“Liberals are leaving the First Amendment behind.” That’s what former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer David Goldberger, a Jew who once defended the free-speech rights of Nazis, recently told The New York Times. Goldberger was talking specifically about the ACLU, which is currently divided over how to uphold its historic commitments to free speech in the United States along with new progressive priorities, but the idea that American liberalism is increasingly skeptical of open and unfettered discussion is now heard on the right, in the center, and even among some liberals. As the Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg has noted, “it’s pretty clear there’s a generational split over free speech, both in the ACLU and in liberalism writ large.” What explains this phenomenon?

Nadine Strossen, who was the president of the ACLU between 1991 and 2008, says many young progressives today believe free speech undermines social justice, associating it with the spread of hateful right-wing ideas and even white supremacy. These are hardly new ideas—they remind Strossen of a push for hate-speech codes on U.S. college campuses in the late 1980s and early 1990s—but she thinks that many of today’s left-leaning young Americans are in effect negatively influenced by not having “lived through an era when the social-justice causes dear to them were directly subject to censorship.” Strossen argues that free speech is threatened equally from both sides of the political spectrum in 2021, but the right may be better at weaponizing the issue, giving the impression that it’s predominantly if not exclusively a left-wing problem.

Graham Vyse: What’s going on with left-wing attitudes toward free speech in America?

Nadine Strossen: In my experience, free speech has always been subject to results-oriented appreciation or disapproval by most people. If they think a message or messenger is worthy, then more power to free speech. If they hate the message or messenger—or think the message is hateful—then it should be silenced. Exhibit A is the Skokie, Illinois, case in 1978, when the ACLU represented the free-speech rights of Nazis and lost 15 percent of its members as a result. Throughout my lifetime of fighting free-speech battles, I’ve fought at least as many against the left as against the right—and that’s not a recent phenomenon.

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