The American Civil Liberties Union, the iconic U.S. organization 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—trying to integrate its historical commitment free speech, including the free assembly rights of Nazis, with a new commitment to social justice. This tension over the limits of free speech extends beyond questions of state interference: Major social media platforms have banished people, notably Trump himself, for offensive or dangerous political speech; companies have fired employees over social media posts from long ago. In America today, who can say what, in which context, and with what consequences?

Dan Savage is an American author, activist, political commentator, and, since 1991, sex-advice columnist. Savage supports the right to even hateful speech—and the traditional role of the ACLU—but says he understands where his fellow progressives, who “feel like we don’t have that luxury anymore,” are coming from. He has, he says, “been canceled a number of times by the left and the right,” for work that’s offended people on both the right and the left. 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 amongst ourselves as the right continue to amass power.”


Phoebe Maltz Bovy: What do contemporary discussions about free speech—everything from “cancel culture” to the idea that words can be violence—tell us 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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