No candidate can represent the views of all of the commonwealth’s 8.6 million residents or the nearly 4.5 million people who voted in the 2020 elections. People are passionately and angrily divided about issues such as abortion, education and gun rights. But every candidate can, right now, promise to protect the rights of all Virginians to engage in free speech on these and all other political issues.
The right to free speech is threatened across the country and in our state. Kentucky Republicans are pushing a bill to ban insulting police. Texas and other states have made it illegal for government contractors to boycott Israel. In 2019, Florida enacted a law banning criticism of Israel in schools. Meanwhile, some are urging cable providers to cancel Fox News and other conservative media, and lawsuits have peppered liberal states that cracked down on religious gatherings during the pandemic.
In Virginia, Loudoun County has been a target for conservative criticism for months. Some of that criticism was overblown and inaccurate, such as the claim that Dr. Seuss was being canceled. However, it was reported last month that the county school district’s Minority Student Achievement Advisory Council demanded that “negative feedback” about the district’s critical race theory courses be quashed. The advisory council quickly issued a statement that looked more like a tactical retreat than a free speech course correction.
Vowing to protect free speech will take political courage, but it’s the right thing to do. Nonprofits, schools, churches and businesses provide critical needs for our state, but government-enforced cancel culture puts them at risk. It does the same for individuals who aren’t able to keep up with our nation’s quickly changing — and often ping-ponging — values. And though private entities largely have the right to enforce speech as they see fit, government-induced cancel culture is an anti-constitutional cancer that puts government in charge of what should be a free, public debate about national values.
As a plurality of the U.S. Supreme Court noted in 2003, speech that does not have “the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death” is legal. The court’s 1989 ruling in favor of the insulting yet legal practice of flag-burning took a similar position. But for too many political leaders, government is the mechanism to enforce only one point of view.
Not all policies are created equal. But the right to discuss, debate and disagree on those issues should be. It is incumbent upon our state’s candidates to represent all of their potential constituents by promising to stay neutral as officeholders. With the eyes of the United States on Virginia, the commonwealth would set a good example for an exhausted nation. And for Virginians, a promise to stay neutral in the cancel culture war will increase officeholders’ legitimacy for all of their constituents.