Episode 41 – Free Speech and Racial Justice: Friends or Foes?

In May 2020, protests erupted all over the U.S. after a video emerged of a white police officer killing a black man named George Floyd. Millions took to the streets in support of racial justice under the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter.” Most protests were peaceful, but several cities experienced large-scale violence. Free speech was also affected in the process. A disturbing number of incidents of police brutality and excessive force against peaceful protesters and journalists were documented. President Trump accused a Black Lives Matter leader of “treason, sedition, insurrection” and labelled protestors as “terrorists.”

But demands for structural change also led to calls for de-platforming people whose views were deemed hostile to or even insufficiently supportive of racial justice. A Democratic data analyst named David Shor was fired after tweeting a study that showed that nonviolent black-led protests were more effective than violent ones in terms of securing voter support. In another instance, New York Times staffers protested that the newspaper put “Black @NYTimes staff in danger” by running a provocative op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, which argued for deploying the military to quell riots. The newsroom revolt led to opinion editor James Bennet resigning. 

Academia was affected too. A letter signed by hundreds of Princeton faculty members, employees and students demanded a faculty committee be established to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication” and write “Guidelines on what counts as racist.”

Social media companies came under intense pressure to take a more robust stand on “hate speech.” 

The entrenchment of so-called “cancel culture” caused around 150, mostly liberal, writers and intellectuals to sign an open “Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter argued against what the signers saw as “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The letter drew sharp criticism from many journalists, writers and intellectuals for being “tone-deaf,” “privileged,” “elitist” and detracting from or even hurting the struggle for racial justice.   

The wider debate often turned nasty especially on social media with loud voices on each side engaging in alarmist, bad faith arguments ascribing the worst intentions to their opponents. Many of those concerned about free speech warned of creeping totalitarianism imposed by “social justice warriors” run amok, intent on imposing a stifling orthodoxy of “wokeism.” Some confused vehement criticism of a person’s ideas with attempts to stifle that person’s speech. On the other hand, some racial justice activists outright denied the existence of “cancel culture” and failed to distinguish between vehement criticism of a person’s ideas and calling for that person to be sanctioned by an employer, publisher or university. Some even accused free speech defenders of being complicit in or actual defenders of white supremacy and compared words deemed racially insensitive with violence. 

Underlying these debates is a more fundamental question. Is a robust and principled approach to free speech a foundation for or a threat to racial justice? 

To help shed light on this question, this episode will focus on what role the dynamic between censorship and free speech has played in maintaining and challenging racist and oppressive societies. The episode will use American slavery and segregation, British colonialism, and South African apartheid as case studies.  

In this episode we will explore:

  • How Southern legislators and congressmen adopted some of the most draconian restrictions of free speech in American history, while Southern mobs enforced a “slaver’s veto” to curb abolitionist speech and ideas;
  • How Southern demands that the Federal government and Northern states actively police abolitionist ideas kicked off a debate over first principles and the role of free speech in America;
  • How Southern “cancel culture” purged a professor critical of slavery from the University of North Carolina;
  • How women played a critical role in mobilizing opinion against slavery and defying the slaver’s veto;
  • Why Frederick Douglass believed that “The right of speech is a very precious one, especially to the oppressed;”
  • How the First Amendment did little to end the discrimination and oppression of African-Americans immediately after the abolishment of slavery;
  • How the civil rights movement and its civil libertarian allies advanced group rights of discriminated minorities through the dramatic expansion of constitutionally protected individual rights, not least First Amendment freedoms;
  • Why recently deceased congressman John Lewis believed that “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the Civil Rights movement would have been a bird without wings;”
  • How the British used laws against sedition and hate speech to target anti-colonial movements and silence dissidents like Mahatma Gandhi;
  • How Mahatma Gandhi viewed the freedoms of speech and association as “the two lungs that are absolutely necessary for a man to breathe the oxygen of liberty;”
  • How censorship and suppression was a key component of South African apartheid, which punished expressions “hateful against the white man” and kept an index of prohibited books to silence anti-apartheid activists;
  • How Nelson Mandela only abandoned peaceful resistance when the regime had shut down all lawful modes of expressing opposition to white supremacy;
  • Why Mandela believed that free speech should constitute a core value of South African democracy and that “No single person, no body of opinion, no political or religious doctrine, no political party or government can claim to have a monopoly on truth.”

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.


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Online articles and resources