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