Americans value their freedoms, especially and more specifically those protected by the Constitution of the United States. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights states “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech,” and in the modern political climate, many Americans believe that their First Amendment rights are under attack. Not from Congress, but from a more nefarious source: their fellow citizens. Conservatives understand social phenomena like political correctness and cancel culture to be the primary source of censorship from the Left, while those on the Left dismiss these claims of censorship as “phantom enemies” and mere boogeyman terms for what is simply “accountability” for bad behavior.
A Short History of Censorship in America
The idea of censorship is not a popular one amongst Americans, particularly conservatives and moderates who view censorship as the antithesis to the First Amendment. Yet, over the course of American history, the US government has done its share of censoring or otherwise punishing certain forms of speech and expression. Schenck v. United States (1919), for example, held that certain forms of expression can be limited during wartime, and created the “clear and present danger” test in which certain verbiage or expression can be punishable by law if it poses a clear and present danger. Of course, the United States has evolved as a society in the last 102 years since that ruling, and Americans are arguably much more protective of their constitutional liberties since the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. The 1960s were times of dramatic change in US culture. The Sexual Revolution, anti-war protests on college campuses, the Students for a Democratic Society protest group that promoted socialism and communism that would have gotten them ousted from university just a decade earlier during McCarthyism, and the new pushes for free speech absolutism that demanded an “anything goes” attitude toward public conduct in the United States, all set in motion a cultural revolution that fostered the Marxist ideas of society advocated for by members of the New Left. Naturally, social conservatives pushed back against these social movements, and hoped that the cultural tides would not shift too far against them; this would necessarily require that certain forms of conduct codes be implemented on college campuses, prohibitions on obscenity in public be put in place, and zero-tolerance policies against Marxist and communist speech or promotion be enforced. In other words: social conservatives wanted a form of censorship to restore the moral conscience of America that had been tarnished by Leftist radicals.
PC Culture and Conservative Shortcomings
How did conservatives collectively switch from wanting sensible and justifiable censorship of morally corrupt and socially obscene behavior and speech to declaring themselves to be free speech absolutists? The rise of PC (political correctness) culture in the late 1980s and 1990s understandably disturbed many First Amendment advocates. Political correctness declared ideas that threatened the validity of radical Leftist views to be dangerous and, therefore, intolerable. Leftists control the ivory towers of academia, as evidenced by the several pieces of research that find lopsided disparities in ideological differences amongst college professors, many of whom describe themselves as “radicals” and even “Marxists.” To combat political correctness, which most Americans view as “an infringement of free speech,” conservatives have taken the original Leftist position: free speech absolutism, regardless of content or nature. Most modern conservatives argue that the solution to bad speech is more speech and that all people ought to be able to speak as they please without fear of ramifications. Although noble, is that idea truly conservative? In reality, conservatives are on the losing side of the free speech debate precisely because of free speech absolutism; they are playing into the hands of the Leftist agenda for a society with no moral code in a hedonistic free-for-all.
It’s Time to Conserve Our Principles, Starting with Speech
To truly combat the absurdities of the Left’s cultural radicalism, conservatives need to begin conserving the values we are quickly surrendering to the Left in the name of free speech. Speech without virtue is just the incoherent noise of beasts. We cannot trade the values we hold that translate into speech in exchange for speech for the sake of speech. As Michael Knowles said in his book Speechless (2021), “Any substantive conservative vision must begin with an acknowledgment of moral conscience, which is a judgment of reason whereby we recognize the moral quality of concrete acts…As a prudential matter, conservatives must begin their case against political correctness with the practical tradition of free speech as it has existed in America. Such a defense would require that conservatives admit the necessity of just and prudent censorship.” Just and prudent censorship includes, among other things, censoring obscenity, especially where it can be portrayed to children; ending the indoctrination of college students by self-described radical Marxists; and ending the cycle of redefining our language to conform to the politically correct lexicon. We must also reiterate what it is we are trying to conserve: a moral, objective, and civil society. We must reiterate these virtues because without them, America ceases to exist, and the Leftists get to see their radical dreams come true. To quote Knowles once more: “…we must not merely demand the right to speak; more important, we must have something to say.”