Yet, that check is, paradoxically, less effective than it should be when journalists see their own free speech rights as so important that they fail to notice, or defend, the free speech rights of others. When free speech for journalists becomes the only free speech we talk about, we all become less free.
This is why the current free speech debate in the United States is disturbing and potentially dangerous. Currently, the highest profile free speech discussions focus on the dangers of denying large platforms to successful journalists, pundits, and academics. College campus protests against right-wing figures like Charles Murrayand Christina Hoff Sommersreceive breathless coverage across the internet. When Kevin D. Williamson was fired from the Atlantic for repeatedly advocating for the hanging of women who have abortions, there was an outpouring of articles worrying about the consequences to free speech and civil society: Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic warnedthat the decision to fire Williamson was a sign of approaching "anarchy." Williamson himself talked about being unfairly silenced at the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Washington Post, and the Weekly Standard. For someone being censored, Williamson managed a lot of free speech.
It's natural for people with large platforms who write for elite magazines to be concerned about the free speech rights of other people with large platforms who write for elite magazines. Many journalists and op-ed writers identify with Christina Hoff Sommers when student protestors shut down her presentation at a college campus. After all, they might speak at a college campus, and people might shut down their talk next. Journalists and op ed writers identify with Kevin D. Williamson when he is fired from the Atlantic. After all, they might get a plum job at an elite magazine someday, and have people digging through their old tweets.
In short, people like Sommers and Murray and Williamson receive the benefit of chattering class solidarity. The trials of people with large platforms seem interesting and compelling when you are, or would like to be, a person with a large platform.
New York Times columnist Bari Weiss said as much in a recent column in which she wrote about Sommers, Murray, neuroscientist and podcaster Sam Harris, psychologist and best-selling author Jordan Peterson, and other figures who have been criticized online by left commentators. Like them, Weiss has, she says "run afoul of the left, often for voicing my convictions and sometimes simply by accident." She was motivated to write about these figures because friends suggested she had something in common with them. When Weiss points to the experience of these people and says, "free speech is under siege", she is also saying that her own free speech is under siege. She is part of the club or the class. Their free speech is her free speech; when they are oppressed, so is she.
The oppression here is more notional than actual. Articles like Weiss' conflate vigorous criticism—which is free speech itself—with intolerance or censorship. But beyond that, the tendency to center free speech discussions on the plight of elite journalists writing in elite spaces tends to downplay or erase the people and places where free speech is actually restricted. Bari Weiss and Kevin D. Williamson are not meaningfully silenced in the United States. But many people are.
For example, the ACLU and many immigrant activists saythat immigrants who speak out against ICE policies are routinely targeted for harassment, arrest, and deportation. Migrant Justice, a group that works for dairy workers' rights in Vermont, had six leaders arrested in a period of 14 months; they are all now under threat of deportation. The faith-based Arizona human rights group No More Deaths, which advocates for immigrants, has faced ongoing harassment. Nine members of the group have been charged with federal crimes and misdemeanors related to harboring immigrants. One was arrested and chargedhours after releasing a video showing a Border Patrol agent destroying water jugs left for immigrants.
Immigrants and immigrant activists face censorship; so do prisoners. Prisons routinely ban books from libraries, including classics like "Catcher in the Rye" and criminal justice analysis like Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Prisons also often prevent prisoners from receiving or sending mail on the pretext of security. And prisoners who attempt to draw attention to prison abuses face censorship and retribution. Arthur Longworth, a prisoner at Longworth Correctional Complex in Washington State, self-published a novel called Zek: An American Prison Story, which is critical of prison facilities. The novel was quickly banned at Monroe itself, the English teacher who smuggled the manuscript out was banned from the facility, and Longworth was repeatedly threatened with solitary confinement, according to the Marshall Project.
Sex workers are also routinely targeted for censorship online. Many social media platforms shutter sex worker accounts; banks and crowdfunding platforms often refuse to process payments made to them. New federal legislationsupposedly targeting victims of trafficking and sexual slavery actually criminalizes discussion of consensual sex work online. Bitch magazinequotes researcher Kiera J. Anderson who worries that in the new legal climate, "current and former sex workers and trafficking victims cannot share their experiences of abuse and assault on social media or in news articles because of the censorship of posts that include references to sex work."
Immigrants, prisoners, and sex workers are all targeted by the federal government. Agents of the state harass them, arrest them, and threaten them when they dare to speak, creating a sweeping, chilling effect. Immigrant activists know that they may be thrown in jail or deported and separted from their families if they dare to criticize ICE. Prisoners know they can be thrown in solitary if they speak up. Sex workers know they may be forced offline, or arrested, if they talk openly about the harassment or injustice they face.
There is no question that immigration activists, prisoners, and sex workers are silenced in ways that Kevin D. Williamson and Bari Weiss are not. The former are marginalized and powerless—which is precisely why they are so easy to ignore.
Mainstream free speech discussions tend to center on the importance of free speech in spreading new ideas, in encouraging debate, and in saying what others will not say. "Kevin is one of our most interesting and talented voices," David French saidat National Review after Williamson's firing, and he adds that Williamson is valuable because "he was willing to say what he thought even if he infuriated members of his own ideological tribe." The value of free speech for French is in cultivating independent voices who say what they want in an unrestrained manner. Williamson is valuable because he performs freedom. His liberated discourse liberates us all.
Prisoners and immigrants and sex workers are, obviously, much less free. They are not speaking to shock, or to generate interesting elite discourse. Instead, what they have to say is, "I am being oppressed; this is unjust; stop oppressing me." They are protesting, not provoking. Their speech testifies to an experience of constriction and injustice, rather than to an ideal of liberation.
It's easy to look at prisoners, who have lost so many freedoms, and conclude that it hardly matters whether they are able to publish novels or not. Kevin Williamson is (according to some) a shining light of the conservative movement. Surely, if that's true, he's got important and interesting things to say. Powerful people say powerful things, and it's those words that must be protected.
The truth is, though, that it's the least powerful people who need free speech the most, and it's their speech which is most likely to be dangerous to those in power. Chattering class solidarity means that journalists are most likely to be fascinated by, and protective of, the free speech of their friends, coworkers, and idols. But it's important to recognize that the people who are really silenced are people who don't necessarily have friends or coworkers writing columns at the Atlanticor the New York Times. When free speech is defined by chattering class solidarity, everyone but the chattering class will be silenced.