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Twitter, the New York Times and why cancel culture is not about free speech

The battle for freedom of expression in the US reaches far beyond the nation’s newsrooms.

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If you are a person who has spent a lot of time on Twitter in the past few weeks, you will be familiar with the terms “cancel culture” and “free speech”.

The phrases arose with heightened frequency after the New York Times published an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton on 3 June, in which he called for troops to be deployed to quell protests against police brutality. Several Times staffers, many of them black, noted on Twitter that publishing Cotton’s op-ed endangered black Americans; the opinion editor, James Bennet, later resigned after admitting that he had not read Cotton’s article prior to publication. In the intervening days, Bari Weiss, a senior Times opinion editor and writer, tweeted that the paper had descended into civil war between mostly older "liberal" staff, presumably including more established columnists like David Brooks, and mostly young "wokes”, a dismissive turn of phrase characterising those (mainly younger people) who are attuned to matters of societal injustice.

A month later, on 7 July, Harper’s magazine published an open letter, reportedly spearheaded by the author Thomas Chatteron Williams; Weiss was among the 153 signatories, many of whom were high-profile journalists, academics and writers, including Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama and J.K. Rowling. The letter writers argue that “free exchange of information and ideas” is becoming more constricted throughout our culture, and that we are becoming intolerant of opposing views and willing to “dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”, condemning those who do not agree.

Then, on Tuesday 14 July, Weiss resigned from the Times. In a letter addressed to Times publisher AG Sulzberger, which she also posted on her personal website, Weiss chided the paper, arguing that opinion pieces “that would have easily been published just two years ago…now get an editor or writer in serious trouble.” Weiss went on to accuse the paper of lacking diversity of thought in its opinion pages; she also listed various published articles that she objected to, including a piece on diversity in the Soviet space program and a piece that argues that the three standout caste systems in human history are the caste system in India, Nazi Germany, and systemic racism in the United States.

The focus of her letter is that, though she was hired after the 2016 election to bring different views into the Times, she has instead been met with a resistance to truth as a “process of collective discovery”, and that she has found orthodoxy where debate should be. Twitter, she warns, has become the ultimate editor of the Times.

For some, notably on the right, Weiss is a courageous thinker and editor; for others, especially on the left, she is derided as a hypocrite who champions free speech but also tries to silence individuals with whom she disagrees (for example, she tweeted in support of a column that criticised a speech Eli Valley, a Jewish American cartoonist and author, was to give at Stanford for Palestine Awareness Week in 2019; the column concluded, “It is open season on the Jews, in word and deed. Everything is possible and permissible. Again.”).

But the real issue is not Weiss. It is not even the New York Times. And, for all the time that I spend on it, the issue is not Twitter.

The real issue is power, and how it leads us to understand the terms of this debate: cancel culture and free speech.

The phrase “cancel culture” — referring to the tendency of institutions to get rid of staffers, shows, or ideas deemed too offensive or controversial — is useful in that the way someone talks about it tells us a great deal about their political views, generational perspective, and traditional access to prominent positions and platforms in academia and the media.

For example, Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has taken those who complain about “cancel culture” to task, while Republican Senator Ted Cruz has warned that it has gone too far. The majority of the signatories of the Harper’s letter, though not all, could be described as centre-right or centre-left; but the real unifying factor was that they are all already relatively prominent figures. As a counter-letter published 10 July argued, the writers of the original letter seem most concerned that black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people can publicly critique elites, holding them to account in ways they couldn’t before.

The debate over cancel culture, and what some see as its limits on free speech, is not new, and has become a major focal point for liberal writers grappling with the disruptive effects of the internet on society. In his Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, (2016) Timothy Garton Ash describes the internet as “the world’s largest sewer” and outlines principles for free speech, which include knowledge (“We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge”) and diversity (“We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference”). Garton Ash himself was a supporter of the general substance behind  Harper’s letter (though not a signatory), but, in a Financial Times column, wrote that, while he believes we should push back against a culture of “one strike and you’re out”, free speech involves not just talking, but also listening – in this case, to the minorities and younger people who have legitimate grievances – and finding more liberal ways of addressing those grievances (Garton Ash suggests that Oxford University should, in addition to removing its statue of Cecil Rhodes, be devising an exhibition about the ways in which Britain has inadequately confronted its colonial past).

Or consider Nadine Strossen, a signatory of the Harper’s letter. When, in 1991, she became head of the American Civil Liberties Union, she was the first woman and youngest ever person to lead it. Her 2018 book, Hate: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship, in which she decries hate speech legislation specifically, argues that the cure is worse than the disease.

There is also liberal writer Yascha Mounk, also a Harper's letter signatory and founder of the publishing platform Persuasion, who believes institutions are starting to change, and wrote, in announcing his new venture, “the erosion of values like free speech and due process within mainstream institutions" is disadvantaging philosophical liberals. Mounk writes that many amazing journalists, writers, and policymakers, young and old, famous and not, have privately conveyed to him that they feel they can no longer write in their own voices and are “counting the days” until they are fired.

My own belief is that the term “cancel culture,” like “political correctness” before it, sometimes pretends that it is interested in protecting exchange of ideas but is actually used to stop criticism. Furthermore, we should not conflate the concept of cancel culture with an attack on free speech. The former is about discourse in our private and even professional lives. The latter is about the government.

In the United States, free speech is a political concept, and not because it is debated by great thinkers and politicians. Free speech is a political concept because it is in the constitution explicitly to protect political speech.

According to the First Amendment of the US constitution, it is Congress that is prohibited from making laws that prevent the establishment or free practise of religion; from restricting freedom of speech or the press; or from getting in the way of peaceful assembly and petitioning the government to try to get authorities to set right what we the people believe is wrong.

That is what free speech is meant to protect. The right to criticise your government; the protection from your government telling you what you can and cannot say. “Free speech” does not mean that you can tweet or commission whatever op-Ed you like and not have people attack you; “free speech” does not mean you are kept safe from bullies on Twitter; and “free speech” is not a seminar on a university campus.

Free speech, under the highest law in the United States, is that which your government cannot regulate. The First Amendment does not protect you from public pressure; it protects you from the government. This is why, for example, the government could not get Dan Snyder to change the name of his football team from the “Washington Redskins”, but public and commercial pressure could. He was protected from the courts, but not the court of public opinion.

You can use the First Amendment in whatever way you choose — Snyder used it to hold onto a racial slur a little longer — but it gives you the right to choose to speak truth to power.

This is where free speech is actually under threat in the US today. Protesters against police brutality have been arrested. The president threatens the media, not only by insulting individual reporters and refusing to rule out the prosecution of reporters, but also by calling for boycotts of news organisations and changes to libel laws. And the real chilling effect of this violation of free speech is not that people think twice before tweeting, but real violence against people. Since the start of the Trump administration in 2016, CNN was sent a pipe bomb; another, the Capital Gazette in Maryland, was the site of a mass shooting. A black journalist was detained covering protests in Minnesota. Curfews went into effect around the country to try to keep people from congregating in support of black lives.

That’s an attack on free speech. And the fate of free speech will be decided in newsrooms, yes, but also on the streets, by the people who are putting their very bodies on the line to protect it.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor