Heroes of Free Speech

Fifth in a Six-Part Series by Larry Greenfield
May 21, 2021
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To read Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 in this series, click here, here, here and here.

Reporters Without Borders, an organization that has been defending press freedom for more than 30 years, regularly documents the abuse of independent journalists throughout the world. In at least 200 countries, investigative reporters bravely seek to uncover government corruption, human rights abuses and anti-democratic forces that oppress citizen demands for religious liberty, free government and fair treatment under the law. That there exists an organization dedicated to the protection of journalists committed to these ends underscores the pervasiveness of the global threat to freedom of speech and press.

The Columbia Journalism Review points to the oppression of journalists in Hong Kong, for example, by Chinese censors. The Iranian regime is frequently charged with attacking journalists both domestically and throughout the Middle East region. And Turkey, Russia and many other nations with very troubling records of restrictions on press freedom have continued their censorship during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Newseum, a popular Washington, D.C. museum dedicated to the history of American journalism and the free press, was closed in 2019. The building was sold and its facade, a towering 50-ton, 74-foot outdoor tablet inscribed with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, was removed in early 2021. More than a few commentators have suggested that this removal is an apt metaphor for a deteriorating media landscape in our country.

Throughout our nation’s history, abolitionists, activists and artists, along with pamphleteers, protestors and publishers have at times been confronted by either the police power of the state or the harsh condemnation of the public while defending their rights to freedom of speech, the press, assembly, petition and religious expression.

And every day regular citizens continue to make the choice to defy popular opinion by daring to write letters to the editor or speak out on talk radio; challenging a contentious or bullying professor; practicing their religious faith as a minority; or exhibiting moral courage by staying true to their sincerely held social and political beliefs.

In recent months, parent organizations have risen up to challenge the overwhelming power of teachers’ unions and government mandates that have shut children out of classroom learning and pushed heavily against the wishes of many parents on both health matters and the increasing indoctrination of students on political issues. Critical Race Theory (CRT), an ideological assertion of insurmountable systemic racism rooted in radical political beliefs, has proven to be a linchpin of many such challenges.

Our history of pushing back against suppression of speech suggests that we are a country that values viewpoint diversity. But while we citizens might unite around our theoretical commitment to such diversity, we disagree in our approaches to political correctness, campus speech codes, the regulation of workplace speech and the restricting or punishing of “hate” speech.

Recently, for example, a good faith effort by California state Senator Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) to add political beliefs and affiliations as a protected class against discrimination in the workplace was rejected on a partisan vote.

Some find it difficult to remain protective of the voices with which they disagree. Many conservatives detest flag burning and some support the punishing of those who kneel during our national anthem. Most progressives abhor non-liberal opinions about lifestyle choices and some even endorse employer and university sanctions against “offensive” speech.

In an era of increasing intolerance and bitter contempt for those who don’t subscribe to the politically correct cultural consensus, the bravery of advocates fighting for free speech merits our respect. Some are freedom-loving conservatives, but many are principled left-of-center journalists, scholars and entertainers. Together, they share the classic liberal notion of fair play and value truth-seeking above partisan narratives.


Much of the national broadcast media today has collapsed into “narrow-casting,” the ideological presentation of imbalanced news and information to a biased audience. Project Veritas has done some remarkable (but often unremarked upon by the mainstream media) investigative work to uncover extreme media bias and groupthink. Of particular note is CNN, whose leadership admits to directing a partisan agenda and whose officials have been caught on tape admitting to purposeful propaganda on behalf of the Black Lives Matter organization and far left-perspectives on racial and political issues.

Other mainstream media organizations have also failed the general public: ABC, which failed to report on the Jeffrey Epstein matter in a responsible way, and has admitted to the radical views of some of its reporters; CBS, whose 60 Minutes program recently conducted a widely-panned smear job on Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL); and NBC, which, alongside its sister stations MSNBC and CNBC, is considered strongly biased to the political left.

14-time Emmy award-winning reporter Bernard Goldberg, who wrote the book “Bias” about the many failures of the mainstream media to report with integrity, has now resigned from HBO sports, which he says has also collapsed into woke politics.

But despite increasing media partisanship, several journalists today stand out as unusually independent and merit recommendation:

On the political left, Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald and Bari Weiss have distinguished themselves for being willing to speak truth to the dominant progressive consensus.

Matt Taibbi is a gonzo journalist (often for Rolling Stone Magazine) who has featured those censored on the internet, cast consistent doubt on the Russiagate hoax story and challenged MSNBC host Rachel Maddow for being a “fableist.”

Glenn Greenwald, also with long roots on the political left (The Guardian, The Intercept) as an anti-war advocate, has raised suspicions about government surveillance. He is increasingly willing to criticize both political parties for hypocrisy.

Bari Weiss is a political liberal who famously resigned as a columnist with the New York Times in the face of unrelenting anti-Israel bias in its newsroom. She has been writing about the illiberal indoctrination of students and other aspects of cancel culture and academic bias.

Many other journalists merit attention for their independence of thought, including Sharyl Attkisson, the author of “Slanted: How the news media taught us to love censorship and hate journalism.” Her website focuses on non-partisan reporting of business and health news and has been tracking media mistakes during the Biden administration.

Lara Logan, who famously suffered abuse at the hands of Islamists in Egypt has been connecting with viewers on her new Fox Nation show “Lara Logan Has No Agenda.”

Other prominent media personalities who have spoken out with clarity on behalf of free speech include Dave Rubin (author of “Don’t Burn This Book”), Dennis Prager and Adam Corolla (producers of the documentary “No Safe Spaces”), commentator Andrew Sullivan, and Sam Harris, the prominent public intellectual and podcaster who has repeatedly offered intellectual honesty in critiquing both far-right and far-left politics.


The 1964 Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley has long since been replaced by illiberal indoctrination, bullying and bias. Conservative speakers are frequently harassed or disinvited.  Most recently, a video of a teacher berating a student for respectfully offering a more nuanced opinion about American policing went viral.

Students have the right to express their viewpoints without being bullied or censured, and their defense has been led by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE works across the nation to defend students in legal actions, support campus activists and reform restrictive policies affecting student rights.

While many institutions, organizations and universities remain committed to upholding a progressive and often censorious agenda, some have challenged the growing tendency toward suppression of viewpoint diversity. For example, to its credit, the very progressive National Coalition Against Censorship condemned Amazon for banning the book “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment” by scholar Ryan T. Anderson. Abigail Shrier, whose book “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters” was similarly targeted last year, has written extensively on the rise of book banning.

Other prominent scholars who have spoken out about political correctness and intimidation on campus include the prominent Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has warned against the thought police for a long time; Heather MacDonald, author of “The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine our Culture;” black scholar John McWhorter who has criticized extreme racialism on the left; and Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker, who has cautioned against political correctness. The list of well-known intellectuals and academics who are speaking out continues to grow.

An earnest effort “to improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement” has been led by the Heterodox Academy, a group of more than 5,000 professors, administrators, K-12 educators, staff and students “who approach problems and questions from different points of view, explicitly valuing the role such diversity plays in advancing the pursuit of knowledge, discovery, growth, innovation, and the exposure of falsehoods.” The organization regularly hosts podcasts with academics and public intellectuals in addition to running a blog and offering an array of resources for professors and educators who are committed to viewpoint diversity.

Prager University is another good example of an online educational resource for scholarly discussions on academic topics. College students around the world have helped generate some 5 billion views of leading historians, professors and thinkers offering 5-minute video courses meant to balance the dominant liberal-left perspective offered by many campus faculty members.

A new journal launched in 2018 to publish peer-reviewed essays on topics widely considered to be controversial, The Journal of Controversial Ideas, is another direct response to the need to protect scholars by publishing their work anonymously, a profound statement of our times. Publications including Persuasion, Liberties, and Quillette are among other recent additions to intellectual journals of public affairs debate.

Although they seem to be in the minority, some universities are officially articulating their commitment to freedom of speech and ideas. The well-known 2014 “University of Chicago Statement” refers to the policy statement issued by the university’s Committee of Freedom of Expression. It emphasizes the importance of freedom of speech at institutions of higher learning, affirming the American Association of University Professors’ famous 1915 “Declaration of Principles” and 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,”  Yale University’s “Woodward Report” and the University of Chicago’s previous “Kalven Report.”


Robert Redford received an honorary Oscar in 2002, in the shadow of the September 11th Islamic terrorist attacks against America. In accepting his lifetime achievement award, perhaps the most popular actor of his time spoke with foresight about how Hollywood should continue to invite artistic freedom. “As we all struggle to find our way with it,” he said, “to get a grip, to make sense out of the chaos and the destruction and the tragedy, one word that emerges is the word ‘freedom’…its importance, its rarity and how fortunate we are to have it. To be able to be part of a freedom of expression that allows us as artists to tell our stories in our own way about the human condition, the complexities of life, the world around us, is a gift, and not one to be taken lightly.”

Unfortunately, much of Hollywood has become so “woke” and politically correct that millions of Americans no longer watch the seasonal awards shows.

One forceful critic of Hollywood’s lurch into radicalism is comedian and host of HBO’s weekly “Real Time,” Bill Maher, who has castigated the mob-like viciousness of the “woke,” which he says reminds him of old Hollywood blacklists and causes people to check their honest opinions at the door. Maher has also noticed that “we seem to be entering an era of re-segregation that’s coming from the Left. I mean, on many college campuses, there are separate dorms, separate black dorms, graduation ceremonies, stuff like that.”

As heirs to the long English tradition of freedom of expression, two British artists stand out. Rowan Atkinson has argued that the best way to increase society’s resistance to insulting or offensive speech is to allow a lot more of it. Ricky Gervais has gone out of his way to scold Hollywood for its political correctness and lack of ideas diversity.

And Canadian born author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood, who received the English PEN Pinter prize, which honors writers’ rights, has noted, “There are threats that come from government, there are threats that come from the population at large and there are threats that come from political groups who are in opposition to the culture and the values of free speech.”

In 2020, at least 150 artists and writers signed onto a widely read “Harper’s Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” a profound contribution and plea for a more tolerant public conversation.

“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.”

This effort may be contagious.  Recently a “Jewish Harper’s Letter” generated support from a range of scholars, writers and community members. And Billy Crystal, the beloved comic actor and prominent liberal, has stated simply of cancel culture, “I don’t like it.”

Every time a member of the press, the academic community or the creative community stands up for freedom of expression, they support the foundation of all of our civil rights. We know we don’t all agree with every professor’s idea or every comedian’s hot take. The answer is celebrating the idea that a thousand flowers should bloom.

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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