Last week, hundreds of newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, abandoned any support that they may have had for the right of free speech. Rather than asserting, as did Voltaire, that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” they rushed to condemn a speaker who dared to utter words of which they disapproved. 

I refer, of course, to the action of newspapers pulling the Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoon strip over comments he made, not in his Dilbert cartoons, but on his “Real Coffee with Scott Adams” YouTube series. 

“The views expressed by Scott Adams are unambiguously racist,” said Gabriel Escobar, editor and senior vice president of the Inquirer. “As with all race-baiting, his comments are profoundly disturbing and dangerous. We will no longer publish Dilbert.”

Lacking the government’s power to fine or imprison him, their action effectively denied him the ability to pursue his profession. Totalitarian regimes have done the same to those of whom they disapproved.  Of course, our First Amendment’s protection of free speech applies only against the government and not non-governmental entities. However, having the legal right to punish speech does not automatically justify the exercise of that right. Indeed, it can reasonably be argued that it is worse since it lacks the procedural protections that government action requires.

Governments are required to provide due process to an accused before he can be deprived of liberty or property. What due process did these beneficiaries of free press protections provide to Adams?  None! Is there some universally recognized standard for determining that a comment is “racist”?  There are several definitions, but they all require someone to make a subjective judgment. What equivalent of a jury decided that Adams’ views were “unambiguously racist”? None! There was only the mere opinion of a newspaper editor who made the decision. So newspaper editors served as judge, jury, and executioner.

Newspaper readers got only the newspapers’ assertion that Adams’ comments were racist based on a very selective, out of context, choice of words that Adams had used. Reasonable minds listening to the entire segment of the podcast could disagree as to whether the “racist” label was appropriate. In any event, the Dilbert cartoons didn’t make any racist comments. The number of people who initially watched the Adams “Coffee” episode is minuscule in comparison to the number of people who have access to the Dilbert cartoon strip.  So why drop Dilbert?

Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is blatantly anti-Semitic. Shylock, the villain money lender, is rarely referred to by his name or profession by the other characters in the play. Rather, he is regularly pejoratively referred to as “the Jew.” Ultimately, his punishment is a forced conversion to Christianity. Yet Shakespeare’s works, including “The Merchant of Venice,”  continue to be read and performed.

Some will argue that “The Merchant of Venice” is not really anti-Semitic, and so the situations are different. But one could just as reasonably argue that Adams’ comments, in context, were not racist. That argument, however, did not occur. It still should. And the basis for his comments is the real issue that should be discussed, but hasn’t been and probably won’t be.

Adams was talking about a Rasmussen poll that asked for agreement or disagreement with the statement: “It’s okay to be white.” Only 53 percent of black Americans agreed with the statement while 26 percent disagreed, and 21 percent were not sure. Assuming for the sake of argument that the poll is an accurate reflection of black American attitudes, that is a disturbing revelation. 

Imagine for a moment that a poll of American Christians revealed that 25 percent did not think it was okay to be Jewish. Would Jews be uncomfortable? Suppose a poll of American Protestants revealed that 25 percent did not think it was okay to be Catholic. Would Catholics be uncomfortable? Suppose 25 percent of American whites did not think it was okay to be black. Wouldn’t blacks be uncomfortable? I strongly suspect that they would. Fortunately, I suspect that the percentage of white Americans who are truly “white supremacists” is quite small, and nowhere near 25 percent .

While Adams’ choice of words in expressing his thoughts may have been overly hyperbolic, the reaction to them in the press was excessive. Free speech, open debate and discussion is clearly chilled when poorly chosen words can lead to terrible consequences for the speaker. A speaker, whose carefully chosen words express an unpopular viewpoint, may be subjected to serious adverse consequences. Teachers, professors, and commentators may be reluctant to discuss serious controversial topics.  The benefits of free speech are too important to be subject to such jeopardy.

Our free press should be the first to defend free speech. It is disturbing that they have rushed to suppress it.

Howard Lurie is Emeritus Professor of Law, Charles Widger School of Law, Villanova University

4 thoughts on “Howard Lurie: “Free Press” declares war on “Free Speech””

  1. From the actual clip, Adams read a poll that found a majority of blacks people dislike being around white people, so he concluded that since that’s the case, he’d throw in the towel and would just avoid them since that’s what is wanted. And the Inquirer sees the problem as Adams, not the people answering the poll? That’s irrational …, “I hate you”, “fine I’ll leave”, … “you’re racist for leaving”. Brain dead paper.

  2. This was pretty good. Comparisons are very effective and appropriate to shine light on the stupidity of this Dilbert kerfuffle.

  3. Transcript of Dilbert Rant
    (Edited for grammar not content.)

    The Rasmussen Poll had a provocative little poll today. They said, “Do you agree or disagree with the statement, ‘It is okay to be White’?”
    That was an actual question Rasmussen asked White and Black voters and probably others. Do you disagree or agree with a statement it’s okay to be White? Twenty-six percent of Black people said no, it’s not okay to be White. Twenty-one percent were not sure. Added together that is forty-seven [percent] of Black respondents were not willing to say it’s okay to be White.
    That’s like a real poll. This just happened. Did you have any idea, would you have imagined that that could have happened? So, I realized, as you know I’ve been identifying as Black for a while, years now, because I like, you know, I like to be on the winning team and I like to help and I always thought well, if you help the Black Community that’s sort of the biggest lever, you know, you could you can find the biggest benefit. So, I thought well that’s the hardest thing and the biggest benefit. So, I’d like to focus a lot of my life resources in helping Black Americans so much. So that, I started identifying as Black to just be on the team I was helping.
    But it turns out that nearly half of that team doesn’t think I’m okay to be White which is of course why I identified as Black because so I could be on the winning team for a while, but I have to say this is the first political poll that ever changed my activities. I don’t know that that’s ever happened before.
    You know normally you see a poll; you just look at it. You go, “Ah whatever. Yeah, oh this is interesting what other people think.”
    But as of today, I am going to re-identify as White because I don’t want to be a member of a hate group. I had accidentally joined a hate group so if you know nearly half of all Blacks are not okay with White people according to this poll, not according to me, according to this poll, that’s a hate group. That’s a hate group. I don’t want to have anything to do with them and I would say, you know, based on the current way things are going, the best advice I would give to White people is to get the hell away from Black people. Just get away. Wherever you have to go, just get away because there’s no fixing this. This can’t be fixed right. This can’t be fixed. You just have to escape so that’s what I did.
    I went to a neighborhood where, you know, I have a very low Black population because unfortunately that you know. There’s high correlation between the density and this is going to Don Lemon by the way so here. I’m just quoting Don Lemon when he notes that when he lived in a mostly Black neighborhood there were a bunch of problems that he didn’t see in White neighborhoods so even Don Lemon sees a big difference in your own quality of living based on where you live and who’s there.
    So, I think it makes no sense whatsoever as a White citizen of America to try to help Black citizens anymore it doesn’t make sense. It’s no longer a rational impulse and so I’m gonna, I’m gonna back off from being helpful to Black America because it doesn’t seem like it pays off like I’ve been doing it all my life and have been. The only outcome is I get called a racist. That’s the only outcome. It makes no sense to help Blacks.
    Americans if you’re White, it’s over. Don’t even think it’s worth trying. Totally not trying now. We should be friendly like I’m not saying start a war or you know do anything bad. Nothing like that. I’m just saying get away, just get away, and here’s my take on all of it.
    Everybody who focuses their priority on education does well. If anybody in the Black community focuses on education, they will do well, as well, because the system allows that. If they do not, I cannot make that my problem anymore. It just can’t be my problem. It can’t be my problem if the solution is so clear so available and people don’t want to take it. It’s just not my problem anymore so I resign.
    I resigned from the hate group called Black Americans. According to the Rasmussen Poll, forty-six percent of them don’t think White people are okay just being White and there we go.
    You didn’t expect that today, did you?
    But the most helpful thing I can do is to say I’m not going to help. Do you understand that continuing to help in, in that sort of, you know classic, “Oh let me help you give you a, you know, a lift up, give you a hand, you know mentor, you hire, you prefer you,” I’m going to stop all of that. I’m done with all of that.
    Yeah, no it didn’t work. The only thing that will work is to say, “You got to fix your own problem. You know how. You know how to do it. Everybody else figured it out.”
    I’m not going to speculate. You know why you’re not doing it. I’m not going to speculate why there’s a difference. I’m just going to say, “It’s available to everybody just pick it up. It’s free money. Focus on education and you could have a good life too but those who don’t want to focus on education, you just need to get away from them. Just get as much distance as you can that’s my recommendation.
    And I’m also really sick of seeing video after video of Black Americans beating up non-Black citizens. You know, I realize it’s anecdotal and you know it doesn’t give me a full picture of what’s happening but every damn day I look on social media and there’s some Black person beating the [ ] out of some White person. I’m kind of over it.
    I’m over it right so I quit, and it feels good not to be in a racist hate group anymore. So, I’m now independent not a member of any group. I do not align with any group not the White supremacists and not the Black racists. Alright?

  4. Since the only thing worthwhile reading in print media is the comic page and even there only some are actually funny and address all the foibles of life, it seems to me that cancelling Dilbert is shooting off your foot. Since Scott Adams has a web site that gives you access to Dilbert and all the other Dilbert characters (alert: I like Ratbert and Bob the Dinasaour) what do editors hope to gain by cancelling Dilbert? To me, doing so, especially when accompanied by such reverse racist, inane comments such as the Enquirer published serves to only convince me newspaper people never escaped mental adolescence. Rock On, Dilbert.

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