The Right Must Avoid the Left’s Free Speech Pitfalls

Years ago, after the Bush administration initiated the Deep State’s surveillance regime via the Patriot Act, I observed that the left and right in this country seemed to be competing to see who could censor the most speech. 

Since then, the left has forged far ahead in the censorship race, with the rise of cancel culture, deplatforming of campus speakers, and—more recently—spurious charges of “misinformation” leveled at conservatives. 

Under Joe Biden, the government has even pressured private companies to remove social media posts contrary to the regime’s preferred narratives on COVID-19, climate change, and election fraud. That is censorship on a large scale. 

Indeed, we’ve gotten to the point where simply expressing support for the First Amendment automatically marks one as “rightwing”—can you say Elon Musk? This, of course, tells us all we need to know about the authoritarian tendencies of the left. 

The dynamic has shifted somewhat, however, since the brutal terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas against Israeli civilians on October 7, 2023. The right’s collective response to that atrocity appears to reveal some cracks in our free speech armor. 

While most conservatives are openly pro-Israel—I don’t know any who are pro-Hamas—some do question the Israeli government’s motives and tactics. Others wonder whether the U.S. should be expending its resources in what amounts to, in their view, a regional conflict. 

Although I disagree, such opinions are not beyond the pale.  

People must be allowed to express them, both because they have a right to and because, in any debate, contrarians serve the useful purpose of forcing the majority to reexamine its own arguments, shore them up as necessary, and perhaps make course corrections. 

Yet prominent conservatives have been shouted down, deplatformed, and even fired by other conservatives for the offense of appearing insufficiently pro-Israel.     

Then there are those, almost exclusively on the left, who are openly pro-Hamas—which is to say, pro-terrorism, pro-barbarism, and literally anti-Semitic. We’ve seen them protesting practically non-stop on college campuses and elsewhere for the past several months. They are extremely vocal, often disruptive, and occasionally violent. 

How should we respond to them? 

Texas Governor Greg Abbott believes he has the answer. He recently issued an executive order condemning Hamas and anti-Semitic rhetoric on campus and declared that “Texas will continue to stand with Israel.” He also reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to free speech. 

So far, so good. 

He then directed all Texas colleges and universities to “review and update free speech policies to address the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts on university campuses and establish appropriate punishments.” 

Do you see the problem?  

Abbott puts “speech” and “acts” in the same category, essentially equating them and thereby coopting a longstanding leftist talking point: “Words are violence.” But as conservatives understand, words are not violence. So what is Abbott decrying here—speech or actions? 

If the latter, his executive order is unnecessary. Every action he describes—protests escalating into violence, physical intimidation of Jewish students, disruption of classes and campus activities—is already covered by existing laws and campus policies. As Governor, Abbott could simply direct college presidents to enforce those. 

On the other hand, if the order is really about speech, then it’s clearly unconstitutional. However offensive we may find it, “anti-Semitic speech” is protected by the First Amendment—exceptions to which are, rightly, very limited—and therefore cannot be “punished” by state actors. 

This should go without saying: if the government can punish speech, it isn’t free. 

Speech that directly incites a riot or calls for violence against specific individuals or groups is, like violent actions, already illegal. But merely chanting “Free Palestine” or even “From the river to the sea” does not meet that high bar. 

When conservatives take pages out of the left’s playbook, we essentially accept their premises: in this case, thatwords are inherently violent, and thus, one side has no right to express views the other finds abhorrent. This is not to our advantage. We will be on the losing end of that transaction almost every time. 

More importantly, our commitment to free speech is both morally and ethically right. Today’s campus anti-Semitism is a test of that commitment, one Abbott’s executive orders fails miserably. Whether this represents a broader failure on the right remains to be seen.

Photo by zimmytws — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 301839238


  • Rob Jenkins

    Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University – Perimeter College and a Higher Education Fellow at Campus Reform. He is the author or co-author of six books, including Think Better, Write Better, Welcome to My Classroom, and The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders. In addition to Campus Reform Online, he has written for the Brownstone Institute, Townhall, The Daily Wire, American Thinker, PJ Media, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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2 thoughts on “The Right Must Avoid the Left’s Free Speech Pitfalls

  1. While mere opprobrious words are not actionable, words that incite others to violent action are.

    So, while you’re right that words alone are usually not the issue, they can be. It depends on the totality of the circumstances, but of course you knew that

  2. 10-15 years ago, I would have agreed — but not now.

    The Constitution is not a suicide pact, and we should not be extending liberties to those who seek to destroy us. I think it’s agreed that one can not safely have a “Draw Mohammed” contest as that has been tried.

    When you are dealing with people who will kill us for our speech, they are inherently waiving their rights to free speech. Reality is that college presidents aren’t going to enforce the existing policies against violence — at least before people are killed — and hence we have the same situation as the hate crime laws.

    Hate crime laws criminalize speech because (it was felt) that the existing criminal punishments for the actual crimes (e.g. vandalism) weren’t sufficient to deter the hate crimes. So where rolling a pig’s head through the front door of a bowling alley will only get you a misdemeanor charge (if that if you agree to clean up the mess and apologize), rolling the same pig’s head through the front door of a Mosque is a Federal Offense. (It’s been done in Lewiston, ME.)

    And one could argue that rolling a pig’s head is a form of speech — boorish speech but still symbolic speech…

    So call me hypocritical but I’m not going to cry too much when the other side starts getting held to the speech restrictions that I have to endure on a daily basis.

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