William A. Galston
Two recent events on either side of the globe have underscored the importance of free speech—and the peril it faces today.
Just days ago, Cambridge University Press yielded to pressure from the Chinese government to remove more than 300 articles from the website of its journal China Quarterly. The censored articles covered topics that the Chinese consider incriminating, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre. The publisher was given the choice between accepting censorship and facing total exclusion from China, and it chose to acquiesce. After an international outcry, however, it reversed its position.
China’s government was not pleased. An editorial in the state-run Global Times was chillingly frank: “Western institutions have the freedom to choose. If they don’t like the Chinese way, they can stop engaging with us. If they think China’s Internet market is so important that they can’t miss out, they need to respect Chinese law and adapt to the Chinese way. It doesn’t matter if some articles . . . disappear on the Chinese internet.”
There is a striking resemblance between President Xi Jinping’s drive to extend Communist Party control over information available to the Chinese people and his government’s effort to appropriate the fruits of foreign innovation for its own nationalist purposes. As policy experts across the political spectrum now recognize, and as the Trump administration rightly insists, companies seeking to do business in China often are presented with a choice: transfer control of their intellectual property to Chinese entities, or risk outright exclusion from China’s massive and rapidly growing market.
It is easy to understand China’s economic strategy. Innovation is the heart of the 21st-century economy, and coercing its transfer enables China to reach the cutting edge while its indigenous research-and-development activities ramp up. But why the heavy-handed suppression of academic materials, viewed by only a tiny number of scholars?
This takes us to the heart of the matter: President Xi understands the power of free speech and free inquiry to call into question even the most entrenched claims that autocratic governments use to justify their rule. Allowing access to dissenting arguments and long-buried facts about Tiananmen and Tibet could have disruptive consequences. No one knows what scholars would write, who would be reading, or how they might react. Better to shut the door completely than to leave it open even a crack.
This sense of the fragility of political power is more than autocratic paranoia. In the former Soviet Union, the writings of a few brave men and women eroded the regime’s moral foundation. Communism collapsed in large measure because even those who claimed to rule in its name ceased to believe in its truth and virtue. When times were good, this loss of faith remained recessive. When the economy faltered, it proved decisive—a lesson that China’s leaders surely have pondered.
Seven thousand miles to the east, the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., sparked calls for the suppression of “hate speech”—bigoted rhetoric that any decent observer would condemn. Racism and anti-Semitism have no place in any society, and certainly not in a society dedicated to the proposition that all humans are created equal. If these doctrines contain no truth and yield only ill effects, runs the argument, why not prohibit their expression?
In academia, the critique of freedom of speech goes deeper. Many scholars want to censor speech that reinforces social imbalances, believing that it enhances the ability of the powerful to subordinate the powerless. Writing in the New York Times , K-Sue Park, the Critical Race Studies Fellow at the UCLA School of Law, charges that the American Civil Liberties Union’s willingness to offer legal support to right-wing as well as left-wing causes “perpetuates a misguided theory that all radical views are equal.” Her conclusion: The ACLU should reduce its focus on First Amendment case law and address restraints on freedom of expression that stem from inequality in all its forms.
To this line of thinking, David Cole, the ACLU’s national legal director, offers a pointed retort: “Allowing government officials to regulate speech based on their assessment of who is promoting equality . . . would be disastrous. How does Mr. Park think that Southern mayors would have used that power during the 1960s?”
One of the few clear lessons of history is that vesting any authority with the power to control speech is bound eventually to backfire. Firm adherence to the First Amendment enables public officials to impose reasonable time, place and manner conditions on speech—and to act to pre-empt the violence that may attend free expression in fraught situations.
Government should go no further—not in China, not in America, not anywhere.