Free speech seems like it’s becoming a more and more delicate thing. The first amendment, strictly speaking, applies to government; it guarantees that people can criticize the powers that be without facing criminal prosecution or police harassment. Recently, however, some have begun to see protest against speakers, or even criticism of speakers, as a threat.
The “free speech means never criticizing anyone in authority” logic reached an absurd nadir this week with the conversation around a NYT column by new op-ed hire Bret Stephens. Stephens wrote a post giving aid and comfort to climate change denialists. Many readers were angry enough to cancel subscriptions to the Times. Some writers called for Stephens’ firing. In response, Terence Corcoran, editor of the Financial Post, took to Twitter to lament the end of freedom of the press. CNN reporter Dylan Byers, speaking for many pundits, declared, “All critiques are more than welcome. Cancelling your subscription to the paper of record or calling for a firing is something else entirely.”
Does canceling a subscription to the New York Times really threaten a beacon of free speech? The First Amendment doesn’t require anyone to send money to anyone. Free speech is the right to talk, not the right to be supported and showered with cash and praise. Exerting pressure isn’t a violation of free speech. On the contrary, it’s an important part of what free speech protections protect.
So how have journalists convinced themselves otherwise? “I think part of it is that the stakes of speech are a lot higher now,” Angus Johnston, a professor at City University of New York, and a historian of student activism, told me. “A big part of this is the clash between people who say the status quo is fundamentally okay and we just need to tweak it a bit, and the folks who say the status quo is fundamentally broken, and we need to change it dramatically. And what happened is that on election day, millions of us moved from one camp to the other.”
Johnston points out that Byers is correct; there is a difference between simply criticizing Stephens’ column and then canceling a subscription to the paper of record. This isn’t a difference between free speech and not free speech, though. It’s a difference in how you use your free speech to engage. The first is taking part in a dialogue, which is what the Times wants its readers to do. To argue with Stephens is to treat climate change denial as part of a legitimate debate, playing the op-ed game by op-ed rules. To engage in criticism formalizes the NYT’s choice to hire Stephens in the first place.
Canceling a subscription, on the other hand, is refusing to accept the NYT’s own logic. Withholding money from the Times in order to get them to change policy is a kind of boycott. People ending their subscriptions aren’t trying to convince Stephens he’s wrong or presenting the Times with a rational argument for why climate change is real. They’re saying that climate change denial is not a conversation they want to have, and that a publication that engages in climate change denial—even in op-ed form—is not a publication they want to read. Furthermore, they’re trying to get the Times to change. Readers are insisting, with their money, that the Times should be the kind of publication that rejects climate change denial.
Centrist, mainstream norms say that you respond to an op-ed by talking and debating. But, as Johnston says, “Violating norms is how you change things. Violating norms is how you make the status quo unsustainable.”
Therefore, civil rights protestors sitting at lunch counters and refusing to leave was a violation of norms, and the law, at the time. The American Indian Movement occupying the Bureau of Indian Affairs was a violation of norms and laws. The divestment campaign from South Africa involved a economic violation of norms, as institutions were faced with activists insisting that they didn’t have the right to invest their money where they pleased. #NODAPL water protectors were disrupting norms by physically, peacefully preventing construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Notably, the press did not spend much time navel-gazing about the free speech implications of police attacking people exercising their right to demonstrate.
Free speech can look like everyone sitting in a circle, taking turns discussing issues in a quiet, unimpassioned way. But free speech can also look like street protests, or like the raucous town halls in which conservative house members were roundly booed, jeered, and insulted by their constituents. And free speech can also, in a small way, mean talking back to the New York Times, and telling its publishers that they made a mistake, and should rectify it by firing their on-staff climate change denier.
Sometimes, around the edges, you can change someone’s mind through persuasion. But generally, institutions alter when someone forces them to alter by making other options too costly or embarrassing. You could write about how climate denial is repugnant until your typing fingers bleed and the seas rise and swamp us all, but the Times won’t care. It’s just more clicks for them. Cancel your subscription though, and encourage everyone else you know to cancel their subscriptions—well, that might make the editors think twice, or three times, before printing wildly manipulative content in order to, as people say, “spark debate”.