In the 1960s, Southern segregationists couldn’t intimidate civil rights protesters into silence with dogs and fire hoses. So they went after their First Amendment rights. Police arrested people peacefully and legally protesting, praying, and running voter registration drives and local prosecutors charged them with crimes ranging from breaching the peace and trespassing to distributing literature without a permit.
Then the segregationists found a new strategy: Bringing libel suits against the newspapers covering the civil rights protests, with the hope they could cow the media into silence too. They won several suits including a $500,000 judgment from an Alabama court against The New York Times, which had run a full page ad from supporters of Martin Luther King that included minor factual errors in their description of the “unprecedented wave of terror” they were facing in the South.
In 1964, the suit was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. In the landmark case The New York Times Company v. Sullivan, the nine justices unanimously sided with the Times on First Amendment grounds, with Justice William Brennan writing that America has a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open.”
Fifty-six years later, the paper saved by America’s legal and cultural commitment to open debate no longer seems to support it. Two weeks ago, Times editorial page editor James Bennet was forced to resign over his decision to publish an opinion piece from Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, which argued for deployment of the U.S. military, if necessary, to quell urban rioting and looting that had broken out amid the otherwise peaceful George Floyd protests.
I didn’t agree at all with Sen. Cotton’s argument. Neither did most of his congressional colleagues, the Times newsroom or many of its readers. But this is precisely the kind of op-ed the Times is supposed to run. When the paper launched its op-ed page on Sept. 21, 1970, its editors described its purpose as “stimulating new thought and provoking new discussion on public problems,” with insights from outside contributors “whose views will very frequently be completely divergent from our own.”
Since then, the paper has invited op-ed contributions from people whose views and values undoubtedly diverge from those of most Times staffers and most Americans, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, the foreign minister of Iran, the deputy leader of the Taliban and the founder of Blackwater, the private security firm whose employees were convicted in U.S. federal court for the 2007 killing of unarmed Iraqi civilians.
Tom Cotton is a former U.S. Army captain and current U.S. senator who took to the pages of the Times on June 3 to express an opinion that, according to an ABC News poll taken that week, was supported by 52% of the American public. Suddenly, this is the one voice and one opinion the Times decided was beyond the pale?
If this were just any newspaper, maybe its decision wouldn’t really matter. But it isn’t just any paper. President Richard Nixon once wrote of the Times, “Some read it and like it. Some read it and don’t like it. But everybody reads it.” The Times is one of a few papers that set a tone for newsrooms and public forums everywhere. And the tone in America is increasingly one of hostility to the free speech and open debate that have sustained our democracy since the very beginning.
On the left, cancel culture mobs shout down and shame not just the avowed racists, misogynists and reactionaries who deserve the criticism they get, but plenty of other fair-minded and good-hearted people whose opinions simply run counter to those of the mob.
And on the right, President Trump’s commitment to open debate seems to extend only to people who have nice things to say about him. He calls protesters who support him “very good” people,” while on Friday he seemed to threaten a brutal police crackdown against anyone who showed up to protest his weekend rally in Tulsa. And now the president’s Justice Department is suing to halt the release of a critical book by his former national security adviser, John Bolton.
In America, we’re supposed to be comfortable with the dissemination of ideas that make us uncomfortable. We’re supposed to understand that when authorities or powerful institutions banish someone else’s idea from the public square, it won’t be long before they banish your idea too. We’re supposed to be able to speak our mind – without fear of losing our liberty or livelihood – and let others decide for themselves what they think about it.
The heroes who launched the modern civil rights era understood that better than anyone else. The day before he was assassinated, King gave his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in which he implored America to “be true to what you said” in the Constitution.
King also said, “Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech.” I thought I read about that somewhere too.