The First Amendment’s Fair-Weather Friends

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman      April 16, 2021

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The First Amendment’s Fair-Weather Friends
SOURCE: SIR THOMAS GRESHAM (ANTHONIS MOR - RIJKSMUSEUM AMSTERDAM) Sir Thomas Gresham (1519 to 1579). Gresham’s law is a monetary principle stating that “bad money drives out good.”
Despite what we’d all like to believe, free speech and free expression have never been broadly popular with the general public. “What a heavy oar the pen is, and what a strong current ideas are to row in!” complained Gustave Flaubert to his mistress in 1851, just as he was beginning his five-year slog of writing “Madame Bovary.” Thinking, not just writing, is hard work, and confronting ideas we find novel, threatening, or merely disagreeable for one reason or another is an uncomfortable and unpleasant experience for many of us. At the least, we might feel affronted; at the most, we might be faced with openly admitting to error, and even rethinking and revising our entire world view. That can take a while, if it happens at all. There was a time when liberals and progressives, even when they seemingly agreed on little else (the narcissism of small differences), were comrades in arms in the battle for intellectual and artistic freedom. Censorship was anathema to the left. Book-burning, Red-baiting, witch-hunting, artist persecuting—that’s what the other side did. Who pushed for the Hays Office in the 1920s and the Motion Picture Production Code in the 1930s, which until 1968 told American filmmakers what they could and couldn’t put on the screen? Conservatives and the religious community, including the Catholic Legion of Decency. Who demanded the removal of “degenerate art” from public museums? In the 1930s, Germany’s Nazi Party, and in the 1980s and 1990s, New York’s then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, and other Republicans. Who votes to remove “controversial” books from school libraries, and ban teaching the Theory of Evolution? Who investigated and condemned comic books in Senate hearings in 1954? Who denounced rock ’n’ roll as “jungle music,” leading to depravity and juvenile delinquency? Who prosecuted Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Lenny Bruce for obscenity? Who tried to block the “blasphemous” release of Martin Scorsese’s film, Last Temptation of Christ? Conservatives and religious zealots, in every case. As early as the mid-1970s, the poles were already starting to reverse. The sexual liberation that accompanied the early days of second-wave feminism in the 1960s gave way to increasingly dogmatic intolerance on sex and gender issues in the 1970s and 1980s. That culminated in the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin scoffing at First Amendment concerns and testifying for a pornography ban as a friendly witness before Reagan’s attorney general Ed Meese’s pornography commission. In communities of color, what had once been fearless discussion about pride and power has too often devolved into almost a scripted discussion in which terminology and viewpoints are narrowly constrained and aggressively policed. On the university campus, the Free Speech Movement that began at Berkeley in 1964 and led to decades of flourishing academic and political debate has given way to a performative environment in which trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, and safe spaces are invoked in the name of making students “comfortable” enough to express themselves. Of course, the effect is often the exact opposite: ideological conformity and intellectual suffocation where those who don’t know or don’t accept the rap are cowed into silence. Even the ACLU, it seems, has found other amendments in the Bill of Rights that it prefers to the First. I recently confessed to a friend my fear that my lifelong commitment to First Amendment principles of free thought, speech and expression was being swamped by a rising tide of lies, misinformation and mindless group think. What if, I wondered, I’ve been wrong all these years that only the best products survive the vigorous competition in the marketplace of ideas? What if, instead, it’s only Gresham’s Law* that prevails, as it so often does elsewhere, and fraudulent ideas, like counterfeit currency, drive out the authentic and good? In a recent New York Times op-ed, contributing writer Timothy Egan minced no words: “I used to believe that the remedy for bad speech is more speech. Now that seems archaic,” he declares. “Cyber-libertarianism, the ethos of the internet with roots in 18th-century debate about the free market of ideas, has failed us miserably.” Remedies like government pressure on private companies, he blithely admits, “could mean the end of the internet as we know it. True. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” The First Amendment, you might say, is for sissies. This week, I inadvertently found myself in my first potential test case of this brave new world. During my first session of the UCLA Extension opinion-writing class that I’ve been teaching since 1999, discussion with my guest speaker got a little heated over the subject of cancel culture, and the disturbing new corporate trend of crowd-sourcing employment and management decisions to their aggressively woke young work force. Examples: We have a veteran New York Times editor and a Pulitzer-finalist reporter each abruptly shown the door because they’ve “lost the newsroom.” The employees at a publishing house protest a planned memoir by Woody Allen, forcing management to cancel the book because “publication would no longer be feasible” (another publisher immediately snapped it up.) Other publishing employees sign an open letter demanding that their companies deny any book contracts for former Trump administration officials. After calming everyone down, the rest of the session proceeded uneventfully. But the next day, I braced myself for a call from the university administration, informing me that despite consistently high teaching evaluations, due to a complaint, they had suddenly found it “no longer feasible” for me to continue teaching the course. What I received instead was a message from one of the students, thanking me for an insightful first class and asserting that “in my opinion, we have to not only get used to hearing opposing views, but acknowledge that they exist in the first place.” It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, defending free speech and critical thinking might not be such a heavy lift after all.
Joel Bellman

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April 16, 2021

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