If conservatives wonder why liberals aren’t inclined to trust their supposed concern for free speech, controversies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Associated Press would be a good place to start.

In North Carolina, the university’s board of trustees denied a recommendation from the journalism school to award tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones after a pressure campaign from conservative activists. And the Associated Press fired news associate Emily Wilder after the Stanford College Republicans called her an “anti-Israel agitator,” highlighting her social media posts about Israel and Palestinians, written when she was a Stanford student.

Conservatives who claim to value a wide-ranging clash of ideas face a stark choice. They can prove they mean what they say by defending Hannah-Jones, Wilder and the concept of a truly broad spectrum of public opinion. Or they can demonstrate — as the civil libertarian Nat Hentoff put it — that they believe in free speech “for me, but not for thee.”

The incidents at the Associated Press and UNC are hardly novel. At the same time that conservatives have turned the supposed scourges of “cancel culture” into a major cause, they’ve moved to use the law to shut down ideas they don’t like.

In academics, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has documented an uptick in the number of state legislatures that have tried “to limit or prohibit the teaching or training of certain viewpoints on campus.” Many are conservative attempts to push back on concepts such as “critical race theory” or to ban the teaching of “divisive concepts,” such as that “the State of Rhode Island or the United States of America is fundamentally racist or sexist.”

The 1619 Project — an ambitious attempt to recontextualize American history by giving slavery a central role in the national story, spearheaded by Hannah-Jones at the New York Times — has been a particular target. President Donald Trump appointed a commission to counter it, state legislators tried to ban its material from schools, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced a bill that would yank federal funds from schools using any part of the project in the classroom.

Beyond campus, Republican lawmakers have also cracked down on protest, in ways ranging from the punitive to the grotesque. Minnesota legislators want to bar anyone arrested at a protest from receiving state student loans. Indiana Republicans have proposed to ban anyone convicted of rioting from state jobs. Iowa and Florida have passed bills granting civil immunity to people who drive their cars into protesters blocking traffic.

The contradictions between these efforts and the flogging of the “cancel culture” menace aren’t a problem when conservatives’ primary goals are to generate hours of Fox News programming and raise buckets of money from their riled-up base. But if they genuinely want to make more space for conservative ideas in settings such as Hollywood and academia, this approach makes no sense — it’s a failure that endorses the same principles and tactics the right claims to stand against.

People trying to outlaw the teaching of the 1619 Project and people challenging Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the grounds that it includes White saviors and racist language don’t disagree that some material should be banned from schools. They just disagree on which ideas ought to be verboten. College Republicans digging up old social media posts in efforts to get alumni fired aren’t so different from a high school student who releases an old video of a classmate using a racial slur intending to make it harder for her to get into college. Both agree that certain behavior by young people should have material consequences long after that behavior took place.

To actually seize the high ground on speech issues they already claim to occupy, conservatives will have to take an example from Reason Magazine’s principled cancel culture chronicler Robby Soave and get used to defending people that they may not like, or ideas that they’re embarrassed to be associated with.

Maybe that means standing up for a professor who advanced the lab-leak theory of the origin of covid-19 in terms some interpreted as insulting. It could mean making the case for a Central Michigan University professor who displayed a racial slur in his classroom and invited members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church to dinner with his students as part of their First Amendment education. Or it might mean defending Nikole Hannah-Jones instead of telling voters that a liberal Black journalist is coming for their precious George Washington. Engaging with the 1619 Project’s contentions will do more to advance both the goals of free speech and a conservative interpretation of history than trying to ban it.

If conservatives want to win the free speech wars for real instead of posturing about them, they need to remember one thing about principles: They apply to everyone.

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