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Progressive agenda to restrict free speech must be stopped

By Bill Connor

Late last year at Yale Law School, Native American law student Trent Colbert became the latest victim of cancel culture and the woke mob. Trent is part of the Yale Native American fraternity “NALSA” and sent an invitation to fellow law school friends to join him in a party of both NALSA and the Federalist Society. His email invitation was benign but included the term “trap house,” which subsequently caused a firestorm of condemnation. Trent described attacks he immediately received: “Barely 12 hours after I sent the invitation, two discrimination and harassment coordinators from the law school’s Office of Student Affairs scheduled a meeting with me [and] repeatedly urged me to issue a public apology.” The woke officials warned things would “escalate.” According to Trent, “I was told my use of the term ‘trap house’ indicated ‘inherently anti-black sentiment.’ As a Gen-Zer, I’ve always known ‘trap house’ to be synonymous with ‘party house.’ … The popular understanding of ‘trap house’ in no way suggests it is a racial slur.” The discrimination coordinators quickly sent an email to Trent’s entire law school class “condemn(ing) in the strongest possible terms” Trent’s “pejorative and racist language.” Yes, this is the same Yale in which a speaker told students in April she “fantasizes about shooting white people in the head.” This is but one of example of woke attacks on free speech as progressives increasingly exhort us to follow European censorships.

Progressive calls to follow their cherished European model of censorship were probably best summed up in the fall 2020 New York Times Magazine essay by Emily Bazelon. In it, Bazelon marginalized the traditional “article of faith in the United States that more speech is better and that the government should regulate it as little as possible” and then questioned “the way we have come to think about the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech” as simplistic — and especially inadequate for our era.” Bazelon went on to offer her better alternative: “Other democracies, in Europe and elsewhere, have taken a different approach. Despite more regulations on speech, these countries remain democratic.”

It’s important to understand what most Europeans use as authority for free speech “rights.” Member states of the European Union follow Article 10 of the “Convention of Human Rights” for determining limits of free speech. Unlike the clear First Amendment language of “Congress shall make no law” infringing free speech, Article 10 allows for restriction of speech by government. It uses terms as vague as “health and morals” to allow for those restrictions. In my experience of living in Europe for many years, I found the European value of free speech to be quite distinct from the American version. Generally, Europeans will agree that people should have freedom of speech but will caveat that is not as an unqualified right. Government, many argue, may censor for the perceived collective good. In various places in Europe, like Finland, this means that quoting from the Bible about sexuality can bring felony prosecution as hate speech.

During a Pew research poll of the six primary European Union members, almost half of the respondents were not opposed to censoring speech that might be found offensive, including 70 percent of Germans and 62 percent of Italians. A primary argument for censoring “hate” speech in Europe is preventing fascism, Nazism and the Holocaust. Ironically, history gives the opposite conclusion. As Danish newspaper editor Flemming Rose has written: “I found that, contrary to what most people think, Weimar Germany did have hate-speech laws, and they were applied quite frequently. … Leading Nazis such as Joseph Goebbels, Theodore Fritsch and Julius Streicher were all prosecuted for anti-Semitic speech … Rather than deterring … the many court cases served as effective public-relations machinery. … The courts became an important platform for Streicher’s campaign against the Jews.” Trying to suppress speech is much less effective then illuminating and debating it.

Progressives have pushed their favored European model of censorship through woke indoctrination, as with examples like Trent Colbert and the arguments of Emily Bazelon. The continual propaganda in favor of hate speech censorship from Democratic politicians, mainstream media and academia has had an unfortunate effect on our values. As author and senior writer for the National Review, David Harsanyi has written, “Many polls show an increasing openness to hate-speech laws in the U.S.” A recent Pew survey found that 40 percent of millennials are okay with limiting speech offensive to minorities. Another found 50 percent of Democrats have warmed to the idea of banning “hate speech.” Democratic politicians have attempted to use scare tactics of a domestic extremism danger or public health disinformation to censor speech they disfavor.

Autocracies show that when speech is censored, all other rights quickly dissolve. That is our direction now. After Jesus was crucified, the Apostles Peter and John were ordered not to speak in His name by the ruling authorities (Acts 4). Their reply is one of the earliest examples of pushback against censorship, an example we should follow now: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Freedom of speech is at the heart of being an American and cannot go the way of Europe.

Bill Connor is a 1990 Citadel graduate, 30-year Army infantry colonel (ret.) and combat veteran. He is a writer and attorney and lives in the Charleston area.

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