We're all getting something wrong when we view political correctness as fundamentally opposed to free speech.
Few issues have divided the nation further than the free speech vs. political correctness debate.
In addition to deepening the gap between conservatives and liberals, the debate tends to fracture the left, leading to dissent from the inside. This stems in part from the fact that many older liberals simply can't wrap their minds around the idea of political correctness.
Political Correctness: Censorship or Part of the Fight for Equality?
Critics of political correctness equate it to censorship, which they see as a threat to the all-American ideal of unbridled freedom. For most liberal millennials and Gen-Z kids, however, political correctness is about freedom, just of a different sort. It's really about shutting down hate speech and supporting marginalized communities.
Nowhere did this divide become clearer than in one of my lectures in college, a postmodernism class with a professor who I'd always seen as uniquely brilliant (and who also happened to teach a lesbian erotica class). She lost a lot of my respect when—as a white woman—she insisted that there was nothing really wrong with a white person saying the "n" word in solitude, prompting one of the few people of color in the class to raise her hand and ask: "Why are white people so desperate to say that one word?" The professor responded with a lecture about free speech and the insubstantiality of language, a response that felt misguided and totally out of touch.
This generational divide appeared again when prominent feminist and author Margaret Atwood published an op-ed critiquing the #MeToo movement. "My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones," she wrote. "They're not angels, incapable of wrongdoing." In short, Atwood was critiquing the #MeToo movement for the same reason that many people critique political correctness. They feel that restricting one's language, or giving the benefit of the doubt to and prioritizing the voices of certain demographics, is infantilizing or threatening to other demographics' freedoms.
On the other hand, many young liberals understand that political correctness is an important part of the process of giving respect to groups that have been and are still systematically oppressed. This political correctness can take the form of prioritizing people of color's voices, or calling out offensive speech—even, or especially, when it's the product of ignorance, or when it's conducted out of earshot of the people it might hurt.
What Toni Morrison Knew: Political Correctness and Free Speech Can Be the Same Thing
What we all need to understand is that, among other things, the left's internal war over political correctness and free speech actually presents a chance for generations to learn from each other. Defenders of political correctness might realize that sometimes, accidentally offensive language can present a valuable educational opportunity—though this is definitely not always the case, and no one should be required to educate others about why they deserve basic respect.
Older proponents of free speech, for their part, can realize that political correctness, safe spaces, and the like ultimately come from places of compassion. At their core, they are efforts to achieve a more equitable world.
Perhaps it's too starry-eyed to imagine that older allies could learn from younger people who refuse to accept middle-of-the-road policies or veiled racism, but some older people have certainly embraced progressive worldviews. "Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge," said Toni Morrison in a 1993 address about political correctness. Morrison, whose wisdom stretched far beyond the blind spots of her generation, was a supporter of what political correctness stands for, though not of the implications of that specific term. In a later interview, she added, "I believe that powerful, sharp, incisive, critical, bloody, dramatic, theatrical language is not dependent on injurious language, on curses. Or hierarchy."
In short, freedom of speech is not contingent on the ability to use offensive language. We can be free—in fact, we can only be free—when all of us are free, which will only happen when language that demonizes or injures certain groups is purged from acceptable discourse.
Ironically, the book we were discussing that day in my postmodernism class was Morrison's Beloved.
Image via the Washington Post
The WHCA will not invite a comedian to speak at the 2019 dinner due to "unusual moment" in history when Trump's threats to freedom of the press aren't funny.
According to The White House Correspondents' Association, tensions between the press and the Trump Administration are nothing to joke about. This year's annual fundraising dinner, which traditionally invites a comedian to roast the president and the press corps, will instead feature Ron Chernow, noted biographer of Alexander Hamilton, as its speaker.
Oliver Knox, the association's president, announced Chernow's selection on Monday, stating, "As we celebrate the importance of a free and independent news media to the health of the republic, I look forward to hearing Ron place this unusual moment in the context of American history."
Town & Country Magazine
Ironically, it's Trump's expected absence from the event that worries the association. Another facet of the annual tradition is for the seated president to speak first, jest with the press corps and perhaps poke fun at himself, and then the comedian parries back in their own speech. However, Trump has declined to attend the last two years, giving no indication that he plans to appear at the April 27th event with Chernow. Knox has noted that the president's absence can skew the tone of the room into feeling antagonistic toward the current administration, rather than a good-humored acknowledgement of differences.
In fact, last year's event (sans Trump) featured Michelle Wolf, who incurred the president's wrath and general backlash for her remarks. For instance, Wolf singled out White House reporters for empowering Trump, stating, "You helped create this monster, and now you're profiting off of him." Later Trump took to Twitter to denounce Wolf as a "filthy 'comedian'."
CNN - The Blaze
This year, Chernow is clarifying that "he's never been mistaken for a stand-up comedian," but he's aware of the "unusual moment" Knox speaks of, in terms of the fraught relationship between the Trump administration and the press. High points of tension include the widely publicized legal battle between CNN and the White House after CNN correspondent Jim Acosta's press pass was revoked and then reinstated by a judge after his network took the matter to court.
Stuck in the middle, Chernow released a statement, "The White House Correspondents' Association has asked me to make the case for the First Amendment and I am happy to oblige. Freedom of the press is always a timely subject and this seems like the perfect moment to go back to basics. My major worry these days is that we Americans will forget who we are as a people and historians should serve as our chief custodians in preserving that rich storehouse of memory."
The White House's decision to ban CNN's Jim Acosta is "dangerous" and "unprecedented."
CNN is suing President Trump in response to his administration's widely-disparaged ban and smear campaign of the media network's Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta.
The White House revoked Acosta's Secret Service "hard pass" in a decades-long breach of protocol last Wednesday night, preventing the journalist from accessing press-friendly spaces on White House grounds. Pointing to the First and Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit alleges that both Acosta and CNN's rights were violated by the suspension of these privileges.
In a statement released Tuesday morning, CNN announced that it filed its lawsuit in a DC District Court against six people, including the president, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, Chief of Staff John Kelly, Kelly's deputy William Shine, the U.S. Secret Service and its director Randolph Alles, as well as "John Doe," the currently-unidentified agent who denied Acosta access to the grounds. The defendants are named because of their roles in enforcing and announcing Acosta's suspension.
The lawsuit "demands the return of the White House credentials of CNN's Chief White House correspondent," according to the statement. "The wrongful revocation of these credentials violates CNN and Acosta's First Amendment rights of freedom of the press, and their Fifth Amendment rights to due process. We have asked this court for an immediate restraining order requiring the pass be returned to Jim, and will seek permanent relief as part of this process."
CNN's legal actions are the latest step in an escalating battle between President Trump and the media. Trump has shown particular antipathy to CNN, regularly deriding its reporters and the network as a whole. In light of the president going as far as to call the press "the enemy of the American people," it is fitting for there to be a lawsuit on the books titled "CNN vs. President Trump."
The White House responded to CNN's complaint in a statement by press secretary Sarah Sanders, accusing CNN of "grandstanding" by suing, and saying the administration "will vigorously defend against this lawsuit." Sanders previously alleged (in a tweet that is still live) that Acosta placed his hands on a female White House intern during a heated exchange with Trump last Wednesday.
"Mr. Acosta is no more or less special than any other media outlet or reporter with respect to the First Amendment," said Sanders. "After Mr. Acosta asked the President two questions—each of which the President answered—he physically refused to surrender a White House microphone to an intern, so that other reporters might ask their questions. This was not the first time this reporter has inappropriately refused to yield to other reporters."
Trump's warlike stance against journalists, and his specific action to ban Acosta, flies in the face of decades of tradition and precedent. White House administrations on both sides of the aisle have sought to be accommodating of the press, erring on the side of inclusion, even for non-mainstream outlets. The well-known First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams thinks CNN has a strong case in the precedent set by the 1977 ruling in favor of Robert Sherrill, a conservative journalist who was also denied access to the White House.
Furthermore, federal guidelines require that "officials of the Secret Service will be guided solely by the principle of whether the applicant presents a potential source of physical danger to the President and/or the family of the President so serious as to justify his or her exclusion from White House press privileges." The administration has made no claims that Acosta presents a physical danger to Trump during his press briefings.
Abrams points out that those denied press privileges, "have to have notice… a chance to respond, and… a written opinion by the White House as to what it's doing and why, so the courts can examine it." He adds that, "We've had none of those things [in Trump's banning of Acosta]," giving weight to CNN's claim of due process violation.
As noted in CNN's statement, "While the suit is specific to CNN and Acosta, this could have happened to anyone. If left unchallenged, the actions of the White House would create a dangerous chilling effect for any journalist who covers our elected officials."
CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker emphasized the importance of taking action in an internal memo. "This is not a step we have taken lightly. But the White House action is unprecedented," Zucker said.
The White House revokes CNN reporter Jim Acosta's press pass with "fraudulent accusations" of assault.
Trump's vilification of the press as "an enemy of the people" reached a crescendo on Wednesday when CNN's chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta was banned from the property "until further notice." The dismissal followed a heated exchange between him and Trump during a press conference.
Acosta first shared on Twitter that he'd been barred from the White House grounds.
I’ve just been denied entrance to the WH. Secret Service just informed me I cannot enter the WH grounds for my 8pm hit— Jim Acosta (@Jim Acosta) 1541637988.0
During a press conference earlier that day, Acosta questioned Trump's description of the migrant caravan approaching the US border from Central America as an "invasion." He then baldly asked about Russia's involvement in the 2016 presidential election, to which the president opted to lob insults at Acosta and CNN, including calling Acosta a "rude, terrible person."
Trump prevented the reporter from asking follow up questions, declaring, "That's enough" and, "Put down the mic!" A female aide approached and attempted to physically wrestle the microphone away from Acosta. This was the contentious point that Press Secretary Sarah Huckerbee Sanders referred to on Twitter after confirming that Acosta's press access had been revoked. Sanders claimed the decision was the result of him putting "his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern."
President Trump believes in a free press and expects and welcomes tough questions of him and his Administration. We… https://t.co/XxV2eSklwK— Sarah Sanders (@Sarah Sanders) 1541638103.0
Shamefully, Sanders followed up by posting a clip of doctored footage from the incident. Paul Joseph Watson, editor of the infamously fallacious Infowars website, edited and shared the video on Twitter before Sanders posted it, stating, "We will not tolerate the inappropriate behavior clearly documented in this video."
Acosta simply posted his response to the accusation as "a lie," as accurate footage of the press conference clearly shows his lack of aggression towards the intern. CNN has responded on Twitter by condemning Trump's "disturbingly un-American" attacks on the press and asserting that they "stand behind Jim Acosta and his fellow journalists everywhere." They've also posted undoctored footage of the exchange "for the world to see."
Here is a video of the interaction for the world to see: https://t.co/us8u5TWzDz— CNN Communications (@CNN Communications) 1541642564.0
In addition, CNN denounced the White House's decision and Sanders' "fraudulent accusations." In a statement, they asserted that Acosta's ban "was done in retaliation for his challenging questions at today's press conference. In an explanation, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders lied. She provided fraudulent accusations and cited an incident that never happened. This unprecedented decision is a threat to our democracy and the country deserves better."
While Fox News reporter Chris Wallace agreed that Acosta's actions were "shameful," the White House Correspondents' Association finds Acosta's ban "unacceptable." In a statement, they urge the White House to "immediately reverse this weak and misguided action."
Trump and his administration have an infamous history of combating the press. In October, the writers organization and free speech advocacy group PEN America filed to sue President Trump in federal court "to stop President Trump from using the machinery of government to retaliate or threaten reprisals against journalists and media outlets for coverage he dislikes."
Neither Sarah Sanders nor the White House has made further comment on Acosta's press credentials since Wednesday.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment.
The social networking site Gab has been taken offline since it was confirmed that the Pittsburgh synagogue gunman used it to post anti-Semitic hate speech and to threaten Jews. The site is popular with the far right and describes itself as "an ad-free social network for creators who believe in free speech, individual liberty, and the free flow of information online. All are welcome." Gab was originally created by conservative businessman Andrew Torba in response to Twitter clamping down on hate speech in 2016.
Robert Bowers logged onto the platform shortly before killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday to post the following.
Consequently, the site has been abandoned by payment processing firms PayPal and Stripe, as well as hosting service Joyent and domain register GoDaddy. A statement on Gab's website Monday read that the platform would be "inaccessible for a period of time" as it switches to a new web host. It said the issue was being worked on "around the clock." The statement went on to defend the website, saying, "We have been systematically no-platformed [and] smeared by the mainstream media for defending free expression and individual liberty for all people."
Regarding Bowers' use of the site, Torba said, "Because he was on Gab, law enforcement now have definitive evidence for a motive," Mr. Torba wrote. "They would not have had this evidence without Gab. We are proud to work with and support law enforcement in order to bring justice to this alleged terrorist."
But companies associated with Gab were not satisfied by the site's cooperation with law enforcement and continue to abandon the site. PayPal, the platform Gab used to manage donations from users, said in a statement, "When a site is explicitly allowing the perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance, we take immediate and decisive action."
A tweet from Gab on Monday morning implied that the people behind the site believe themselves to be a victim of intentional defamation.
Set aside the questionable intent of the decidedly tone-deaf tweet; and, legally, Gab did not do anything wrong. Contrary to popular belief, there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. The Supreme Court reaffirmed this in 2017 in Matal vs. Tal, deciding, "Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful...the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express 'the thought that we hate.'" Despite this, many people are calling for the permanent removal of the site, as Wired points out, "Momentary political rage can blind people into abandoning sacred values."
However, the internet inarguably contributes to the creation of extremists, as we have seen in the case of terrorists, rapists, school shooters, and now the synagogue shooter in Pittsburgh. Sites like Gab allows users to easily find other people who share their most extreme viewpoints, inevitably normalizing disturbing rhetoric the user may have otherwise suppressed or self-corrected in time. Therefore, sites like Gab become polarizing spaces that can help to sew the kinds of ideas that lead to violent acts. But, if there's no legal action to be taken against a site like Gab without damaging free speech, what can be done?
Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his opinion following Matal vs. Tal, "A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government's benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society."
While what exactly those safeguards are remains unclear, one can speculate that what Kennedy meant is exactly what Gab calling unjust now. As previously mentioned, the site has been abandoned by all of the companies whose services were needed for the site to remain online. And just as Gab has the right to allow freedom of expression on their site as they see fit, these companies are also free to express themselves in refusing to work with websites that allow hateful rhetoric.
Indeed, the conversation surrounding the fate of Gab has revealed that freedom of speech online is not decided by the government, but by social media platforms, servers, and domain registers who are free to decide with what kind of opinion their company wants to be associated. This also means that, on some level, what is seen as acceptable online is driven by consumer outrage and approval.
For example, after facing criticism for allowing users to post prejudiced content, larger social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook have been actively fighting against hateful rhetoric with varying degrees of success. In 2016, a code of conduct was established by the European Union in collaboration with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft. The code is aimed at fighting racism and xenophobia and encourages the social media companies to remove hate speech from their platforms.
So, instead of outraged Americans calling for the legal suppression of sites like Gab — an impossibility if the First Amendment is to remain intact — the real power of the individual to fight hate speech is in one's ability to support or boycott companies based on how they handle free expression.
Brooke Ivey Johnson is a Brooklyn based writer, playwright, and human woman. To read more of her work visit her blog or follow her twitter @BrookeIJohnson.
Getting to know your Constitution and the rights it guarantees you.
Can you recite the five central freedoms protected by the First Amendment? If not, you aren't alone. The New York Times, citing a recent study by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, revealed that just over half the people surveyed knew that our First Amendment protects freedom of speech, under 25% knew that it protects freedom of religion, under 20% knew that it protects freedom of the press, 14% knew that it protects freedom of association and only 6% knew that it protects the right to petition the government for grievances. Yet another survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 37% of Americans could not even name one right protected under the First Amendment. Back in 2006, one in four Americans could name one right, but more than half could name at least two members of the cartoon family, The Simpsons.
Ironically, according to an August 2017 telephone survey, 73% of Americans think the right to free speech is worth dying for. Clearly, there is a disconnect between being willing to die for something and not knowing what it is you're willing to die for–time to bridge that gap. You can't properly exercise, let alone protect, your rights if you don't know what they are.
The First Amendment to the Constitution was adapted into the Bill of Rights in 1791. Here it is:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
In other words, The First Amendment guarantees freedoms relating to religion, expression (speech and press), assembly, and petition. Here are some recent examples of the First Amendment at work.
Freedom of Expression
Self-proclaimed white supremacists marching down the streets of Charlottesville chanting "Jews will not replace us," were exercising their First Amendment right to expression. When Donald Trump stated that there is "No collusion between Trump and Russia" or that "Black homeownership just hit the highest level it has ever been in the history of our country," he was also exercising his First Amendment rights. Speech doesn't have to be true to be protected. In fact, many lies, intentional or not, are protected by the First Amendment, though there are exceptions in cases of libel or defamation of character. Other examples of speech not protected by the First Amendment are:
Incitement to imminent lawless action
Solicitations to commit crimes
Plagiarism of copyrighted material
Freedom of Speech
The First Amendment right to free speech is at the center of the national debate about our rights on social media. Is blocking an individual on Twitter or removing unflattering comments (as President Trump has done) a violation of one's right to freedom of speech? Is there even a right to free speech on social media platforms that are owned by private corporations? As reported by Lincoln Caplan in the 10/11/17 issue of Wired, The Knight First Amendment Institute sued President Trump to force him to unblock the people he had blocked. The Institute argued that the President had violated users' rights to free speech because he only blocked people who disagreed with him.
Freedom of Religion
When the Alabama State Supreme Court ruled that then Judge Roy Moore had to remove the 10 Commandments from his court room, they were protecting our First Amendment right stating that "government shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion." Because Roy Moore posted the 10 Commandments in his role as a public servant and not as a private citizen, declaring his personal views were, in this case, a violation of the First Amendment and not an expression of his First Amendment rights.
Freedom of Assembly and Petition
A recent debate is centered around whether or not environmental protesters' First Amendment rights were violated when they were forcibly removed from the Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota. According to Jennifer Cook, policy director of the ACLU of North Dakota, "The right to protest is fundamental to our democracy and the interference with that right by agents of the counties and the state of North Dakota violates both the spirit and letter of the First Amendment. As the courts in this state have recognized, the First Amendment forbids the enactment of laws 'abridging the freedom of speech ... or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.'" The protest at the Dakota Access pipeline is precisely the type of assembly protected by the First Amendment. Peaceful protest is at the core of the First Amendment and restrictions to such activity, such as the closing of highways with the effect of preventing assembly or effective messaging of protesters, should be viewed skeptically. Law enforcement agents have a duty to ensure that the rights of protesters are protected, not just the rights of corporations. While law enforcement officers have a right to ensure the safety of all of our citizens, this goal should be achieved by ensuring that all citizens, including protesters, are protected and that there are enough police in place to prevent violence, but not prevent peaceful protest or assembly."
Applying the First Amendment to real life situations is not always black and white. For example, law enforcement officials can put time, place, and manner restrictions on protests. Rules can vary from city to city, but law enforcement can require permits for large groups, for marches that black traffic, or for protests that will create a lot of noise. As with most situations relating to rights and laws, First Amendment principles are open and subject to interpretation. But as we watch debates about our freedom of speech and freedom of the press play out in real time, it's useful and necessary to know what it is that we are protecting.