The Multi-Front Attack on Free Speech


Free speech…free expression generally…is under attack in America and throughout the Western world to a degree not seen in a long time. I think there are specific phenomena and (partially-overlapping) categories of people which are largely driving this attack, to wit:

The Thugs. As I pointed out in my post The United States of Weimar?, illegal actions against political opponents, ranging from theft of newspapers to direct assault and battery, have in recent decades become increasingly common on university campuses, and now are well on track to being normalized as aspects of American politics. Incidents of political thuggery are reported almost daily: just the other day, pro-Trump women at an upscale DC hotel were verbally attacked and apparently physically assaulted by members of a wedding party that was heavy on Democrat attendees; including, reportedly, some top officials from the DNC. A pro-free-speech film was reportedly interrupted by two men wearing masks. Interruption of movies they didn’t like was a tactic used by the Nazis prior to their obtaining official censorship powers. The film “All Quiet on the Western Front” was plagued by Nazi disruptions when released in Germany in 1930. And attempts to shut down dissident speakers on college campuses, such as this, have become so common as to now be almost the default expectation.

The Assassins. These individuals go beyond the level of violence practiced by the Thugs, and make credible death threats they attempt to carry out against those whose actions or believe they view as unacceptable. The majority of threats and attacks falling in this category have certainly been the doing of radical Muslims; however, some of the more extreme ‘environmentalist’ and ‘animal rights’ groups have also demonstrated Assassin tendencies. At present, however, it is those Assassins who are radical Muslims who have been most successful in inhibiting free expression. Four years in hiding for an American cartoonist. But see also Ecofascism: The Climate Debate Turns Violent, how long until this justification and practice of violence reaches the level of justifying and carrying out actual murders?

The Enclosure of the Speech Commons. Whereas the Internet and especially the blogosphere offered the prospect of political expression and discussion unfiltered by the traditional media, the primary social-media providers have taken various levels of controlling attitudes toward free speech; Twitter, in my opinion, is especially bad. Partly this is ideological; partly, it probably reflects their ideas about protecting their brands. Yes, there are plenty of ways to communicate online outside of the social media platforms, but their growth has been so rapid that a large proportion of the potential audience is not easily reached outside their domains. Note also that conversations that one would have been private friends talking at home, or over the telephone are now semi-public and sometimes made fully public. Plus, they become part of an individual’s Permanent Record, to use the phrase with which school officials once threatened students.

The Online Mobs. The concerns of the social media providers about providing online “safe spaces” does not seem to have in the least inhibited the formation of online mobs which can quickly make life unpleasant for their targeted individuals, and even destroy the careers of those individuals. Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan referred to the technology-enabled Global Village; unfortunately, it turns out that this virtual village, especially as mediated through the social media platforms, has some of the most toxic characteristics of the real, traditional village. See my post Freedom, the Village, and the Internet.

And the mobs do not limit themselves to attacks on the target individual: they frequently attack other individuals who fail to participate in the shunning of that target person. As an example:

A few weeks ago, shortly after I left my magazine gig, I had breakfast with a well-known Toronto man of letters. He told me his week had been rough, in part because it had been discovered that he was still connected on social media with a colleague who’d fallen into disfavour with Stupid Twitter-Land. “You know that we all can see that you are still friends with him,” read one of the emails my friend had received. “So. What are you going to do about that?”

“So I folded,” he told me with a sad, defeated air. “I know I’m supposed to stick to my principles. That’s what we tell ourselves. Free association and all that. It’s part of the romance of our profession. But I can’t afford to actually do that. These people control who gets jobs. I’m broke. So now I just go numb and say whatever they need me to say.”

Increasingly, it’s not just a matter of limiting what a person can say, it’s also a matter of edicting what they must say.

The Bureaucrats. Bureaucrats, especially in the universities but also increasingly in the private sector, are eager to provide the altars for the sacrifice of free speech, with Star Chamber proceedings and various forms of witch-burnings. Partly, this is due to personal cowardice of university administrators, in particular, have never given evidence of being a particularly courageous category of people, and part of it is due to actual repressive attitudes held by those bureaucrats. A professor joined the Trump administration–see her story of what happened after she returned to the campus. Local-government officials, also, have demonstrated hostility toward free expression by refusing to enforce laws properly and by demanding ridiculous ‘security fees’ (protection money) from politically-disfavored groups.

The Wimps. It seems that among the younger generations in America, there are a disproportionate number of people whose ‘self-esteem’ has been raised to such lofty but brittle levels that they cannot stand any challenge to their belief systems. Hence they are eager to sacrifice their own freedom of speech, as well as that of others, on the altar of ‘safety’ from disturbing words and thoughts. (But even among those who are ordinarily courageous people, the consequences of speaking out in many settings, especially academic settings but also some academic and other settings) can be so damaging that those who are not extraordinarily courageous tend to demur.)

This sort of fragility easily turns to violence. Increasingly, people whose beliefs are questioned claim that they feel “threatened” or “unsafe”. I imagine that their emotions are similar to those of an extremist Muslim faced with a denial of Muhammed as the Prophet, or perhaps a medieval Christian encountering an atheist.

The Regulatory State. The vast expansion of Federal regulatory activities and authority enables a wide range of adverse actions to be taken against individuals without the checks and balances of normal judicial proceedings. Witness, for example, the IRS persecution of conservative-leaning organizations (possibly extended to pro-Israel organizations as well). And the Bureaucrats in nominally-independent organizations are really often acting as agents and front men for the Regulatory State. (Consider the 2011 ‘Dear Colleague’ letter sent from the Department of Education to colleges and universities, regarding the handling of sexual assault allegations–which has had, the linked article argues, serious negative impact on free speech and due process.)

The Theoreticians. Various academics have developed the concept of ‘oppressive speech’ and have developed models that attempt to break down the distinction between speech and action. Since everyone agrees that actions must be regulated to some degree, this tends to pave the way for tightened regulation of speech. (I think the conflation of speech with action is particularly sellable to those who in their professional lives are Word People and/or Image People. To a farmer or a machinist or even an electrical engineer, the distinction between speech and action is pretty crisp. To a lawyer or an advertising person or to a professor (outside the hard sciences), maybe not so much. And the percentage of Word People and Image People in the overall population has grown greatly.

See also the attacks on the whole idea of free speech as crystallized in the First Amendment at this academic conference.

The Fragility Feminists. Actually, the word ‘Feminists’ should probably be in quotes, because the argument these people are making is in many ways the direct opposite of that made by the original feminists. There is a significant movement, again especially on college campuses, asserting that women are such fragile flowers that they must be endlessly protected from words that might upset them. See the controversy over the name of the athletic center at the Colorado School of Mines. Here I think we have the Bureaucrats and the Fragility Feminists making common cause, as they so often do. For another (and particularly bizarre) case, read about professor Laura Kipnis, whose essay decrying ‘sexual paranoia on campus’ resulted in a Title IX inquisition against her. In a particularly disturbing note, when Kipnis brought a ‘support person’ to her hearing, a Title IX complaint was filed against that person.

Any remark that has anything to do with sex may cause serious repercussions for the speaker…any remark that anyone could even interpret as having anything to do with sex may cause such repercussions. See what happened to this professor who made a joke in an elevator.

The Lords of Words and Images. Perhaps once upon a time, journalists and their employers were mainstays of free expression; if this is indeed true, it is true no longer. In addition to the often-blatant political bias, the media organizations have adopted the attitudes of a privileged, aristocratic caste, often apparently believing that “journalists” have more free-speech rights than ordinary people, and that any criticism of journalist amounts to an attack on free speech.

But many of them are sure eager to attack the free speech of others. See Journalists Against Free Speech, also How Journalists Became Fahrenheit-451 Style ‘Firemen’.

The Spies. Right after the 2016 election, Congressman Schumer warned Trump: “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community — they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.” To the extent this warning reflects reality, it would imply that the US has become an intelligence dictatorship, in the same sense that some countries are military dictatorships. We’re not there yet, by a long degree, but the movement has been in the wrong direction. And if intelligence agencies can get the President of the United States, or even think they have a real chance of doing so. What can they do to an ordinary citizen who says something they don’t like?

The Paymasters. The economic growth of China yields great influence in other countries, including the United States, and that influence is being used to manipulate and limit our domestic political conversations. See my post So, Really Want to Talk About Foreign Intervention?

Also see Columbia U cancels Panel on Communist China’s Human Rights Violations.

More broadly, a globalized and “borderless” world tends to imply that speech restrictions in one country have an influence on speech in other countries. Why limit the audience for your movie or your computer game by saying something that will likely get you banned in Country X? See Coupling.

The Advertisers of the Apocalypse. The assertion that the cities will soon be underwater, that the world is burning, that we have only 12 years to solve the problem of “carbon pollution”…the climate-change story in its most extreme and strident form is being used in some quarters to argue for the suppression of dissenting voices. If climate change is the equivalent of war, why this obviously justifies the kind of interference with individual liberty that in a democratic country normally only occurs in a real war. Woodrow Wilson’s policy toward dissenters during the First World War seems to represent a model for what these people are advocating.

The Categorizers. There is today a great focus on the categorization of people into certain predefined slots, along the dimensions of race, gender, and sexual preference. If you are, say, a Black person or a woman who dissents from any aspect belief systems that you are supposed to hold, in the opinion of the progressives, then you will be denounced as a traitor to your own kind and it will be asserted that you are “not really Black” or “not really a woman.” If you think I’m exaggerating, see what a prominent “progressive” organizer said about Brigette Gabriel and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

It’s very important to note that every single one of the above 14 phenomena and categories of people is either closely associated with the Democratic Party or is covered for by the Democrats. Yes, there are some threats to free speech from the conservative side as well, but they are not nearly as powerful as those associated with the Democrats, nor are they growing and converging at the same alarming rate. These are not just trivial, fringe groups and factors; see Peter Robinson on The Existential Threat to Our Democracy.

As a reminder of what the Democratic Party has become, remember the filmmaker who was arrested in the wake of Benghazi…arrested, in essence, for blasphemy.

Free speech is overwhelmingly important: so long as speech is free, other problems are likely solvable. But when free speech is destroyed, the feedback loops of society are destroyed and all kinds of social phenomena will trend toward bad or disastrous levels. And the trends discussed tell us that the survival of a free-speech environment in America is by no means certain.

I do not want to come across as saying the situation is hopeless. American free speech has many protective factors: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a pro-free-speech tradition, the emergence of alternatives to media gatekeepers, and the federal structure of government. We also have the advantage that freedom-seeking people from other countries have tended to immigrate to this country and are doubtless still doing so, although this motivation for immigration has always been mixed with economic motives.

But the 2020 elections will be critical. Every increase in the power of the Democratic Party as currently constituted represents a reduction in the odds of preserving the United States as a truly free country, and this is true of state and local elections as well as national elections. A Democratic President combined with a Democratic Senate and a continuation of the Democratic House would not necessarily spell the end for free speech in America, but it would push the trends even more strongly in the wrong direction.

What are your thoughts on the state of free speech in America, the relevant trends, and what individuals can and should do in this connection?

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  1. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret

    The control is tightening around our collective throats like the worst nightmares of Orwell.

    It might be considered ironic that as the control becomes more pervasive, more people are deciding to abandon the Leftist ship of totalitarianism. After all, if you keep the MAGA hat in the sock drawer, no longer write letters to the editor, avoid mentioning on FB and twitter how you support R candidates, and yet they still come for you, why not go full on  in?

    At the height of McCarthyism, when so many decent writers were blacklisted, my mom bought me a Little Golden book. The book told the tale of a king who decided that it would be best if his subjects had square heads. So he affixed  a vise-like mold to each  person’s head, knowing that soon his kingdom would be populated by only square headed people.

    All seemed to be pleasing the king, but then a baby was born…

    • #1
  2. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    How depressing. I agree with everything you’ve said, David, including the importance of the 2020 elections. I also think we need to have a more vocal and assertive Republican party, starting immediately. I’ve posted on getting the impeachment trial done, without excuses or apologies. We need more people speaking out about this incursion on free speech. Otherwise, we will all be in danger, in more ways than  one.

    An excellent post!

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  3. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette


    That’s quite a list, and a lot to keep in mind as one forms an opinion about free expression and the threats against it. (I’m speaking for a hypothetical audience that has not yet formed such an opinion; I’ve already got my own pretty well established.)

    I appreciate your effort. Do you think it might be worthwhile to categorize and organize these, perhaps in terms of how immediate and threatening each is, or how they might be addressed?

    For example, your “Assassins” category is entirely relevant as regards radical Islam: the threat of lethal violence is at the heart of the very effective Islamic censorship that most western media now accept as a given. But, outside of Islam, there’s really little credible threat of lethal violence, the rare environmentalist or animal rights group notwithstanding. (Frankly, citing either of those is similar to citing the rare radical anti-abortion demonstrator who resorts to lethal violence: all such groups are such outliers as to represent counterproductive distractions, I’d argue.)

    Similarly the “Spy” category is pretty exotic and narrow — at least, in terms of free-speech suppression.

    On the other hand, several of your categories fall under the broad heading of “social enforcers of political correctness.” I think those are the most dangerous, because they’re the ones that effectively suppress common speech. They’re also the ones most amenable to our correction, if we insist on standing up to them.

    I like what you’ve done here. Well done. I’d be interested in seeing it marshaled into a more concise form.

    I’m sitting in my local Starbucks, wearing my black Trump2020 hat. I always feel self-conscious doing that, because I try to be a polite and considerate person and I think a lot of people associate anything overtly pro-Trump with aggression and hostility. But, in the spirit of your post, I’m unwilling to surrender the discourse out of a concern for someone else’s intolerance. — H.

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  4. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret

    I want to put in a vote for the length of the article. It is true you could write an entire article about each category you list, but it is convenient to have that summary of who and what is doing in Free Speech, as a reference guide. (Plus it is so well written.)

    • #4
  5. David Foster Member
    David Foster

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    For example, your “Assassins” category is entirely relevant as regards radical Islam: the threat of lethal violence is at the heart of the very effective Islamic censorship that most western media now accept as a given. But, outside of Islam, there’s really little credible threat of lethal violence, the rare environmentalist or animal rights group notwithstanding.

    One mechanism that is operating is that the threat and reality of radical-Islamic violence is used as an rationale/excuse for legal censorship…the jailing of the filmmaker following Benghazi was an example of this.

    More intangibly, the threat of being murdered by Islamic fundamentalists has helped steer people in the direction of watching what they say.  This has been going on for a generation, beginning with the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeni.  It would be hard to prove, but I suspect that people who learn to suppress their beliefs out of fear in one context will also often demonstrate the same behavior pattern in other contexts.


    • #5
  6. David Foster Member
    David Foster

    Here are a couple of other links which are very relevant in this context:

    Freedom of speech as an essential of human dignity

    Vaclav Havel on compelled speech


    • #6
  7. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    I have spoken out quite vigorously on my personal blog about Islam (calling it Evil), and been drummed out of my family for it.  However, I have suffered no other consequences.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that I have zero presence on Facebook or Twitter, and will not, ever.  That doesn’t prevent fellow WordPress bloggers from outing me and publishing excerpts on Facebook and Twitter, but as of now they haven’t.

    However, I have been internally discussing with myself the prudence of doing a post on freedom of speech and thought, with reference to what everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, refers to as the “N” word.  It makes me angry that I even have to worry about this at all!  People have lost academic positions for uttering that word in class, to show their students the results of banning words.

    By the way, excellent post!  I can re-blog if you wish, over at

    • #7
  8. Unsk Member

    David, Great List . Nice Post. 

    I for one would like to see the Attorney General come down very hard on groups that roam the Country ( I’m talking about you Antifa) with the intent to disrupt legitimate public assemblies and hinder free speech.

    The Attorney General via the President is charged with taking care to uphold the law. Our Free speech rights were incorporated into the law in the Due Process Cluase of the Fourteenth amendment.  

    Bureaucrats and Administrators of public schools, colleges and  Universities should also be held to account for their attacks on our rights, including Free Speech.   All these people are wanton criminals in my book and should be packed off to the hoosegow  forever. 

     If the law were upheld, we would then I think see the assault on our liberties die on the vine. 

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  9. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert

    A good piece, but you missed one point.

    Since January 2018, we have suffered 3 serious assassination attempts on Republican office holders, resulting in two deaths.

    Does anyone recognize these names?

    Dana Naylor

    James Hodgkinson

    Rene Boucher

    Naylor parked a garbage truck in the path of a train carrying 100+ Republican Congress-critters, derailing it.  A passenger in the truck, Christopher Foley, was killed.  Naylor was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.

    Hodgkinson, a Bernie Bro, shot up a Republican Congress-critter baseball practice, almost killing Rep. Steve Scalese, who had a perforated colon, major arterial injuries in the pelvis, massive blood loss, required half a dozen surgeries and spent months in the ICU.  Hodgkinson was shot dead by security.

    Boucher attacked Senator Rand Paul, inflicting a potentially lethal wound by breaking three of Paul’s ribs and deflating one of his victim’s lungs.  He got 30 days in prison.  BFD.

    These were attempted assassinations, and it is an outrage that they are not treated as such.  These names should be as contemptible as Booth, Guiteau, Oswald, Ray and Hinckley.  Had the intended victims been leftists, the world would have spun in the other direction for days after each attack.

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  10. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):
    However, I have been internally discussing with myself the prudence of doing a post on freedom of speech and thought, with reference to what everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, refers to as the “N” word. It makes me angry that I even have to worry about this at all! People have lost academic positions for uttering that word in class, to show their students the results of banning words.

    I’m with you on that.  We can’t even use it rhetorically here on Ricochet.  A nigga’ just doesn’t know where to turn sometimes. 


    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    David Foster: What are your thoughts on the state of free speech in America, the relevant trends, and what individuals can and should do in this connection?

     Resist. Be the resistance. 

    • #11
  12. Rodin Member

    What post describes is the background for this latest piece by Victor Davis Hanson:

    The true Resistance is coming.

    • #12
  13. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    Rodin (View Comment):

    What post describes is the background for this latest piece by Victor Davis Hanson:

    The true Resistance is coming.

    Just before reading your link I made a similar comment on my own post. And I think it is going to get much worse–because Trump will persist and be supported for it.

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  14. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    David Foster: What are your thoughts on the state of free speech in America, the relevant trends, and what individuals can and should do in this connection?

    Resist. Be the resistance.

    Yup. When an obvious human male demands to  be called by an obviously female name and acknowledged as a woman, refuse. Want to make him really nervous? Offer to pray for  his lost soul. In public. And do not back down. Not an inch. 

    Or, when somebody refers to Barack Obama in hagiographical terms, remind them of his sputtering performance at the Colorado debate. Or his “I’m really good at killing people” quote. 

    In short, don’t let anyone push you into telling or accepting a lie. 

    • #14
  15. David Foster Member
    David Foster

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    By the way, excellent post! I can re-blog if you wish, over at

    Thanks.  Since the post is now on the main page, why not just link it, with a summary?…helps generate traffic, and maybe potential new members, for Ricochet.

    • #15
  16. David Foster Member
    David Foster

    “Morality Clauses” for writers:

    • #16
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