PRESS EDITORIAL: Don’t trivialize free speech with ‘cancel’ talk

America has free speech problem. No, it’s not the “cancel culture.”

Those two words—surely the silliest buzz term since “fake news”—are used mainly by people who don’t like being criticized for words they’ve said or written, a group that spans from retirees spouting political judgment in the diner to the high and mighty.

Notable among the latter are Vladimir Putin, who last week characterized the international condemnation of his war against Ukraine with its slaughter of civilians and his false assertions defending it as the cancel culture at work, and Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, who blamed the cancel culture for criticism from her fans for her statements opposing transgender rights.         Aaron Rodgers, of Green Bay Packers fame and fortune, accused the cancel culture of fomenting the withering criticism of his lying about being vaccinated for Covid and spreading false information about the disease.

The big-name pundits at Fox News, who apparently are sensitive souls in spite of their propensity to attack with impunity those who don’t share their political views, claimed cancel-culture victimhood when confronted by fact checkers and subsequent pressure from advertisers. A Washington Post review of television programs noted that the term was used 2,181 times on Fox News programs in 2021.    

Cancel culture is a handy, if transparent, defense employed by people who can’t take the heat for their views, but it was elevated to something more in a recent New York Times editorial. The 2,500-word tome suggested that fear of being criticized for expressing opinions was as much a threat to freedom of speech as government censorship.

In the process, the editorial diminished real freedom of speech, the freedom from government repression guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The editorial posited that “Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.”

This free country’s fundamental right concerning speech is the one declared in the First Amendment, the one that forbids government censorship. There is no right to speak one’s mind without a response from those who disagree.

The handwringing over the often harsh reaction to expressed opinions that is defined as the cancel culture draws attention away from the fact that Americans are in danger of losing the authentic First Amendment version of freedom of speech at the hands of government.

State governments are outlawing teaching about controversial social and political issues and banning books on such subjects as race, gender and even the Holocaust. In the past year, 40 state legislatures have introduced 175 bills that restrict what teachers can say. Teachers have been fired for speaking words about issues covered by such laws.

The Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill that would have made it unlawful to teach about the effects of racism had Gov. Tony Evers not vetoed it.

The state of Florida Monday enacted what is widely know as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which amounts to government censorship by making teachers targets of lawsuits for so much as mentioning words in class related to people who identify as LGBTQ.

The “shaming and shunning” construed as the cancel culture can be nasty, especially when it is amplified by social media. It makes public discourse a rude, aggressive exercise, sometimes based on ignorance and misunderstanding, rather than an informed and civil exchange of ideas and viewpoints. But this obnoxious speech is a form of protected free speech that, unpleasant as it is, is not a threat to democracy.

Government repression of ideas is such a threat. Where it exists, freedom does not.

That is not a theory, but a fact proven in totalitarian nations where dictators hold power by means of withholding truth from citizens by denying freedom of speech and the press.

Only a dictator as crude and self-absorbed as Putin could think it was clever to use the world “cancel” in a speech about his unprovoked attack on the democratic nation of Ukraine. This from a despot who has “cancelled” freedom of speech in Russia by shutting down news reporting and criminalizing references to the war in Ukraine as an invasion or war. And it is in line with the “canceling” of Russian dissidents who spoke their minds by sending them to a gulag or, in several documented cases, poisoning them.

Now, that’s a cancel culture.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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