America’s Most Cherished and Controversial Right

Ryan T. Woods on Free Speech

Of all our democratic values, Americans are most devoted to free speech. A 2015 Rasmussen poll revealed fervor for freedom of expression outstripping support for religious liberty, the independence of the press, and the right to bear arms. Ignorance forms no barrier to enthusiasm. Another survey from Annenberg found almost two in five respondents couldn’t enumerate any First Amendment rights without prompting, yet nearly half of all interviewees still named free speech as an important liberty. Without exaggeration, political historian Kent Greenawalt calls this principle “a cornerstone of liberal democracy.”

At the same time they profess these convictions, however, Americans maintain free speech has become endangered in the public square – and particularly in the university quadrangle. A 2017 Rasmussen poll found only 28% believe they enjoy true freedom of expression. Generational, racial, and partisan disparities loom large in these perceptions across party lines. Recently, Gallup asked respondents to evaluate the viability of First Amendment rights. About three in four students contend free speech remains secure. African-Americans expressed more skepticism than their peers about their right to free speech and to peaceful assembly. Democrats were more sanguine than Republicans on the status of expression. So, depending on whom you ask, this situation continues to improve or deteriorate.

How can a value commanding such widespread support feel so beleaguered? And why does confidence in its security vary so radically by demographic? A convincing answer to this question must acknowledge conflicts of interpretation within popular consensus. While Americans have long regarded free speech as sacrosanct, they’ve become increasingly divided over how to define it. These differences reflect the changing culture of postwar America.

But these divisions are not simply the residue of structural realignments and social dislocation. They chart the progress of a deliberate strategy to counter the effects of cultural change by absolutizing free expression. Such “free speech fundamentalism” resists exceptions and accommodations. To understand this development on its own terms – a quasi-religious community premised on an extremist interpretation of First Amendment rights – illuminates recent tensions over America’s most cherished and controversial right. And to counter it effectively, it’s important to understand this genealogy and its strategic terrain. Like any fundamentalism, free speech fundamentalism thrives on scripted conflicts and trades in symbolic currency. To neutralize it, then, will take more than exposing its hypocrisies. If the history of religious fundamentalism teaches us anything, it will take changing the rules of the game.


The right of citizens to express themselves was a formative value for the country. It’s one grounded in nature and enshrined in its founding documents. Yet popular adoration of free speech goes beyond etiologies of nature and parchment. To discover why Americans have created a society valuing expression, to trace the vagaries of its interpretation across history, and to frame the contemporary debates engulfing it today, it helps to analyze free speech as a devotional culture.

In his fascinating study, Eloquence and Reason: Creating a First Amendment Culture, legal historian Robert Tsai examines commitments to free expression as one might trace the formation of a religious community. Rights, Tsai insists, flow from core beliefs holding a people together. Just as congregations might gather around shared convictions – whether explicit or unspoken – so citizens share a culture of freedom even before their government charters these rights. These doctrines shape how people define and understand their entitlements.

If we can interpret the development of First Amendment commitment as devotional tradition, we can analyze “free speech fundamentalism” as a particular species of religious culture. Fundamentalisms are diverse enough to make taxonomy challenging, but a few features stand out. Perhaps its most distinguishing characteristic, as George Marsden points out in Fundamentalism and American Culture, is militancy. Where other traditions broker compromises with the world around them, fundamentalists fiercely resist accommodation. Sharp polarities define the contours of their sectarian outlooks, which privilege insiders and demonize outsiders. For this reason, fundamentalists abhor pluralism.

The contemporary landscape represents dangerous territory for these militants. They can never be reconciled to this diverse environment, and so must carve out a haven from the hostile world. Their search for refuge becomes the basis for mythologizing. Fundamentalists long for a utopian past characterized by purity of belief and practice. This nostalgic fantasy – which needs not correspond to an actual time and place – depends in any case on selective curation of history. Believers maintain an ambivalent relationship with the contemporary world: fundamentalism is a creature of modernity, yet remains congenitally at odds with its dominant values.

Like any religious extremism, free speech fundamentalism convinces acolytes to perceive the surrounding world as an antagonistic place. White men seem particularly susceptible to this interpretation. The terrain that once privileged them is changing. Demographers report that by midcentury, they will become a minority. Immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa are becoming neighbors, co-workers, and fellow students. From the boardroom to the Senate, women and minorities are assuming positions in the corridors of power traditionally reserved for white men. Most conspicuously, a Black politician and community organizer named Barack Hussein Obama occupied the White House for eight years.

With demographic change comes social ferment, led by the voices of a new America. Feminist activism has made misogyny increasingly unacceptable. Protest movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter have disrupted business as usual. Confederate flags and monuments are slated for removal. Professional athletes take a knee while the National Anthem plays. Speech codes regulate the margins of accepted discourse in college classrooms, which a diverse array of students now populate. Although white men still wield disproportionate influence, these trends indicate reconfigurations of power on the horizon.

In this changing context, free speech fundamentalism articulates white male grievance at the erosion of traditional privileges. As Arlie Hochschild painstakingly chronicles in Strangers in Their Own Land, these feelings of betrayal and “reverse discrimination” inform their “deep story.” Branded as intolerant, this disenchanted bloc has stopped playing by the rules of the game. Not surprisingly, a fundamentalist agenda for ensuring freedom in the public square frequently includes making offensive statements about women and minorities.

Consider Milo Yiannapoulos. A self-proclaimed evangelist for free speech fundamentalism, Milo deplores all restrictions on public conversation. The Cambridge-educated author of Dangerous engineers flamboyant provocations in print, on various media, and in his personal appearances. As a contributing editor at Breitbart, he produced articles like “Donald Trump Would Be the Real First Black President,” “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy,” and “There’s No Hiring Bias against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews.” Milo classifies Black Lives Matter as a hate group, and he routinely diagnoses feminism and Islam as “cancers” metastasizing in the American body politic. These insults have elicited predictable responses. His trolling of Leslie Jones got him banned from Twitter; his casual endorsement of trysts between adult males and 13-year olds prompted Simon & Schuster to reconsider a book contract. When his scheduled lecture at Berkeley incited riots, the spectacle attracted national coverage.

Whatever one thinks of Milo’s antics, the fundamentalist brand of free speech he advertises has gained currency over the past two decades. A 2000 First Amendment Center survey registered two thirds of those polled opposed protecting racially insensitive remarks. Fifteen years later, Pew Research Center discovered two of every three Americans believed people should be able to make offensive comments about minorities in public. One can chalk up some of these discrepancies to the divorce between general support for the principle of free speech and discomfort with particular instances of inflammatory expression. Still, it’s hard to resist concluding that the shift heralds significant movement on the boundaries of speech.


That’s not to say limits don’t exist among the many absolutists. Like other extremisms, free speech fundamentalism depends on maintaining an impossible purism. Its apologists maintain values at odds with their commitment to unrestricted discourse. In that sense, their absolutism offers a mirage, not reality. Despite professed contempt for political correctness, their culture of discourse operates within informal but just as strictly-policed limits. Such inconsistency is no aberration. In fact, it’s a calling card of fundamentalism. H. Richard Niebuhr wrote that the sectarian impulse “affirms in words what it denies in action” by privileging certain norms, then applying them selectively.

Where does free speech fundamentalism draw limits? Alex Nowrasteh, a fellow at the conservative Cato Institute, describes the PC on the right as a nationalist “patriotic correctness.” Those who disagree openly with American foreign policy are anti-American. People should have the freedom to say what they want – unless they want to protest the National Anthem peacefully. Safe spaces are pilloried and the liberal bias of the mainstream media slandered by those who habitually retreat to the echo chambers of Fox News Breitbart, and (the now defunct) Parler. The University of Chicago earns plaudits for removing obstacles to open discussion – except when the topic happens to be graduate student unions. Free speech fundamentalists denounce illiberal policing of discourse, but engage in inquisitorial practices themselves. Professors who violate these shibboleths find themselves subject to smear campaigns. Not surprisingly, women and minorities find themselves disproportionately targeted.


Anti-fundamentalists have vacillated about how to counter this sectarian vision, advocating a spectrum of responses ranging from indifference to open combat. What’s absent from many conversations about free speech on the Left, remarks Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs, is strategic calculus. Focusing exclusively on whether an institutions or persons can curtail speech without considering the consequences of this restriction is like taking a sharp left turn without knowing the final destination. Far from suppressing a pernicious voice, it may end up amplifying it.

For this reason, it’s important to recognize what gives fundamentalism power in the public square. While white supremacist recruitment efforts alarm Americans, they’ve not mustered a critical mass. Westboro Baptist protestors don’t anticipate widespread conversions. Suicide bombers and jihadists die knowing their martyrdom won’t expel occupying forces. These fundamentalists don’t expect to win the war – or even a skirmish. They’re after different quarry. They traffic in the symbolic. Like its religious counterparts, free-speech fundamentalism thrives on political theater.

In particular, free speech fundamentalists weaponize a touchstone of democracy (passionate devotion to free speech) to polarize communities. Capitalizing on widespread misunderstanding of First Amendment protections, provocateurs argue for their right to a platform. If the town refuses to issue a permit or the university withholds a platform, the organizers fulminate (usually on prominent media platforms) about their voices being silenced by cancel culture. No one is owed a platform, of course. The First Amendment guarantees protection from government censorship of expression, not a forum for everyone with an opinion. But that hardly matters, for the goal is spectacle, not substance.

Being denied a platform raises suspicion of left-wing bias, but there is often approval for an event that stirs violent opposition. Any blowback it foments makes for publicity, exposing the protestors as aggressors. “Best-case scenario is that the [Social Justice Warriors] freak out and we get another Berkeley,” reasoned one editor of the Stanford Review, a conservative publication that was considering inviting Milo to campus. His intention in baiting protestors was transparent, Elliot Kaufman observed in National Review: “… the left-wing riots were not the price or the downside of inviting Yiannopoulos – they were the attraction.”

This stagecraft casts dissenters as enemies of the freedom of expression, papers over the rights of the protestors to free speech, and makes the speakers martyrs – no matter how inflammatory their message. By presenting themselves as victims of liberal histrionics, these provocateurs are tapping into a deeply-held belief on the Right and scoring a public relations coup. Traditional conservatives contend the Left is far more intolerant than the Right, noting the presence of campus speech codes, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and cancel culture – not to mention riots – over controversial speakers. Alt-Right partisans go further, asserting they should be free to speak with total impunity. Any reprisals visited on them confirm their heroic sense of victimhood. “We’re not the haters, we’re the victims of white genocide,” is how one researcher summarized their stock response.

But Liberals play a role in this fundamentalist drama as well. While they don’t endorse the excesses of the alt-right, some scold protestors for failing to respect offensive speech. This underwrites a “both sides” moral equivalence that serves the interests of free speech fundamentalism. Consider Fareed Zakaria opining on clashes over controversial speakers. After reminding his audience that free speech entails “protecting and listening to speech with which you disagree,” Zakaria takes on what he perceives as an “anti-intellectualism” on the left.

But he is just warming up. “Liberals think they are tolerant, but often they are not,” he observes. They suffer from sanctimony, too pure to hear ideas with which they disagree. “No one,” he intones, “has a monopoly on right or virtue.” A chorus of other liberal defenders of free speech make similar preachments. From rows on the New York Times editorial board to grandiloquent manifestos against cancel culture signed by the least canceled group of authors in print, the result is the same.

Free speech fundamentalism represents only one strand of American devotion to liberty of expression. But like all fundamentalisms, it usurps the exclusive right to interpret this freedom. Beneath its veneer of timeless truth, however, lies a peculiar genealogy, tradition, and contradictions. It offers a false dilemma of all or nothing free speech. It fractures university and political communities along racial, political, and ideological lines. To arrest the development of free speech extremism, we must confront it at the level of symbol and strip it of its potency.

It’s fitting that free speech—the very source of conflict—may also furnish the instruments for dismantling free speech fundamentalism.

 Ryan T. Woods is a writer based in Athens, Georgia. He earned his doctorate in religion at Emory University, and his interests range from early Alexandrian Christianity to Cleveland sports.