Juan Williams: The land of free speech


Conservatives are right to skewer liberals as “snowflakes” who need to go back to their “safe spaces” when the left starts promoting codes that limit free speech.

That critique is largely aimed at college students who don’t want to listen to controversial speakers.

{mosads}But on this July 4, as the nation celebrates our founding principles, there is a bigger threat to free speech than overly sensitive liberals.

In our politically divided nation, it is too often being left to big corporations to decide the limits of acceptable political speech.

And those companies are concluding that defending free speech is not worth their time if it damages their brand and their stock price.    

On this Independence Day, ask yourself what the authors of the Declaration of Independence — men heavily influenced by the works of Shakespeare and Roman philosophers — might have said about corporate sponsors like Delta and Bank of America pulling their support for the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar in New York City.

Those big companies ran away from free speech and artistic freedom when far-right talk radio and websites produced a swarm of social media outrage suggesting that the assassination of a Trump-like Caesar could promote violence against the real President Trump.

Top executives at those companies failed to notice that the play was written in 1599. They also ignored that a recent production of the play had the lead character played by a black actor who looked and acted a lot like President Obama. He, too, was assassinated. Yet no sponsors pulled their financial support from that show.

But in these politically polarized days, the billion-dollar brands are skittish about being trolled online by provocateurs on the right and left.

By the way, the takeaway from that play is a warning that stands the test of time about the danger of political violence and its unintended consequences.

The same dynamic — featuring big corporations instead of citizens deciding the limits of free speech — is now also at play in the fight over the value of opinion shows presented on our ideologically divided media outlets.

The right and the left now press big companies to pull advertising from media personalities with whom they disagree.

They are counting on timid executives to focus only on their profits without giving a thought to the basic American tenet of free speech.

I am not asking corporations to spend a dime on the racists, the women-haters, the gay-bashers, liars or people calling for violence. They deserve to be shunned.

But let’s stop and consider how corporate bosses — with the power of their advertising dollars — have taken charge of determining acceptable speech in America.

Last month, I took my family to the Washington D.C. Capital Pride Parade.

The parade was the biggest and best in years. It was a rainbow-flag-waving celebration of the progress made by the LGBT community in terms of marriage equality and broad social acceptance.

Several parade watchers pointed out to me that some of the corporations whose logos were now proudly placed on floats had not long ago fired those who were open about their homosexuality.

More than a few of these companies stood silent as states passed anti-gay laws. They thought standing up for equal rights might be bad business.

But as the culture shifted on gay rights, those same corporations hopped on the rainbow bandwagon.

I see the critics’ point.

But just as the Supreme Court changed the laws to protect gay marriage, I am glad to see corporations take a stand for individual rights.

The heart of the issue is sincerity. Are these firms sincere in promoting gay rights or do they have their fingers in the air, checking comments on social media and fearing for their stock price with no regard for the principle of protecting constitutional rights, even when they are unpopular?

Controversy about free speech on a politically sensitive subject is a storm I know all too well.

Seven years ago, I was fired by NPR for telling Bill O’Reilly, then of Fox News, that since the September 11 attacks I get nervous whenever I see people dressed in Muslim garb boarding an airplane.

By acknowledging my personal fears, I was pointing out the need to speak freely and have honest debate in a time of crisis. I was making the case for tolerance — and for avoiding the kind of fear-mongering that might lead to zoning restrictions against a particular religion’s house of worship.

My point was this: Giving voice to hidden fears allows for clear thinking and full-throated discussion. This, in turn, can prevent a free people from falling into the same kind of policy mistakes seen in the past — the setting up of internment camps for Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, for example.

But the argument was lost on the politically correct crowd who quickly labeled me an anti-Muslim bigot. They didn’t like the idea that I work at Fox News, engaging in debate with its conservative personalities, either. 

Many people on the right and the left only want to hear news and opinion that confirms their pre-existing point of view.

And they are willing to demonize opposing views. Often — dangerously — they even try to silence them.

This July 4, liberals and conservatives — “We the People,” not “big business,” — need to find common ground in defense of honest debate and its life blood, free speech.

Free speech can lead to revolution. But we are a nation born of revolution. And the greatest gift of our founders remains the right to speak out.

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

See all Hill.TV See all Video