming or shunning" it (which is perfectly fine). These episodes that have defined "cancel culture" are relatively few — one list of "canceled people" noted by journalist Adam Davidson, a vocal critic of the NYT editorial, has barely more than 200 examples over four decades, and mostly involve prominent people, not everyday citizens.
There are two big problems here. One is that the climate around free speech in America has mostly been better than any time in our history, when one thinks back as recently as McCarthyism or the strictures against speaking out against racial apartheid in the American South. Isn't the real U.S. tradition of "cancel culture" the longtime cancellation of women unable to speak back against the sexual harassment or abuse they endured in the workplace, or maybe the culture of denying fair trials to so many Black men convicted of crimes they didn't commit? Is it a coincidence the phrase "cancel culture" was invented when systems of patriarchy and white supremacy were suddenly the things being "shamed and shunned?"
Bothsidesism: The other problem is the illness that has only metastasized in The Times' journalism in the five-plus years since Donald Trump's shock election as president, the disease of bothsidesism. The editorial rightly notes that — wherever one comes down on the so-called cancel culture — there clearly is an assault on free speech from the political right, which has launched a nationwide crusade to ban books and limit what teachers and professors can say in the classroom. Amazingly, the vagueness of the allegations against the left in the Times editorial contrast with sharp specificity about the free speech assaults from the right, including a detailed breakdown of some 175 bills that have been introduced since 2021 limiting what instructors can teach or what students can learn around controversial topics involving race or gender.
The Times editorial very disingenuously plops in a quote from the CEO of the literary group PEN America about the current "crisis around freedom of speech" to make it sound like a criticism of both sides, when in reality PEN America has been a leader in documenting and opposing these right-wing abuses in red states with Republican governments. This, in other words, is the real "cancel culture" — real-world threats to your actual "fundamental right" of speaking freely without the government trying to shut you up.
What's so frustrating here is that the perceived threat of the omnipotence of the supposed vast left-wing "cancel culture" has been used to justify these anti-speech government laws, from the classroom "gag orders" to Florida's much-ballyhooed "Don't Say Gay" bill that takes the GOP's current assault on the LGBTQ+ community to a new low. Now, by using dubious polling data, a few cherry-picked quotes from the front lines of a moral panic, and following the gut intuition of its elite, privileged leaders, the Times is offering cover to this "don't say gay, don't say racism" crowd. How many GOP lawmakers are going stand up this week and intone, "Even the liberal New York Times ... " before the next idiotic bill to fire a teacher who mentions Rosa Parks?
America, we do have a free speech problem — one that the nation's most influential newsroom just arguably made worse. Time and time again since Trump rode down that damn escalator, The New York Times has cowed to a false god of equivalence rather than take bold stands to make clear that democracy is under a global assault from authoritarianism — and that the rise of this autocracy has been fueled by a defense of patriarchy and white supremacy in the face of overdue social change. By the time The Times finally realizes what side it's on, it may be too late.
— Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.