Journalists have long relied on the First Amendment-guaranteed right of freedom of speech as the bulwark allowing them to practice their craft.
Now, however, it’s journalists themselves who are in the forefront of the current war on freedom of speech.
In a must-read article by John Tierney in City Journal, the former New York Times reporter chillingly describes how “journalists [are celebrating] the destruction of the freedoms on which their profession depends.”
Unlike previous generations of journalists, today’s mainstream journalists tend to identify freedom of speech as the root of society’s ills. This is a norms-shattering development. Tierney begins:
After the 1967 summer of riots, journalists, politicians, and sociologists spent many words and dollars trying to find and cure the “root cause” of the racial unrest. They failed, but eventually a solution did emerge. The root cause of riots turned out to be rioters. Peace returned to the streets once police adopted new crowd-control tactics and prosecutors cracked down on lawbreakers. Mob violence came to be recognized not as an indictment of American society but as a failure of policing.
That lesson was forgotten last year, when police were lambasted for trying to control violence at Black Lives Matter and Antifa protests. Journalists disdained tear gas and arrests in favor of addressing the “systemic racism” supposedly responsible for the disorder. After the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, some raised questions about police failure to stop the mayhem, but once again, progressive journalists are focusing elsewhere. They’ve identified a new root cause of mob violence: free speech.
They’ve cheered the social-media purge of conservatives and urged further censorship of “violent rhetoric” and “disinformation.” It’s a remarkably self-destructive move for a profession dependent on freedom of speech, but the journalists now dominating newsrooms aren’t thinking long-term—and can’t imagine being censored themselves. The traditional liberal devotion to the First Amendment seems hopelessly antiquated to young progressives convinced that they’re on the right side of history.
This heretofore unthinkable phenomenon of journalists’ repudiating freedom of speech was foreshadowed in an infamous 2019 Washington Post column by former top Time magazine editor Richard Stengel, who admitted that he had relied on the guarantee of freedom of speech in that job. He was also an Obama-State Department official.
Most recently, Stengel was appointed by President Biden to head the transition team for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which includes Voice of America and is charged with protecting “unbiased news and information in countries where the press is restricted.”
Stengel’s column was headlined “Why America Needs a Hate Speech Law.”
Here is a snippet:
When I was a journalist, I loved Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s assertion that the Constitution and the First Amendment are not just about protecting “free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
But as a government official traveling around the world championing the virtues of free speech, I came to see how our First Amendment standard is an outlier. Even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats that I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran. Why, they asked me, would you ever want to protect that?
It’s a fair question. Yes, the First Amendment protects the “thought that we hate,” but it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another. In an age when everyone has a megaphone, that seems like a design flaw.
The First Amendment as a “design flaw” is a mindbogglingly radical position to take, especially for an influential former magazine editor. But Stengel’s column heralded the wholesale abandonment of the First Amendment by the very profession that had seen it as their foundational protection.
Tierney insists that these journalists are taking a short-sighted stand that could backfire if Democrats and Silicon Valley lose their ascendency in Washington, D.C.
Tierney argues that the end result could be bipartisan censorship.
In other words, we could all lose the right to freedom of speech.