The current wave of attacks on free speech and books is nothing new, says Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, whose most recent book is How Free Speech Saved Democracy: The Untold History of How the First Amendment Became an Essential Tool for Securing Liberty and Social Justice. However, what is different during this current crisis, he says, is that there used to be very clear delineations along political lines when it came to both defenders and critics of free speech. Today, on the other hand, some young progressives prioritize social justice over the First Amendment, Finan argues, in their attempts to restrict hate speech.
“There has been a shift that’s not been helpful towards an understanding of free speech,” Finan said, referring to Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene wearing a “Censored” face mask on the floor of Congress. “It doesn’t help free speech much to be advocated by Marjorie Taylor Greene.”
In a conversation with PW editorial director Jim Milliot, Finan noted that he has been a free speech advocate since the early ‘80s, when he answered a classified advertisement in the New York Times for a “coordinator of a First Amendment trade association,” the Media Coalition. “I had no idea what that was, but it sounded like me,” he said. “I grew up in the ‘60s and free speech was a big topic of conversation as it was being repressed in the South during the Civil Rights movement and, it was being repressed, again, in the North during the anti-war movement.”
Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980, Finan recalled, prompted a surge in challenges to books across the U.S., especially Judy Blume’s books for middle grade and YA readers. Blume was a “major lightning rod,” Finan explained. “People had never experienced books addressed to kids about problems like sex in the schools; they responded vociferously.” There also were laws passed and subsequently struck down that inflicted “felony penalties” against retailers—such as booksellers—who sold materials with sexual content.
“As those things tailed off, suddenly, we were facing 9-11 and threats to reader privacy,” said Finan, who by then had left the Media Coalition to head the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.
First Amendment in Theory and in Practice
Joking that Finan has been “chasing a lot of controversies,” Milliot pointed out that there have been assaults on the First Amendment “almost from the get-go,” beginning with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Finan confirmed this factoid and explained that although there was “theoretically” free speech in the 19th century, there were no court decisions protecting this Constitutional right made at the time. During World War I, more than 2,000 Americans were prosecuted, and 1,000 convicted, for criticizing President Woodrow Wilson. Among them was Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party of America's candidate for president of the United States five times in the early 20th century.
“It was really in reaction to that civil liberties meltdown,” Finan explained, that “people, primarily lawyers in the beginning, began to speak out about the importance of protecting free speech.” He also pointed out that the American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920.
Noting that some progressives lobbying for social justice and against discrimination consider fully free speech to be antithetical to their political stances, as the First Amendment guarantees even the right to hate speech, Finan maintained that censoring right-wing books and disrupting speakers on college campuses “always boomerangs,” as liberals are then accused of hypocrisy when they protest challenges to books addressing race and LGBTQ topics. The strongest defense against hate speech, Finan argues, is “counterspeech,” or discussion and debate.
“We have to defend the right of free speech for all,” Finan said. “I say that in full knowledge that that means there’s a lot of garbage, a lot of misinformation, a lot of hate that gets surfaced on social media.”
Pointing out that 15 states have passed “critical race theory laws” and that most of the books being attacked by right-wing zealots address LGBTQ topics, Finan said that he hopes “as a free speech activist is that this will get the attention of many of those who argue the First Amendment is a problem.”
“You have to fight for free speech,” Finan said. “Once you take it for granted, then there will be people who will use that against you.”