The future of free speech as a defining American ethic, and as an enduring liberal-democratic principle more broadly, has become less certain in recent years, with some evidence of growing skepticism among younger generations about the right to voice dissenting or unpleasant views. A 2015 Pew survey found that Millennials are more favorable toward the censorship of bigoted speech than earlier generations were, and in 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education was already reporting a generational divide over attitudes about free speech on college campuses. More recent data suggests similar patterns among Generation Z. Numerous high-profile stories from academia, journalism, and the literary world support the idea that a contingent of young people across a range of institutions now support more restrictions on free expression. What’s less clear is the cause of weakened free-speech norms. Are young people abandoning them, or are institutions increasingly hostile to them for other reasons?

According to Geoff Shullenberger, a New York University writing lecturer and cultural critic, both are happening. It can seem that activist students and young professionals are the driving force behind suppressed expression. But hostility to free speech doesn’t necessarily dominate younger generations. Rather, Shullenberger says, dissenters today tend not to feel comfortable speaking up. What’s actually happening with speech is, he says, more complicated than a generational consensus: a “symbiosis” between hypersensitive, outspoken young adults and emerging institutional powers. In this context, commitments to free speech have weakened across the American political spectrum, with left and right alike more interested in calling out hypocrisies on the other side than in defending freedom of expression on its own terms.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Are young Americans redefining free speech in the U.S.?

Geoff Shullenberger: If we want it to be concrete about this, we could look at the New York Times article about shifting priorities at the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s a good example, because the ACLU was famous, or infamous, for defending genuinely unpopular speech. They defended the Nazis’ right to march in Skokie, Illinois. But they also defended all sorts of people who were under fire from the religious right. The ACLU as an institution advocated for a kind of maximum honest understanding of First Amendment protections. If you read The New York Times’ coverage, or other recent coverage, it does seem that there’s a younger generation of staffers that has come in and is largely uncomfortable with that role, and has been pushing the ACLU toward other priorities. It would seem in that case, yes, that there’s a discomfort among younger generations generally, although certainly not universally—particularly younger generations of highly educated professionals. Younger ACLU staffers would probably still claim that they are advocates of free speech in some form or another, but they do not have the same understanding of free speech that the ACLU was long renowned for.

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