The McCarthy Era, and Right Now: Each a “Very Bad Time” for Free Speech

(p. A13) New Milford, Conn.

Old-fashioned liberalism doesn’t get much respect these days, and Nadine Strossen illustrates the point by pulling out a hat. “I have to show you this gift that somebody gave me, which is such a hoot,” she says, producing a red baseball cap that bears the slogan MAKE J.S. MILL GREAT AGAIN. “Which looks like a MAGA cap,” she adds, as if to help me narrate the scene.

As she dons it, I observe that if she walked around town in her bright-blue home state, angry onlookers would think it was a MAGA hat. “And,” she continues, “I can’t tell you how many educated friends of mine have said, ‘Who is J.S. Mill?’ So we really do have to make him great again.”

Ms. Strossen, 71, has made a career as a legal and scholarly defender of classical liberal ideals, most notably as president of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1991 through 2008. She brings up John Stuart Mill (1806-73), the British philosopher and parliamentarian, by way of citing his view, as she puts it, “that everything should be subject to re-examination,” including “our most cherished ideas.”

. . .

“For many decades now there’s been this asserted dichotomy or tension between equality rights and liberty,” Ms. Strossen says. “I continue to believe that they’re mutually reinforcing, that we can’t have meaningful liberty, in a meaningful sense, unless it’s equally available to everybody. . . . Every single one of us should have an equal right to choose how we express ourselves, how we communicate to somebody else, what we choose to listen to.”

She elaborates in her 2018 book, “Hate: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship,” and in our interview when we turn to higher education. Campus authorities frequently justify the suppression of “so-called hate speech”—Ms. Strossen is punctilious about including that dismissive qualifier—with what she calls the “false and dangerous equation between free expression and physical violence.”

“When people hear the term ‘hate speech,’ ” she says, “they usually envision the most heinous examples—a racial epithet; spitting in the face of Dr. Martin Luther King. But in fact, when you see what’s been attacked as so-called hate speech on campus, it’s opposing the idea of defund the police, opposing the idea of open borders.” Any questioning of transgender ideology or identity is cast as “denying the humanity of trans people, or transphobic.” Ms. Strossen hastens to add that “I completely support full and equal rights for trans people,” but she says critics are “raising concerns that I think deserve to be raised and deserve to be discussed.”

Ms. Strossen, herself a professor emerita at New York Law School, likens the situation on campuses to McCarthyism, “a climate of fear that leads to treating certain people with suspicion or, worse, ostracizing those people and those who try to defend them, and punishing them.”

. . .

On campus, she admits that things are worse than they’ve been at least since the McCarthy era—but she still tries to look on the bright side. “I am absolutely convinced that a future generation is going to look back on this time and say this is another very bad time,” she says.

For the full interview, see:

Tunku Varadarajan. “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; Make Freedom of Speech Liberal Again.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022): A13.

(Note: ellipses between paragraphs, added; ellipsis internal to paragraph, in original.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date August 5, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

The Strossen book mentioned in the interview is:

Strossen, Nadine. Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

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