Corporations and Governments Are Still the Real Threats to Free Speech–Not Campus Activists


I find this statement in a New York Times oped (11/12/15), coming from Suzanne Nossel, the head of PEN America, to be absolutely stunning:

Some of the most potent threats to free speech these days come not from our government or corporations, but from our citizenry.

Anyone who can write a sentence like this simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Which is fine, but not fine when the person is the head of an organization dedicated to freedom of expression.

By “our citizenry,” Nossel is referring to the recent round of free speech wars on college campuses. Now, when these issues of free speech arise on campus, you usually see an explosion of conversation about it: on the campus itself, and in the media. Far from dampening down discussion, the controversy over free speech on campus actually ignites discussion. Everyone has an opinion, everyone voices it.

And while I wouldn’t diminish the challenges to free speech that these controversies pose, the notion that they are far more common and threatening than what governments or corporations do is risible. Though given that Nossel is a former State Department flak, perhaps understandable. She is, after all, someone who has said:

To advance from a nuanced dissent to a compelling vision, progressive policymakers should turn to the great mainstay of 20th-century US foreign policy: liberal internationalism…should offer assertive leadership — diplomatic, economic, and not least, military — to advance a broad array of goals.

When there are not just threats but actual abridgments of speech at the workplace—Nossel says “corporations,” referring I guess to firms’ financial lock on the political process, but as I’ve argued many times, it’s in their capacity as employers that firms really do damage to free speech—there is no such explosion as there is on college campuses. Partially because people like Nossel and the media are completely uninterested in the topic, even when the workplace in question is a university: If Nossel wrote an oped in the New York Times when Columbia prohibited its workers from speaking Spanish, I must have missed it.

But more important, there’s no explosion because abridgments of speech at work are so lethally effective. Workers are silenced, that is the end of the story. We never hear about it.

At one point in her op-ed, Nossel does give a nod to the status of speech in the workplace. Here’s what she says:

Who would trade their [universities’ and colleges’] free-range spirit for the dreary sameness of a corporate office, with its federally sanctioned posters on what constitutes unlawful discrimination?

That’s where Nossel sees the threat to freedom of speech at work: in the “dreary sameness” roused by government efforts to inform workers of their rights against discrimination. There’s a suspicion on the left that freedom of speech is little more than a rationalization for racism or indifference to racism. I try to fight that suspicion all the time. But when the head of PEN America writes sentences like these, it makes that job infinitely harder.

Whatever one thinks about the current controversy over free speech at Yale and the University of Missouri, if the head of PEN America is going to leverage her pen on behalf of freedom of speech on the pages of the New York Times, she would well do to consider where the real threats to such speech lie.

Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The History of a Political Idea. This post originally appeared on his own blog (11/12/15).

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