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America’s Free-Speech ‘Reckoning’ Threatens Liberalism Abroad

Four years ago, I kayaked through a needlessly intense military checkpoint on Nicaragua’s Río San Juan. Once beyond firing range, my clearly anxious guide whispered to me that anyone who criticized Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega would face “big trouble.”

More recently, I sat in the Sanctum, a Cambridge room home to The Harvard Crimson’s Editorial Board, and listened as my peers opined passionately on a topic that has much of the journalistic world up in arms — a recent New York Times editorial that frets over the state of free speech in America.

The dissonance between these two concerns pains me.

While citizens of other countries face state-sanctioned attacks on their speech, we find ourselves amid a fabricated culture war whose primary effect is to denigrate the American model of liberalism and civil discourse. With every “radical right” attack on the “woke mob” (or vice versa), the U.S. strays from its principles and indirectly tells the world that a fragmented public forum wherein participants cannot even agree on the rules of gameplay is the free-speech gold standard. Unless resolved, the repressed in other parts of the world will suffer further.

In the Age of Information, these seemingly self-contained conflicts on social issues like speech do not occur in a vacuum. Each time a blue-checkmarked Twitter user calls for the resignation of an editorial board for essentially arguing, if disingenuously, that free-flowing discourse is good, the world watches and takes note. The poison of our culture war will diffuse across borders and damage the value of liberalism abroad, undermining social movements against anti-democratic regimes. Why should a Russian citizen fight for freedom from Kremlin repression if the battered American example is as good as it gets?


Byproducts of this nationwide divide on free speech also catalyze dangerous institutional change. When one side grows frustrated with the deadlock, it might engage with a sympathetic governing institution to bring about more hardline, irreversible adjustments to the rules of public discourse.

For example, the Harvard Undergraduate Council formally moved last October to request that Harvard College conduct a thorough review of its 30-plus-year-old Free Speech Guidelines. The current guidelines protect the dissemination of all ideas short of expressing “grave disrespect for the dignity of others,” including those that might be “noxious.” Given the relatively (and rightfully) open nature of these rules, it feels unlikely that such a review would result in anything other than stricter institutional censorship.

Just as American ideals might offer a guiding light to populations in pursuit of broader civil liberties, Harvard often serves as a leader for other universities across the U.S. and for the international community. Any move by our peers to pursue abandoning the natural, baked-in societal mechanisms for the defeat of noxious ideas in favor of more stringent institutions should elicit great concern.

A similar story is playing out at the University of Virginia, another undergraduate community on the free-speech front lines. After a student op-ed lamented the shunning of unpopular opinions — including conservative voices — on campus, the Editorial Board of the university’s newspaper published a reactionary editorial, stating that they “refuse to condone” allowing former vice president Mike Pence to speak at UVA. This forswearing of uncomfortable discourse is a lost opportunity. His politics aside, 74.2 million Americans voted for Pence’s ticket some 17 months ago, so even hostile listeners could learn something about American democracy through a speaker event (or reaffirm the validity of their own beliefs in collision with his).

The long-run international problem here is not the “canceling” of conservative opinions nor “dangerous” rhetoric in college campus “safe spaces.” These buzzwords merely represent alternate readings of constitutionally protected freedoms, unsightly as they may be. It is the rejection of pluralism that results from vicious bickering over the “true” tenets of free speech which threatens our global community the most. I pray that throughout this so-called reckoning, the left and right do not forget their most vital commonality — a commitment to preserving the health of civil discourse, both among American citizens and in our influence abroad.

To those free-speech activists rising up against undemocratic regimes in other countries, it would be advisable to find another liberal model for now. Here in the U.S., we’re still figuring out what we think of ours.

Peter N. Jones 25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Weld Hall.