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Truthfully, while I always appreciate the opportunity to experience other cultures and immerse myself in history, I remain grateful that we live in the nation where free speech is more legally protected than in any other place or time in the world. And Europe continues to remind us that we can’t take free speech for granted. More on that at the end of this newsletter…
So as I dive back into the news, this seems like a good opportunity for a quick round-up of recent free speech updates!
I wanted to start with this one because federal censorship of online speech is top of mind due to the Missouri v. Biden social media lawsuit. (As a reminder, this is the lawsuit where the fact pattern shows multiple officials from the Biden administration pressuring social media companies to remove content.)
A federal appellate court temporarily put the ruling on hold but held an expedited argument in the case just last week. In the coming days or weeks, we should expect a significant decision from that court (the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit) on whether the Biden administration violated the First Amendment. Stay tuned!
If you want to learn more, I recently participated in a discussion with the Federalist Society about the lawsuit: Watch it here.
In 2015, FIRE president Greg Lukianoff and NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote an article for The Atlantic arguing that “trigger warnings are hurting mental health on campus.”
(The article gained so much attention that they later expanded it into the book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, which I highly recommend. In fact, Lukianoff has a follow-up book titled The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All ― But There Is a Solution, that will be available in October.)
Their argument wasn’t that speech could not cause harm – but that attempting to shield people from bad speech didn’t protect them. Instead, it just left people without the tools to handle offensive speech and adversity when they did experience it.
Eight years later, we’re seeing more and more signs that people are coming round to this view. In a recent article (also for The Atlantic!), feminist writer Jill Filipovic admits, “I was wrong about trigger warnings”:
We thought we were making the world just a little bit better. It didn’t occur to me until much later that we might have been part of the problem. … In giving greater weight to claims of individual hurt and victimization, have we inadvertently raised a generation that has fewer tools to manage hardship and transform adversity into agency?
With all the rightful attention on mental health, much of it questionably placing the blame on social media, perhaps Filipovic’s acknowledgment will lead to a broader recognition that attempting to shield people from speech not only doesn’t help them, but it may also be actively hurting them.
Almost immediately after I returned to the U.S., I was reminded that there’s no place like home – and that while Europe is fun to visit, it can be a scary place for free speech: Denmark is considering legislation that would criminalize “special situations where other countries, cultures, and religions could be insulted,” with Sweden debating following suit.
My friend Jacob Mchangama, a free speech advocate and Danish lawyer, covered this for TIME, writing:
Free speech is a difficult principle to uphold consistently. Governments and citizens of democracies alike are frequently tempted to sacrifice this principle when faced with threats or adverse consequences of unpopular or extremist speech. But one only has to compare the vibrant democracies of Denmark and Sweden to the authoritarian regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia to realize that, for all its flaws, free speech makes the world more tolerant, democratic, equal, and free. Denmark and Sweden’s defection from this core liberal principle is a dark day for the global fight for free speech.
Book burnings are a primitive form of protest that typically deserve moral condemnation. But banning expressive conduct – however offensive – is a dangerous path for democracies that pave the way for further restrictions. My latest in @TIME https://t.co/MqzSLRXdid
— Jacob Mchangama (@JMchangama) August 9, 2023
I can’t overstate how unique America’s First Amendment is, how unique America is on free speech. Other countries can just decide to move toward diminishing free speech protections, but we have a First Amendment that provides legal protection for free speech, as well as a guide for self-correction when we do err.
It’s easy to take that for granted. But America without free speech is like… fall without football (you can almost smell it in the air, can’t you…).
Anything I missed? Or that you want me to discuss next time? Let me know by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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