Afraid to speak your mind? Maybe we're not as 'free' as we think

It is accepted wisdom that we live in a free country. Every kid in grade school learns that. We have a free, if flawed, press. Even with the virus, we’re pretty much free to assemble; peaceful protest is legal. We can worship if we want, or we don’t have to if we don’t want. And, of course, we have the right to vote.

So, why would anyone even seriously question whether we live in a free country?

Because, in reality, we’re not nearly as free as we’d like to think.

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Just because we still have free-speech rights doesn’t mean we feel free to exercise those rights, to say what’s on our minds. What if we’re afraid to voice our opinions? Are we still free then?

Which brings us to a new study by the Cato Institute.

Let’s start with this — about how a majority of Americans are so afraid of what could happen to them if they express an unpopular opinion. Nearly two out of every three Americans (62 percent) say the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe — because they’re worried that others might find their opinions offensive. 

Right from the moment we won the revolution and sent the British packing, we’ve liked to think of ourselves as a courageous, tough people. Fear was not part of who we were. Yet now, two out of three of us are afraid to say what’s on our minds, not because a dictator might lock us up but  because someone’s feelings might be hurt. Welcome to America 2020.     

Cato says this fear crosses party lines: 52 percent of Democrats have opinions they’re afraid to share, 59 percent of independents feel that way, and so do a staggering 77 percent of Republicans. And what might happen, they fear, is that if they say the “wrong” thing, they might get fired and lose their livelihoods; Cato found that one in three Americans (32 percent) who work say they’re worried about missing out on career opportunities, or losing their jobs, if their political opinions became known. 

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Given the political climate these days, Americans may have good reason to be afraid. But whatever this is, it’s not tough and it’s not courageous; it’s not who we like to think we are.

Here are some other numbers that should worry all of us:

Thirty-six percent of Americans who identify as “strong conservatives” think it’s okay to fire an executive for donating his or her own money to Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Joe Biden should enact critical government reforms if he wins MORE’s presidential campaign. Self-described “strong conservatives” — the very people railing against the cancel culture — think it’s okay to fire an executive simply for donating personal money to Biden’s campaign.

If you think that’s bad — and it is — consider this: 50 percent of those who identify as “strong liberals” say it’s okay to fire executives who personally donate money to President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE’s reelection campaign. 

“Taking these results together indicates that a significant majority of Americans with diverse political views and backgrounds self-censor their political opinions,” according to Cato. “This large number from across demographic groups suggests withheld opinions may not simply be radical or fringe perspectives in the process of being socially marginalized. Instead, many of these opinions may be shared by a large number of people. Opinions so widely shared are likely shaping how people think about salient policy issues and ultimately impacting how they vote. But if people feel they cannot discuss these important policy matters, such views will not have an opportunity to be scrutinized, understood, or reformed.”

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This is the America we live in. 

As a correspondent for CBS News for many years, I traveled to many countries, including authoritarian countries such as China and the old Soviet Union. As a general rule, people in places like that aren’t likely to share their opinions. There are consequences for holding the “wrong” opinions; you can get into serious trouble if you have “unacceptable” ideas.

No, I’m not suggesting that the United States is like China or the old Soviet Union, where having an unpopular opinion might get you a train ride to a “re-education” camp or a jail cell in the gulag. But I am suggesting the obvious: People in a free country shouldn’t be afraid to say what’s on their minds.

But it looks like a majority of us are. 

The government hasn’t taken steps to curtail free speech. Not yet, anyway. And there may not be a need to do so: A majority of Americans are censoring themselves. 

Bernard Goldberg, an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award-winning writer and journalist, is a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” He previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and as an analyst for Fox News. He is the author of five books and publishes exclusive weekly columns, audio commentaries and Q&As on his Patreon page. Follow him on Twitter @BernardGoldberg.