demostrator with megaphone and notebook protesting
Unidentified young demostrator with megaphone and notebook protesting against austerity cuts

Free Speech, Fair Speech Vs. Woke

Free speech in American life is protected by the First Amendment — when the government is involved — but also by a broader understanding that differing views should be heard and respected in private academic settings, at meetings open to the public, and even in corporate settings. A broad and tolerant regard for one another’s opinions has been known in history as the “liberal” spirit. It is a priceless achievement that only came to prevail in recent centuries and only in a couple of dozen countries.

You might also call this broad understanding of free speech “fair speech,” because it accords to each side of a dispute a willingness to disagree agreeably. It is what many intend by the term “civility,” and it is not the same as unanimity.

Free speech, fair speech, liberalism, whatever you call it, is under more attack now than in at least two generations. The McCarthy era of the late 1940s and early ‘50’s witnessed people shut up on grounds that they were communists. The charge had a way of getting applied even to mere socialists (who did not back the tactics of the communists) or liberal Democrats. Similarly, pacifists have often been shut down during war scares. Today’s intolerance is accomplished on the basis of exaggerated group interests—sexism of various kinds and, especially, racism. It is self-righteous and ferocious, ruining reputations based on a chance remark, destroying careers due to an ill-considered Tweet and even fomenting street violence and killing. This “woke” culture — smug in its assumption of a special awareness of the zeitgeist — Is opportunistic and nimble, quick to change and even reverse course, in what ultimately is a quest for power. It doesn’t like free speech for its opponents and it doesn’t debate.

Partly because of this woke assault, the habit of vigorous public debate — where each side is allowed a hearing — is being lost. Yet free speech and healthy debate are the very hallmarks of what supposedly distinguishes us in the West from the kind of ruthless censorship that characterizes communist or other totalitarian regimes. There’s no free speech or debate in China, North Korea, or Cuba.

People of good will can differ over where to draw the lines in the defense of free speech and fair speech, but most of us in the political camps of contemporary conservatism, centrism, and old-fashioned liberalism would err on the side of openness. Our heritage is strong in support of this preference, not only because of a regard for decency and fair play, but because of the practical need not to exclude unpopular speech, lest it morph through frustration into offensive action. This is the great tradition expressed by the likes of J. S. Mill, Voltaire, and Jefferson. John Milton, coming out of a period of intense civil strife in England, said of Truth, “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

Marxists have never supported free speech for anyone but themselves, and as soon as they take power, they always start suppressing free speech for others. Eventually, the revolution turns on its own members, of course. Today in America free speech is assailed by cultural Marxists who have arisen from a variety of European sources in the last century and are quite eager to suppress opinion of which they disapprove. They demand that authorities “follow the science,” until the science doesn’t support their cause, at which point they propose other standards. They supposedly despise “racism,” but they are quick to abandon and disrupt the democratic consensus of thought that stretches from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr. In place of equality, which can be objective, they smuggle in the term “equity,” which is subject to invidious interpretation.

There’s no need here to review further the sorry advance of “woke” culture; in many ways, it infiltrates and intimidates almost every major institution now. It does not, however, prevail in popular opinion, which remains common sensical and fair-minded. For example, put racial preferences on the ballot, even in progressive bastions like California, and they fail among nearly all demographic groups. The people in these demographic groups want to be treated as individuals, not types. They are canny enough to realize that once government (and big corporations) start down the path of group rights, tyranny is traveling close behind.

As a conservative, I care deeply about family, religion, and community, but I know that the kind of individual freedoms assured under our Constitution protect the associational identities that are most meaningful in life. In contrast, Marxism in power almost always destroys or at best harasses family, religion, and community. It hates individual rights.

Discovery Institute was organized as a community of scholars thirty years ago to advance a culture of purpose, creativity, and innovation. We still do that work. Early on, we were warmly welcomed in the arena of contesting ideas. It was easy, for example, to get op-eds published in the nation’s papers and magazines. Then, in the late 1990’s, The Columbia Journalism Review, and similar trend-setters, proposed that media didn’t really need to allow opinions on their forums that were just plain wrong, or “untrue”. This was sophistry, of course. What appears “untrue” to an editor would just happen to be any viewpoint he didn’t approve.

Soon cultural Marxism was on the march. We felt it at Discovery when media attacked scientists who raise doubts about Darwinian evolution and make arguments for intelligent design. Not only were they misrepresented in news coverage, they also were not allowed to speak for themselves. Some lost their jobs. Fortunately, their ranks have been growing strongly lately and new outlets have appeared. But meanwhile an added feature of intolerance has developed: the angry base that picks one media source or another as their own and demands that writers with whom they disagree be banned from it. Instead of speaking with one another, media have become distinct enemy camps.

Media demoralization was just the start. The illiberal trend finds one new target after another and one cause after another. Anti-racism seems to be a favorite Trojan Horse just now. It can mean lots of things and nothing. Critical Race Theory is an example of how to sour democratic progress with false claims of wrong-thinking.

So it is now that our Discovery fellow Chris Rufo has been denounced for calling attention to the promotion of Critical Race Theory in local, state, and federal government settings, and in universities that receive support from government. It has even been suggested—by Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times — that Rufo is against free speech (though the opposite is true) and will not debate Critical Race Theory (when a debate actually is sought by Rufo). The idea that criticizing Critical Race Theory programs is somehow anti-free speech is especially preposterous. Those programs are typically coercive, and they are themselves antithetical to free speech. Attendance is compelled, and the ability of participants to freely share their real views without punishment is nil. Critiquing such coercive programs is not an assault on free speech. It is a defense of it. Thus, claims that opposition to Critical Race Theory programs constitute an assault on free speech are nothing short of Orwellian. Such topsy-turvy contentions are not unusual among the woke these days. We not only have “anti-racists” who traffic in racists attacks on white people for the sin of being white, we have “anti-fascists” on urban streets of who use fascistic bully-boy tactics to gain attention and cow the authorities. And we have people who try to stymie free speech and debate who claim their critics are trying to stifle their free speech and will not debate them. What a sham!

This is a personal issue for me. My recent book, Politicians (Discovery Press, 2018), is largely a defense of free speech and real debate in the public square. Long ago, I started my political and writing career opposing real racists (segregationists) and political extremists like the John Birch Society on the far right. I don’t mind going after groups on the far right today, like the loons and goons who invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Indeed, they seem have a symbiotic relationship with the far left and use their opposites to stir up support. What all the extremists share is a disregard for other people’s rights and opinions, and a scant understanding of what a blessing it is to live in a country where differences can be worked out rather than fought out.

Let’s be clear: Discovery Institute will always stand up for free speech and fair speech. And for robust debate. We need others — regardless of politics — who will stand with us. 

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.