Transcript: Nadine Strossen
A full transcript of my interview with the former president of the ACLU
Those on the political left have long seen free speech as a core tenet — so it’s been bizarre for many of us to watch the left abandon it, and, in many cases, now even campaign against it.
My guest on the latest Lean Out podcast has written a piece for Tablet Magazine arguing that, in fact, this trend is not particularly new. The essay is titled “Who Really Benefits From the First Amendment?,” and it takes a look back in history at attacks on free speech originating on the left — and stresses that the left needs to remember that free speech is essential for minority rights.
Nadine Strossen is a former national president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and a professor emerita at New York Law School. Her most recent book is Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship.
Below is an edited transcript of the podcast episode, which you can also listen to here.
TH: Nadine, welcome to Lean Out.
NS: I’m delighted to be here. Thank you so much for hosting me.
TH: It’s so nice to have you on. Your Tablet piece this week was so thought-provoking. I have been a liberal my whole life, and I always assumed that free speech was a leftist value. And so I have found it perplexing to see the left abandon that. For Canadian context, this week from the University of Saskatchewan, a survey came out showing those on the political right in Canada are more likely to support unlimited free speech. Support on the left was very low. So this is happening here as well.
NS: Tara, I read the Canadian survey, which is completely typical of the United States survey results as well. And the coverage was also typical. Because it was spun in the media outlets as proving somehow that free speech is not only a conservative value — there’s nothing wrong with that; to me, it’s neither conservative nor liberal — but they go on to imply that it is a right-wing extremist, or even white supremacist value. A couple of experts were quoted making that point. And if you note the press coverage in the United States, including at established major mainstream media such as The New York Times, they tend to cover objections to violations of free speech as only coming from the right. So, I think it’s really a dangerous, vicious cycle that people get more and more reinforced — that if you truly are politically liberal, or to the left of centre, you must be opposed to free speech because it’s only invoked by right-wingers.
TH: It’s very strange and very concerning. You go back, in this piece, to a Nat Hentoff book from the 90s, Free Speech For Me — But Not For Thee. Tell me about that book, and how it influenced your thinking.
NS: The book, quite frankly, didn’t influence my thinking. He was a good colleague and friend, and when he wrote the book in 1992, I was well aware of the very same phenomenon. Because I had been a full-time free speech advocate at least since I graduated from law school, way back in 1975. And from the get-go, I was fighting against certain attacks that were coming from the left, as well as certain attacks that were coming from the right. Often, the targets of anti-free speech crusades were different. But sometimes they were exactly the same. For example, very soon after I graduated from law school in the 1970s, there was a very strong so-called religious right movement. Political conservatives, religious conservatives, largely constituting members of the evangelical faith, who believed that pornography, or sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive expression, was dangerous to their religious and political values by undermining the traditional American family.
At the same time, you had so-called radical feminists from the left who were crusading against pornography — the same stigmatizing term that they use for sexually-explicit expression — for a very different reason. Namely that it, from their perspective, allegedly fostered violence and discrimination against women. Well, these two groups could not have been further apart in terms of their ideology. The feminists were advocating, of course, for equal rights for women, LGBTQ rights, reproductive freedom. All of which were deeply opposed by the religious right. And yet they made a common cause in seeking to suppress sexually-oriented expression, with a lot of adverse impact on all manner of really important sexual expression, regardless of what your views were. Attacks were made on the Bible, which should have bothered those from the religious right. And attacks were made even on the anti-pornography writings of some of the leaders of that movement themselves. Why? Because they described, in the most vivid ways, the pornography that they believed to be undermining and demeaning to women. So, you know, throughout my lifetime, I was aware of the point that Nat Hentoff was making. But he was, unlike me, a talented full-time professional journalist. And he made the point very compellingly.
TH: You also, in your piece, raise the issue of Tipper Gore. I started my career in hip-hop as a music journalist. So, I remember those stickers. For people who don’t know, can you talk about that moment in U.S. speech history, and the impact of it?
NS: Yes. So another example of the liberal segment of the public and politicians spearheading attacks on certain free speech was the Parents’ Music Advisory Council, I believe was its name, founded and led by Tipper Gore, who was then married to Al Gore, who was then a United States Senator from Tennessee, Democrat. Both liberals. And Tipper Gore, as well as other liberal feminists — including African-American feminists and Civil Rights leaders — were very distressed about lyrics in popular music, including rap and hip-hop. Which their young kids, including their girls, were listening to. Because some of the lyrics were violent and misogynistic. Interestingly enough, there was another common cause with the right, because some of these lyrics were allegedly instigating violence against police officers. They were extremely critical of exactly what has now become criticized worldwide. Namely police abuse, and unjustified force, and even killing of young African-American men. So, these were very important protest songs, songs of liberation …
Tipper Gore, she testified before Congress. Congress was about to pass a law that would have imposed some kinds of restrictions on these lyrics. And, as has often happened in the past, when a cultural industry sees the handwriting on the wall — that it’s going to be subject to regulation — it decides the lesser of two evils is to voluntarily self-regulate. That happened with the movie industry; that’s why we have ratings there. And it happened with the music industry. And I understand that the so-called Tipper Stickers are still required. I mean, if anybody buys the hard copies anymore. So, another example.
And the attacks by the left continued very strongly in the wake of really tragic incidents, such as school shootings. Which amazingly has become a phenomenon now. It seems, sadly, as if they are happening almost every month or so — at least. But that was a new phenomenon then. And as is often the response in our society, if you don’t like some real-world phenomenon, “Well, let’s go after expression. It must be speech that is causing this violence.” You would have thought, after a violent episode, there might be an attempt to rein in access to guns in the real world. No. But there was a serious effort to rein in access to images of guns in the media. And so we had all kinds of laws passed, including what people probably don’t even realize — that we all now have a so-called V chip in our television sets that stands for violence. And that was required to be installed, going back to the 90s and a crusade against media violence as a supposed instigator of real-world violence. Censoring media is supposedly a way to deal with this real-world problem.
That’s one of the flaws of censorship. In addition to all of the other flaws, it’s always a diversion from dealing in a meaningful, effective way with the problems that are purported to be solved by censoring the expression.
TH: I want to take a moment to speak about an event this week that you linked to in your piece. An exchange in the Senate, in a hearing about the overturning of Roe v. Wade. An exchange between Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges and Josh Hawley. She accused Josh Hawley being transphobic and said that [his line of questioning] opens trans people to violence. This is a really common idea on the left right now, that you’re drawing attention to in the piece — this conflation of speech with physical violence. And you say this poses perhaps even more of a threat to a robust free speech culture than right-wing attempts to shut speech down.
NS: It’s pick your poison. The idea that words can literally constitute violence — if you accept that premise, for the sake of argument, think of the overwhelmingly negative consequences that would follow logically. Since one is entitled to self-defence and defence of others against violence. Since there’s an equation between words that are allegedly violent and physical violence, that would mean every time somebody said something that somebody processed as violence, including what a Senator says during a hearing on a matter of legislative and public policy … You may disagree with what he’s saying, but to characterize that as violence, and therefore suggest that people would be justified in punching him in the face, is really quite shocking. Not to mention that the government could then use the very same coercive and punitive criminal law power that it uses to appropriately punish physical violence by prosecuting Josh Hawley, and putting him in prison for saying something that somebody processes as transphobic. And these are not just rhetorical excesses, Tara. I think it goes back a couple of years to the meme of punching a Nazi in the face, believing that that would be justified.
I know that you’ve had my friend and colleague Greg Lukianoff on your wonderful program. I’m honored to follow in his footsteps. For more than a year now, Greg and I have been posting a series of answers to bad arguments about free speech that both of us continue to hear in our constant speaking and debating about free speech. The very first one was responding to this argument, that speech equals violence. We each make good but different points, which is interesting. As always, I learn from Greg and he’s nice enough to say vice versa. But what he stressed in his answer to that argument is that nothing could be further from the truth … Trying to work out disagreements through discussion, through negotiation, is the antithesis of violence. We’re not going to fight it out physically. We are fighting a battle of ideas. He quoted Sigmund Freud, who apparently was paraphrasing somebody else, that civilization began the first time somebody responded to throwing a rock with words rather than throwing another rock back.
TH: I want to end by talking about minority rights. Because you emphasize in the piece that freedom of speech is important for marginalized populations, for unpopular opinions. Jonathan Rauch will be on the podcast next week. Pioneering gay marriage activist. He has said to me that [winning] gay marriage required free speech. Why is free speech so important to minority rights?
NS: Jon, another great colleague and friend. I have to say, he is making a point that has been made by every crusader for every equal justice cause that I’ve been able to document throughout history and around the world. And Tara, it’s the reason why many minority group activists and human rights champions around the world oppose censorship, including of hate speech. Not because they have anything like First Amendment free speech guarantee in their own constitutions; they don’t. But specifically from the point of view of what is going to be effective in advancing their causes. By definition, if you are a member of a minority group — whether it’s an identity minority or an ideological minority — you lack access to majoritarian power.
In a democracy, our elected officials, unsurprisingly and appropriately, are accountable to the majority of their constituents. So, by definition, those are who are in the minority are not going to be able to win their causes through popular vote. The only tool we — and I put myself in several minority groups, including probably as an advocate of free speech. But as a woman and as a Jew, a daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I very much identify with minority perspectives and identities. The only tool we have is persuasion, advocacy, litigation, petitioning the government, lobbying. These are all exercises of First Amendment rights.
And one of the interesting things about U.S. history is if you look at the pro-human rights causes that ultimately have succeeded, have made huge strides during the 20th and 21st centuries, all of those movements … had much earlier antecedents going back at least a century. There were efforts to implement gay rights and racial justice and reproductive freedom and women’s rights, and they all faltered. It’s no coincidence that those movements began to gain momentum in the mid 20th century — exactly when the United States Supreme Court started to put real teeth into the First Amendment free speech guarantee.
It’s well known, for example, that Martin Luther King wrote his historic letter from a Birmingham jail. I don’t think most people realized that he was in jail for exercising what we would now see as an absolutely fundamental First Amendment [right] — to criticize government policy and to advocate for change. John Lewis, another hero of the Civil Rights movement, who was in Congress for many, many years, famously said that without freedom of speech the Civil Rights movement would have been a bird without wings. And Jon [Rauch] makes that point, as do others, very eloquently, about the LGBTQ rights movement. I certainly feel that as a member of a religious minority that is now politically despised as well, freedom of speech is the only tool for effectively crusading against anti-Semitism.
TH: Well, I have tremendous respect for your work, Nadine. Thank you so much for coming on the show today.
NS: Thank you so much, Tara, for your brilliant exercise of your own free speech rights and facilitating those of some of the rest of us.
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