Has Free Speech Been Cancelled?

First in a Six-Part Series by Larry Greenfield
April 16, 2021
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“Speak the speech,” says Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  “Own your voice” and “speak truth to power” we hear in the streets. All sentiments ring true, but may also be taken for granted. Freedom of speech did not come about easily, and it may not be so free.

50,000 to 100,000 years ago, early humans in deserts, mountains, beachfronts, forests and farmlands established language to allow for invention, specialization, negotiation and trade.

So began speech, a social technology that is compositional. Animals bark and meow, grunt and roar, and have sophisticated non-verbal communication, but they cannot tell a story, recount the past, discuss the future, or create poetry, plays or prose.

René Descartes posited, “I think, therefore I am,” and in so doing established the philosophical principle of personal existence. Human evolution’s implicit claim, on the other hand, is “we speak, therefore we relate.”

There are some 7,000 spoken languages on our planet today, and about half as many written ones. Billions of independent human minds evidence an obviously diverse range of existence, but the concept of our individual “freedom” of speech had to be developed, enshrined, protected and nurtured.

As we shall discover, the right to speak or write one’s mind is a messy but meaningful natural right, one worth affirming rather than censoring or cancelling.

My series of columns on free speech begins with religious guidance that demands morality in our speech and then reveals a history of governmental rule that continues to punish unauthorized speech.

My series of columns on free speech begins with religious guidance that demands morality in our speech and then reveals a history of governmental rule that continues to punish unauthorized speech.

We then observe the western Enlightenment, which advocated for individual conscience and helped to influence the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the legal jurisprudence expanding its protections.

The recent “progressive” counter-trend away from free speech principles in academia, the press, Hollywood, and other institutions has been driven by the new politics of political correctness, racial identitarianism, and the rise of what many have identified as the woke “cancel culture.”

The censorship of authors, books and opinions is now causing an equally dangerous phenomenon of self-censorship. The unique power of “Big Tech” challenges us to address private internet companies that are unilaterally and unfairly de-platforming citizens.

Fortunately, many heroes of free speech are fighting back, and they merit our attention. Innovation may help new voices emerge, as on the quickly growing app Clubhouse, a new type of social network based on voice, where people from around the world can engage in uncensored conversation in real time.

Finally, we seek to rediscover some first principles of civility in our speech. Assuming we protect our democratic right to speak freely, how can we converse and argue to our mutual benefit?

“Hear O’ Israel.” Listen with moral seriousness and an open heart. Today, public expression of views is under sustained challenge from what both Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln would have referred to as a “mobocratic spirit.” The American experiment in self-government requires nothing less than a serious contemplation of the rise, fall and potential reinvigoration of our freedom to speak and our right and duty to listen productively to one another.

Controlling Our Speech: Ethics and Authority

The Ethical Tradition: Religion and Speech

In the Jewish tradition we are called the “medaber,” creatures with the ability to form relationships through speech, which enables us to move beyond mere animal survival to philosophical inquiry and moral and ethical choice.

In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tempts Eve, and soon she and Adam verbally deceive God, as does their son Cain, who says Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9).  Genesis features countless family stories that reveal our collective struggle between deception and truthful expression.

Exodus (4:11) teaches, Who gives man speech, is it not I, the Lord? God’s covenant includes his ethical words of command—the aseret hadibrot, (Ten Commandments) — including the 9th Commandment, Do Not Bear False Witness (Ex 20:16).

King Solomon asserted that life and death are in the hands of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21).  And yet, in “The Ethics of the Fathers,” a great sage says in all my life, I have found nothing wiser than silence.” This beautiful sentiment is elegantly echoed by Rabbi David Wolpe in his book “In Speech and in Silence: The Jewish Quest for God,” where he notes that while songs, parables and prayers form a lasting culture, we make allowance with sensitivity for the injured and mute, and for non-verbal communication that reflects our tears and our fears.

Moses the lawgiver grappled with a speech impediment (“I am not a man of words…for I am of slow speech”), and yet he was chosen to speak to God. Before the plagues and the escape, Moses also spoke to Pharaoh on behalf of God, asserting Let my people go.”

God too speaks, commanding the Jewish people to pass on their inheritance and destiny by telling their children the Passover story of liberation. “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went forth from Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8).

The Torah seeks to balance the many stories of prevarication—recall the deception of Jacob, who pretended to be his brother Esau in order to steal his inheritance—with those of truth-tellers, like the righteous Noah and the suffering Job, who states with integrity “my lips will speak no wrong, nor my tongue utter deceit” (Job 27:3-5).

The religious priority for human speech then is to respect the sovereignty of God and use care not to denigrate spiritual authority. Also of great importance is the mandate to speak with care and to avoid using our words to harm others.

The religious priority for human speech then is to respect the sovereignty of God and use care not to denigrate spiritual authority.

Featured prominently in the rich Talmudic teachings are the laws of “lashon hara,” the imperative against “evil” speech, which is blamed for the destruction of the Holy Temple and seen in the punishment of Moses’ sister Miriam (Numbers 12:1-14).

We learn in the Mishnah, the first major book of Rabbinic literature, about the sages Hillel and Shammai, and their vigorous but respectful disagreements (some 300) over Jewish law, belief, and ritual practice. As a model, the house of Hillel is admired for showing humility and respect to opposing views, even verbalizing them with accuracy before presenting the counter-argument.

We are not to contradict a teacher or to speak before one who is wiser and we have an affirmative duty to speak up to protect an innocent or to prevent harm. The Chofetz Chaim, a leading rabbi at the turn of the 20th century, considered the prohibitions against unholy speech as the key to maintaining personal reputations and our spiritual relationship with God.

Reverence for God and religion is a serious principle. In Leviticus 24:10-13 the penalty for the offense of blasphemy is capital punishment (though not applied).

Christian theology adopted the Hebrew Bible’s (or the Old Testament’s) strict demand for respect in speaking about God. Jesus himself was accused of blasphemy and crucified for political offenses. His follower Stephen was stoned to death in the first century C.E. for publicly condemning the execution of Jesus, and other early Christians were killed for refusing to be silent about their beliefs.

As the Church grew powerful it sometimes enforced its objection to other faiths, and Christians whose views differed were persecuted. In the pre-Enlightenment period John Southworth, a Roman Catholic, was executed in 1654 for refusing to stop preaching. A Protestant, John Bunyan, who wrote “Pilgrim’s Progress,” was jailed in 1660 for preaching without a license.

Today, of course, many Christians profess a sincere advocacy for the ethical teachings of the Bible, including speaking up for the voiceless; not taking to heart all criticism; avoiding quarrel over opinions; refraining from turning a truth-teller into an enemy; being patient and kind in speech and quick to hear and slow to speak; and understanding that we will give an accounting for our careless words. Christians are taught that from the same mouth comes both blessings and curses. Proverbs 18:21 teaches death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”

Many Islamic scholars observe a strict tradition of “scholarly consensus” that “abrogates” newer, alternative interpretive voices in the study of religious rulings based on Koranic law.

Upon the 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” inspired in part by the life of Muhammad, violent demonstrations exploded across the Middle East and Europe. Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini banned the book and announced a $5 million fatwa on author Rushdie’s head. In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh directed a short film called “Submission” meant to support women’s rights in Muslim communities. He was shot and stabbed to death by an Islamic assailant.

The Sikh community reacted violently in London to the 2004 play titled “Behzti” (“Dishonor”). In 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a sketch of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. The cartoon was republished and broadcast across the Middle East, and hundreds of people were killed in protests. From Syria to Nigeria to Indonesia, Danish embassies were attacked, bombed, and burned, as were Italian and Norwegian missions. The anger continued in 2006 when a “day of rage” killed scores more.

Political cartoons labeled as disrespectful to Muhammad inspired the 2015 terror attack on the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo.

In recent years many Christian publishers such as Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel, and Tilmann Geske have been murdered by Muslim Turks. Rami Ayyad, a Palestinian Christian, was found dead after receiving death threats.

The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered in 2002 for his journalistic investigations of Al Qaeda, and the paper has since covered many instances of the criminalization of criticism of radical Islam.

Authoritarianism: Governments and Speech

This record of religious authority against unwelcome opinions has been matched in both eastern and western secular societies.

The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, sought to control all political thought by executing scholars and burning all books of history and philosophy as subversive. Failure to adhere to these directives was punished by sending offenders off to hard labor to build the Great Wall of China.

In contrast, the ancient Greek word “parrhesia,” (“to speak candidly”) was favored as foundational to the pursuit of democracy. The rise of philosophers, playwrights, and poets in Athens offered early momentum for open discussion of politics and religion.

However, in 399, BC, perhaps the greatest of Greek philosophers, Socrates, was condemned to death for his independence of thought.  His student Plato revealed his simple defense: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Skeptics, stoics and cynics who agreed on not much else all admired Socrates, the father of western philosophy, as the model proponent for questioning everything in the pursuit of truth and wisdom. Law students learn through the “Socratic method,” which sharply challenges views until clarity is found.

In Campo de’ Fiori, Rome’s famous marketplace near the place where Julius Caesar was murdered, Italian heretics were executed, such as magician and gnostic cultist Giordano Bruno, who was burned alive after 6 years of imprisonment.  His final defense declared, “Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it.”

Englishman William Tyndale, translator of the first Bible printed in English, was executed, as was printer John Twyn, who published a pamphlet justifying the right to rebellion. Sir Thomas More was famously killed for exercising the freedom not to speak at all (in support of the annulment of the marriage of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.)

In the modern era, of course, totalitarian governments have targeted free speech. The Nazis banned books, pamphlets, and meetings and persecuted the famous White Rose movement of brave students at the University of Munich, led by the martyred Sophie Scholl.

In the modern era, of course, totalitarian governments have targeted free speech.

Free thinkers oppressed by the former Soviet Union included famous Soviet novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, and Jewish refusenik Anatoly Sharansky among many others.

The Russian state has allegedly resorted to poisonings of political opponents and continues its oppression of independent-minded business leaders such as the noted journalist of the Chechen wars Anna Politkovskaya.

The long list of writers and activists from around the world persecuted for their speech includes South African anti-apartheid campaigner and writer Steve Biko, Lasantha Wickrematunge from Sri Lanka, Hrant Dink from Turkey and prominent Mexican journalists, including Javier Valdez Cárdenas and Jonathan Rodríguez Córdova.

Unfortunately, even the early American experience included the witch trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where 19 colonial victims were killed based on a public hysteria.

Eventually, the western Enlightenment set the foundation for the expansion of freedom of religious conscience and political expression, found most prominently in the American First Amendment. As we shall discover, however, our legal path to secure freedom of speech from government regulation will still invite our analysis of those within our culture who seek to police and punish what they deem to be offensive speech.

Larry Greenfield is a Fellow of The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.


The Speech Project is an initiative of the Jewish Journal that brings together some of the most compelling voices from across the political spectrum to address the topic of free speech. In a cultural moment where civil liberties often seem to be under siege, we encourage freedom of expression, independent thinking, and personal choice. The articles, podcasts, books, and other resources you’ll find here all challenge the growing illiberalism of our time in their pursuit of balance and authenticity.

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