Free Speech Under Fire

By Steve Beard

As a budding young journalist and editor, my thoughts on the First Amendment and free speech — even outrageously offensive speech — were shaped by Nat Hentoff, columnist for the left-wing Village Voice. Hentoff was a prolific contrarian, jazz critic, pro-lifer, and self-proclaimed “member of the Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked Jewish Atheists.” His book Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee, a polemic against censorship, has been on my bookshelf for more than 20 years as a reminder of the dangers and virtues of the free marketplace of ideas.

The-Silencing-Powers-CVR-v10-PERS“Consider what would happen,” Hentoff asked, “if … the First Amendment were placed on the ballot in every town, city and state. The choices: affirm, reject, or amend. I would bet there is no place in the United States where the First Amendment would survive intact.” That observation is justifiably haunting — and still true today.

As a USA Today columnist, Fox News analyst, and life-long liberal Democrat, Kirsten Powers has picked up where Hentoff left off. In her new book, The Silencing, Powers launches a noble war on the vindictive shaming and censorship spawned by what she dubs the “illiberal left.” “These are the self-appointed overlords — activists, university administrators, journalists, and politicians — who have determined what views are acceptable to express,” Powers observes.

“Liberals are supposed to believe in diversity, which should include diversity of thought and belief. Instead, an alarming level of intolerance emanates from the left side of the political spectrum toward people who express views that don’t hew to the ‘settled’ liberal worldview,” Powers said.

Although Powers is an outspoken supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage, she is appalled by what happened to Brendan Eich, co-founder of the Internet company Mozilla. When it was announced last year that he was going to become CEO, gay rights activists bombarded social media with the news that Eich had made a $1,000 personal contribution to the “Yes on 8” initiative to ban same-sex marriage in California in 2008.

“It’s OK to be angry about Eich’s donation,” Powers said. “Screaming for Eich’s head on a pike for his failure to conform to Mozilla’s majority view on same-sex marriage is not. Liberals are supposed to believe in protecting minority views, even when they disapprove of those views.” She reminded readers that this was the “same year that Senator Barack Obama sat in Rick Warren’s church to explain his religious based opposition to same-sex marriage.”

Despite his publicly stated commitment to making sure Mozilla would remain a “place that includes and supports everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity,” nearly 70,000 signed a petition calling for Eich to renounce his beliefs or resign as Mozilla’s CEO. One week later, the activists triumphed and Eich stepped down.

“It’s not necessary to support Eich’s donation to recognize something deeply disturbing occurred here,” Powers wrote. “When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line,” observed writer Andrew Sullivan — who is gay and a same-sex marriage advocate — about the Eich situation. “This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance.”

“This intolerance is not a passive matter of opinion,” pointed out Powers. “It’s an aggressive, illiberal impulse to silence people. This conduct has become an existential threat to those who hold orthodox religious beliefs. But increasingly I hear from people across the political spectrum who are fearful not only of expressing their views, but also as to where all this heading.”

The Eich debacle is only one example of dozens that Powers grapples with in The Silencing. She is a tireless advocate for everyone having the opportunity to defend their own position in the public square.

Powers startled a lot of political observers by sharing her conversion testimony in the pages of Christianity Today. Although she does not share the political agenda of all conservative Christians, she will be the first to defend the sincerity and authenticity of their perspective.

The Silencing is a jarring trumpet blast to those who treasure the First Amendment, religion, and freedom of speech. All one has to do is read Powers’ Twitter feed to read the vicious way the illiberal left has made her a target — and single-handedly reinforced the point of her book.

Steve Beard is a pop culture writer, theological editor, and roller derby photographer. He is the editor of Good News and the creator of Thunderstruck Media Syndicate.