On Wednesday, Republican Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) was photographed on his way into the Capitol. Based on lies, which would be read into the Congressional record, he promised to delay—even halt—the Electoral College count that would confirm Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the winners of the 2020 election.
This preppy populist pumped his fist at the insurrectionists roiling in front of the building, a photo that will forever represent his fall from grace. Fresh from a Trump rally and cloaked in millions of dollars of paraphernalia sold to them by Donald Trump, this mob would shortly invade and sack the heart of the United States government with the express purpose of preventing Biden and Harris from being inaugurated.
Both Hawley and the mob failed to reverse the outcome of a legal election, but they left five dead, a ruined building, and a splintered Republican party behind. The following day, Simon & Schuster canceled Josh Hawley’s book contract, citing the publishers’ “larger public responsibility as citizens,” and their unwillingness to “support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat.”
Hawley's response to his cancellation captures the zeitgeist of a right-wing that sees any limits to individual speech, no matter how foul the words, as a Constitutional calamity. Simon & Schuster’s action was “Orwellian,” Hawley announced. It was the act of a “woke mob” employed at the publishing house, “a direct assault on the First Amendment” and an example of“the Left looking to cancel everyone they don’t approve of.” Hawley vowed that he would “fight this cancel culture with everything I have. We’ll see you in court.”
Let me say: I have always been passionate about the First Amendment. Because of that, I am a member of PEN America. Conservatives have worked hard to curtail freedom of speech in education, a profession to which I have dedicated my entire adult life. I have watched as colleagues at public universities have, in some cases, been harassed out of their careers by internet trolls goaded on and financed by conservative groups. Limits on acceptable speech have consequences for people’s lives, but they also undermine the possibility of maintaining a robust public sphere through dissent and debate.
Mostly, I think, the right way to handle speech that I find abhorrent is to limit my contact with it. But honestly, abhorrent speech is part of our world, and it is part of my job to make sense of the world. As a historian, the fact that abhorrent speech is not suppressed is crucial to doing my work. Anyone who has investigated my recent book's footnotes will find them full of references to carefully archived, politically godawful books, newsletters, and websites.
The freedom to speak and publish undergirds my career and the careers of others like me. Because of this, last summer, I signed a document that is now colloquially known as “The Harper’s letter,” a statement of conscience about free speech and the ways that social media, click-bait news, and popular opinion are mobilized to quash dissent. Formally titled “An Open Letter on Justice and Debate,” it affirmed the values of racial and social justice that were shaking public life out of its complacency about racial violence at that moment. But it also proposed that the passions social movements evoke have a dark side that is sometimes used to justify bullying, foment conspiracy theories, misrepresent, and shame people into silence who ought to be heard and engaged.
Naturally, of course, bullying, fomenting conspiracy theories, misrepresentation, and shaming followed the letter's publication. After all, it’s the internet, and, more importantly, you cannot stand behind the right to dissent and then rule it out of order. But the fact that a statement supporting free speech was controversial on the left in the first place highlights how anemic our conversations about freedom of expression are more generally, how little we discuss who it is available to and why, and what the consequences of this neglect are.
One of those consequences is that we are often ill-prepared to respond coherently when illiberal political figures like Josh Hawley weaponize the First Amendment. But I am going to try.