The iconic American Civil Liberties Union, founded in 1920 to “defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States,” has been reassessing its mission since the election of Donald Trump—as the organization tries to integrate its historical commitment to free speech, including for Nazis, with a new commitment to social justice. Tension over the limits of free expression meanwhile extends beyond the issue of state interference: Major social-media platforms have banished people, notably Trump himself, for offensive or dangerous political speech, while companies across industries have fired employees over social media posts from long ago. How significant is this shift in liberal sensibility?

Dan Savage is an American author, activist, and, since 1991, sex-advice columnist. Savage supports the right even to hateful speech—and the traditional role of the ACLU—but says he understands where his fellow progressives, who “feel like we don’t have the luxury anymore,” are coming from. He has, as he puts it, “been canceled a number of times by the left and the right,” for work that’s offended people. He sees “cancel culture” and left censoriousness as real—and at times “shocking”—phenomena; but he also suspects his fellow progressives may “regret the time we wasted on them, fighting among ourselves as the right continue to amass power.”

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: What do contemporary discussions about free speech say about America today?

Dan Savage: A big part of the left has arrived at a place where free speech is now suspect, because some things that are being said now are the prelude to actual violence. Yet I find myself, as ever, a free speech absolutist, with roots in the ’60s and ’70s. And the argument then was always that the corrective for hate speech is more speech and better speech, to drown that argument out.

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