An open letter published in Harper’s Magazine signed by more than 150 esteemed writers and public intellectuals defending free speech provoked a fierce backlash. Welcome to 2020 social media.

While their pointed message acknowledges the national reckoning over racism and social injustice and celebrates “overdue demands for police reform,” it also argues that the protest movements have helped "weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” ... The letter — which boasts signatories including cultural icons such as jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, choreographer Bill T. Jones and feminist Gloria Steinem, and public figures like historian Nell Irvin Painter and author Malcolm Gladwell — drew mixed reactions on social media, igniting a heated online debate over free speech and “cancel culture.”

The letter’s signatories declared, “The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy,” but warned that the opposition shouldn’t fall into the trap of intolerance and rigid dogma. Some of the signatories were criticized for hypocrisy, given that they had previously allegedly sought dismissal of college professors. Critics also took issue with what they perceived to be the prioritizing of free speech over life-and-death matters such as the novel coronavirus pandemic and police brutality. Still others accused the signers, many famous and extremely well-paid, of seeking exemption from criticism. The hue and cry seemed disproportionate to the mild suggestion that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.”

The signers’ biggest mistake may have been in trying to have a serious conversation on, of all places, Twitter, a mosh pit of incivility, snark and instantaneous, ill-considered “takes.” At the risk of setting off yet another social-media food fight, let me suggest some clarifying rules for the free-speech conversation.

1. Harsh criticism, even unfair criticism, is not the same as depriving someone of the right to free speech. Rather, it is free speech’s retort to free speech. If writers and speakers are looking for a protective bubble to exempt them from critics, they are living in a fantasyland. (I do not think this is what the letter’s signatories had in mind.)

2. Free speech does not include exemption from responsibility for falsehoods and/or defamation. If an outlet fires a writer or chooses not to publish a writer because of factual errors, this is not an abridgment of free speech. Universities support academic freedom but also have a responsibility to maintain intellectual integrity; they have no obligation to employ Holocaust deniers or white supremacists.

3. Not every utterance is entitled to a national platform. A major newspaper or a widely read website exercises editorial discretion (free speech!) in deciding what to publish or what to forgo. Some utterances are too trivial, dumb, untimely or uncivil to warrant attention. There is no obligation to publish a writer who touts racism or suppression of peaceful protest or who advocates voter suppression.

4. Organizing a boycott of, say, a cable news network, that advocates disregard of lifesaving anti-coronavirus measures or peddles in conspiracy theories is itself an act of free speech. Seeking to defeat an incumbent politician (e.g. Rep. Steve King) who makes racist comments is not “suppression of free speech.” Urging fellow Americans not to purchase a book written by someone who withheld information from Congress vital to the defense of our democracy is not an infringement on free speech.

5. It is not necessary to afford a public figure real estate in a major publication in order to make readers aware of a certain viewpoint. News reports and interviews afford an opportunity to educate the public about racist, homophobic, xenophobic and other hateful ideas — and then to hear the rebuttal/debunking of such ideas.

6. The argument about “cancel culture” is properly directed at the people with the power to cancel (e.g. government, news outlets, universities). Railing at people who would like to get you fired and want others to cancel subscriptions is not productive.

7. Advertisers have a right to select how to spend their money. If they do not want their brand to be associated with an outlet or want to use their ad dollars to sway social media platforms to enforce their own terms of service (e.g. kick harassers off the platform, take down efforts at voter suppression), they can take their ad dollars elsewhere.

8. It’s not a bad thing to have vigorous and even angry arguments about highly charged issues. Having such conversations on social media, however, will not result in civil, honest or informative debate. Indeed, platforms such as Facebook contribute mightily to the polarization and incivility that plague our public debate. Alternative forums for virtual or actual face-to-face debate are badly needed. (I’ve signed up for one of these, Persuasion, run by one of the letter’s signatories, Yascha Mounk, who — disclosure — is a friend and valued professional colleague.)

9. It is easy to say that “there are more important things to fight about” than cancel culture or suppression of speech. But the latter is a precondition to a democratic, free society that can successfully govern itself and address those problems. We can and must defend free speech at the same time we are calling out police brutality, threats to public health and systemic racism.

10. Did I mention that social media is an anathema to cordial, respectful debate?

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