The Republican Party Is Not the Party of Free Speech

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

hen the Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of a corporation to engage in free speech in the infamous Citizens United case of 2010, it spawned a massive backlash amongst Americans across the political spectrum. The court’s decision was a bitter pill for many to swallow, especially for those who agreed that the decision was logically sound but lamented its potential ramifications. Their immediate concern was the very real possibility that corporations’ enormous influence over American politics would increase by orders of magnitude, a concern that even many conservatives admitted they shared.

There were, however, some conservative voices who passionately defended the court’s ruling on the grounds that freedom of speech is for everyone, including corporations. They reminded us over and over again that the value of free speech as a national ethos depends on its universality, and they insisted that the government shouldn’t be in the business of policing anyone’s political speech, no matter whether the source of that speech was a private citizen’s keyboard or a private company’s boardroom.

As a traditional liberal who identifies as a free speech extremist — a confession that brings me no shame whatsoever — I’ve often found myself standing on the same side of the free speech issue as those conservatives.

One of the most notable controversies that brought me over to the conservative side was the controversy over the San Antonio City Council’s decision to punish Chick-fil-A for its past opposition to same-sex marriage and financial contributions to socially conservative organizations.

The council’s decision was, in my opinion, totally indefensible. No government body should have the capacity to sanction a private institution for exercising its right to support a political cause, even if that cause is widely perceived as bigoted and intolerant. When businesses engage in protected speech, their fate should rest in the hands — or should I say wallets — of American consumers.

Consumer activism enjoys just as much protection under the First Amendment as corporate speech. If you think Chick-fil-A’s opposition to gay marriage crossed a moral line, you’re free to stop doing business with them and encourage everyone you know to do the same. And if you feel that strongly about it, you can even stage a protest outside your local Chick-fil-A or organize a national boycott of the company.

But there is something extraordinarily sinister and dangerous about government bodies punishing companies for purely political reasons. When the San Antonio City Council chose to punish Chick-fil-A for supporting a regressive cause, it did so in part to intimidate other conservative companies and send them a message that there is no place for their right-wing politics or religious convictions in the city of San Antonio.

That kind of power shouldn’t be entrusted to any government body or agency. It should reside exclusively in the hands of the people.

If you guessed that Republicans agree with me, you’re correct — at least in the case of Chick-fil-A. After San Antonio blocked Chick-fil-A from opening a restaurant in the city’s airport, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 1978 into law. The new law banned government bodies from taking “adverse actions” against companies because of their religious beliefs and was regarded by many conservatives as an unmitigated victory for freedom of speech.

Throughout the 2010s, Republicans invested a great deal of time and energy into rebranding their party as the party of free speech. They rallied behind conservative companies like Hobby Lobby, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and the aforementioned Chick-fil-A, arguing that business owners should have the freedom to operate their businesses in accordance with their values and beliefs. They loudly and enthusiastically condemned the oft-successful efforts of left-wing activists to censor speakers on college campuses. And they not only called attention to the chilling effect that cancel culture has had on political discourse, but also tried to counter that effect through the creation of online platforms like Gab and Parler, both of which have marketed themselves as more open and less regulated alternatives to the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

Between the push to censor right-wing voices on college campuses and the ACLU’s retreat in the fight to preserve the First Amendment rights of all Americans, there are valid reasons to be concerned about the future of free speech in America. That’s why, for a period of time, it was tempting to believe that maybe the Republican Party was gearing up to make a principled stand on this issue. But for those of us old enough to remember just how much Republicans used to adore censorship, that hope was dampened by a lingering, potent skepticism.

I vividly recall the rantings and ravings of the many social conservatives who demanded that online pornography be banned. I also recall the scores of conservative parents who insisted that Harry Potter be removed from school libraries because of its positive — and, it should be noted, entirely fictional — portrayal of witchcraft. And I will certainly never forget the impassioned pleas of Republican senators who, in 2006, sought to ban desecration of the American flag because they found it hurtful and pointlessly antagonistic.

That being said, people do change, as do political parties and the movements they support. So when Republicans appeared ready to fight the good fight and pick up the torch of free speech, it wasn’t entirely irrational to believe that their intentions might be sincere.

Sadly, that’s not the case anymore. After the events of the past few years, it’s become abundantly clear that there isn’t much room in today’s Republican Party for principled supporters of free speech.

The GOP’s latest assault on free speech took place last week in Tallahassee, Florida, where Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that revokes the Walt Disney Company’s special district status.

Republican politicians and their allies in conservative media are pulling every trick in the book to try and fool their critics into believing that this move is anything but an attack on free speech. The most popular counterargument has thus far been that DeSantis and his allies in the Florida state legislature are just forcing Disney to play by the same rules as every other corporation in the Sunshine State. And to be fair, that would be a perfectly reasonable position to take if the Florida GOP had done this any time before Disney spoke out against the Parental Rights in Education bill (aka the “Don’t Say Gay” bill) that DeSantis signed into law last month.

But that’s not what happened. DeSantis and the Florida GOP weren’t trying to simply level the corporate playing field or make sure that Disney pays its fair share of taxes. They targeted Disney because Disney chose to use its First Amendment right to advocate for the repeal of a conservative law.

Where I come from, we call that retaliation. In this case, however, the retaliation didn’t come from a left-wing government body like the San Antonio City Council, nor was it aimed at a conservative company like Chick-fil-A. This time, the retaliation originated with a hypocritical, authoritarian Florida GOP that used government power to punish Disney for exercising its constitutional right to speak out against a law it doesn’t support. If that doesn’t constitute a state-sponsored assault on the First Amendment, I don’t know what does.

The GOP’s ongoing battle with Disney may represent the party’s most conspicuous attack on free speech in recent years, but it’s hardly an isolated case. Last year, Republican legislatures across the nation passed a series of laws designed to stifle discussions about racism in school classrooms. The laws’ supporters contend that these so-called “critical race theory laws” serve the much more innocent purpose of protecting students’ feelings, and that their passage is a routine exercise in state governance. But the sad reality is that these laws were created to filter progressive viewpoints out of classroom discussions and ensure that students are given a whitewashed account of the impact and legacy of racism in America.

On the book-banning front, conservatives and progressives have been engaged in a tit-for-tat power struggle for years. But after former President Trump was kicked out of the White House in 2020, conservative parents and activists redoubled their efforts to banish progressive works from school libraries and curricula — and they’re accumulating victories at a disturbingly high rate.

Books featuring stories about LGBTQ characters are a popular target for socially conservative parents. That’s especially true in Texas, where Governor Abbot’s concerns about students’ exposure to “obscene” material has been used as a pretext to ban books about transgenderism, abortion, and same-sex relationships. According to an analysis conducted by PEN America, there were 1,586 book bans in schools across the country from July 31, 2021 to March 31, 2022. Nearly half of those bans — 713 — occurred in the state of Texas.

The list of excuses being made in defense of all this censorship is as long as it is cowardly. The truth is that no self-respecting advocate of free speech would ever shy away from having potentially uncomfortable discussions about controversial topics. On the contrary, the spirit of free speech necessarily precludes censorship as an antidote to (allegedly) bad speech. American culture has long held the right to speak one’s mind as sacrosanct precisely because it’s the most efficient means of identifying and discrediting bad ideas so that good ideas can emerge victorious.

Censorship, on the other hand, is the path one takes when they’re too scared to engage their opponents in a good-faith debate, either because they know their own ideas are too fragile to withstand scrutiny, or because they doubt their ability to dissect the flaws in their opponents’ arguments.

Censorship is also a terribly counterproductive path. Whenever you try to suppress an idea, you run the risk of turning it into an alluring forbidden fruit that curious minds simply can’t resist. This is what’s known as the Streisand effect, a phenomenon that Republicans ought to understand better than anyone.

When the New York Post broke the Hunter Biden laptop story in 2020, no one outside of the Republican Party cared much about it. But when Twitter decided to censor the story, it went viral, and Americans were treated to a real-time demonstration of the Streisand effect and its unmatched ability to steer political discussions in an entirely new direction. An analysis from media intelligence firm Zignal Labs later concluded that Twitter’s decision almost doubled the amount of attention the Hunter Biden story received.

One can only hope that the same thing will happen to all the marginalized authors, progressive thinkers, and LGBTQ students whose voices are being suppressed by authoritarian Republicans like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott. Their thoughts, ideas, and perspectives deserve to be debated and discussed both outside and inside the classroom. And if Republicans aren’t willing to protect a student’s right to engage in that exercise, they should stop pretending to be the party of free speech.

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D.A. Kirk

Outer space enthusiast. Japanese history junkie. I write about politics, culture, and mental illness. Disagreement is a precursor to progress.