Editorial Roundup: United States

Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:

March 18

The New York Times believes the United States has a free speech problem

For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.

This social silencing, this depluralizing of America, has been evident for years, but dealing with it stirs yet more fear. It feels like a third rail, dangerous. For a strong nation and open society, that is dangerous.

How has this happened? In large part, it’s because the political left and the right are caught in a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around cancel culture. Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all, believing that those who complain about it are offering cover for bigots to peddle hate speech. Many on the right, for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness as a bulwark against a rapidly changing society, with laws that would ban books, stifle teachers and discourage open discussion in classrooms.

Many Americans are understandably confused, then, about what they can say and where they can say it. People should be able to put forward viewpoints, ask questions and make mistakes and take unpopular but good-faith positions on issues that society is still working through — all without fearing cancellation.

However you define cancel culture, Americans know it exists and feel its burden. In a new national poll commissioned by Times Opinion and Siena College, only 34% of Americans said they believed that all Americans enjoyed freedom of speech completely. The poll found that 84% of adults said it is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.

This poll and other recent surveys from the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation reveal a crisis of confidence around one of America’s most basic values. Freedom of speech and expression is vital to human beings’ search for truth and knowledge about our world. A society that values freedom of speech can benefit from the full diversity of its people and their ideas. At the individual level, human beings cannot flourish without the confidence to take risks, pursue ideas and express thoughts that others might reject.

Most important, freedom of speech is the bedrock of democratic self-government. If people feel free to express their views in their communities, the democratic process can respond to and resolve competing ideas. Ideas that go unchallenged by opposing views risk becoming weak and brittle rather than being strengthened by tough scrutiny. When speech is stifled or when dissenters are shut out of public discourse, a society also loses its ability to resolve conflict, and it faces the risk of political violence.

The Times Opinion/Siena College poll found that 46% of respondents said they felt less free to talk about politics compared to a decade ago. Thirty percent said they felt the same. Only 21% of people reported feeling freer, even though in the past decade there was a vast expansion of voices in the public square through social media.

“There’s a crisis around the freedom of speech now because many people don’t understand it, they weren’t taught what it means and why it matters,” said Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, a free speech organization. “Safeguards for free speech have been essential to almost all social progress in the country, from the civil rights movement to women’s suffrage to the current fights over racial justice and the police.”

Times Opinion commissioned the poll to provide more data and insight that can inform a debate mired in extremes. This editorial board plans to identify a wide range of threats to freedom of speech in the coming months and to offer possible solutions. Freedom of speech requires not just a commitment to openness and tolerance in the abstract. It demands conscientiousness about both the power of speech and its potential harms. We believe it isn’t enough for Americans to just believe in the rights of others to speak freely; they should also find ways to actively support and protect those rights.

We are under no illusion that this is easy. Our era, especially, is not made for this; social media is awash in speech of the point-scoring, picking-apart, piling-on, put-down variety. A deluge of misinformation and disinformation online has heightened this tension. Making the internet a more gracious place does not seem high on anyone’s agenda, and certainly not for most of the tech companies that control it.

But the old lesson of “think before you speak” has given way to the new lesson of “speak at your peril.” You can’t consider yourself a supporter of free speech and be policing and punishing speech more than protecting it. Free speech demands a greater willingness to engage with ideas we dislike and greater self-restraint in the face of words that challenge and even unsettle us.

It is worth noting here the important distinction between what the First Amendment protects (freedom from government restrictions on expression) and the popular conception of free speech (the affirmative right to speak your mind in public, on which the law is silent). The world is witnessing, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the strangling of free speech through government censorship and imprisonment. That is not the kind of threat to freedom of expression that Americans face. Yet something has been lost; the poll clearly shows a dissatisfaction with free speech as it is experienced and understood by Americans today.

Consider this finding from our poll: Fifty-five percent of respondents said that they had held their tongue over the past year because they were concerned about retaliation or harsh criticism. Women were more likely to report doing so — 61%, compared to 49% of men. Older respondents were less likely to have done so than other age groups. Republicans (58%) were slightly more likely to have held their tongues than Democrats (52%) or independents (56%).

At the same time, 22% of adults reported that they had retaliated against or were harshly critical of someone over something he or she said. Adults 18 to 34 years old were far more likely to have done so than older Americans; liberals were more likely to have done so than moderates or conservatives.

Elijah Afere, a 25-year-old I.T. technician from Union, N.J., said that he worried about the larger implications of chilled speech for democracy. “You can’t give people the benefit of the doubt to just hold a conversation anymore. You’ve got to worry about feeling judged,” he said. “Political views can even affect your family ties, how you relate to your uncle or the other side. It’s really not good.”

Roy Block, 76, from San Antonio, described himself as conservative and said he has been alarmed by scenes of parents being silenced at school board meetings over the past year. “I think it’s mostly conservatives that are being silenced,” he said. “But regardless, I think it should be a two-way street. Everybody should have an opportunity to speak and especially in open gathering and open forum.”

Pollsters asked how free people felt today to discuss six topics — including religion, politics, gender identity and race relations — compared to 10 years ago: more free, less free or the same. Those who felt freest were Black respondents: At least 30% of them said they felt more free to speak on every topic, including 42% on race relations, the highest share of any racial or ethnic group. Still, that sentiment of more freedom among Black respondents reached only 46%, not a majority (the 46% being on the issue of gender identity).

At the same time, a full 84% of Black people polled shared the concern of this editorial that it was a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that some Americans do not exercise their freedom of speech out of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism. And 45% of Black people and nearly 60% of Latinos and white people polled reported that they’d held their tongues in the past year out of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.

While the level of national anxiety around free speech is apparent, the solutions are much less clear. In the poll, 66% of respondents agreed with the following: “Our democracy is built upon the free, open and safe exchange of ideas, no matter how different they are. We should encourage all speech so long as it is done in a way that doesn’t threaten others.” Yet a full 30% agreed that “while I support free speech, sometimes you have shut down speech that is antidemocratic, bigoted or simply untrue.” Those who identified themselves as Democrats and liberals showed a higher level of support for sometimes shutting down such speech.

The full-throated defense of free speech was once a liberal ideal. Many of the legal victories that expanded the realm of permissible speech in the United States came in defense of liberal speakers against the power of the government — a ruling that students couldn’t be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, a ruling protecting the rights of students to demonstrate against the Vietnam War, a ruling allowing the burning of the American flag.

And yet many progressives appear to have lost faith in that principle. This was a source of great frustration for one of those who responded to our poll, Emily Leonard, a 93-year-old from Hartford, Conn., who described herself as a liberal. She said she was alarmed about reports of speakers getting shouted down on college campuses. “We need to hear what people think, even though we disagree with them. It is the basis of our democracy. And it’s absolutely essential to a continuing democracy,” she said. “Liberal as I am — a little to the left of Lenin — I think these kids and this whole cancel culture and so-called woke is doing us so much harm. They’re undermining the Constitution. That’s what it comes down to.”

The progressive movement in America has been a force for good in many ways: for social and racial justice, for pay equity, for a fairer system and society and for calling out hate and hate speech. In the course of their fight for tolerance, many progressives have become intolerant of those who disagree with them or express other opinions and taken on a kind of self-righteousness and censoriousness that the right long displayed and the left long abhorred. It has made people uncertain about the contours of speech: Many know they shouldn’t utter racist things, but they don’t understand what they can say about race or can say to a person of a different race from theirs. Attacking people in the workplace, on campus, on social media and elsewhere who express unpopular views from a place of good faith is the practice of a closed society.

The Times does not allow hate speech in our pages, even though it is broadly protected by the Constitution, and we support that principle. But there is a difference between hate speech and speech that challenges us in ways that we might find difficult or even offensive.

At the same time, all Americans should be deeply concerned about an avalanche of legislation passed by Republican-controlled legislatures around the country that gags discussion of certain topics and clearly violates the spirit of the First Amendment, if not the letter of the law.

It goes far beyond conservative states yanking books about race and sex from public school libraries. Since 2021 in 40 state legislatures, 175 bills have been introduced or prefiled that target what teachers can say and what students can learn, often with severe penalties. Of those, 13 have become law in 11 states, and 106 are still under consideration. All told, 99 bills currently target K-12 public schools, 44 target higher education, and 59 include punishment for violators, according to a running tally kept by PEN America. In some instances, the proposed bills failed to become law. In other cases, the courts should declare them unconstitutional.

These bills include Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would restrict what teachers and students can talk about and allows for parents to file lawsuits. If the law goes into force, watch for lawsuits against schools that restrict the free speech rights of students to discuss things like sexuality, established by earlier Supreme Court rulings.

The new gag laws coincide with a similar barrage of bills that ostensibly target critical race theory, an idea that has percolated down from law schools to the broader public in recent years as a way to understand the pervasiveness of racism. The moral panic around critical race theory has morphed into a vast effort to restrict discussions of race, sex, American history and other topics that conservatives say are divisive. Several states have now passed these gag laws restricting what can be said in public schools, colleges and universities, and state agencies and institutions.

In passing laws that restrict speech, conservatives have adopted the language of harm that some liberals used in the past to restrict speech — the idea that speech itself can cause an unacceptable harm, which has led to a proliferation of campus speech codes and the use of trigger warnings in college classrooms.

Now conservatives have used the idea of harmful speech to their own ends: An anti-critical-race-theory law in Tennessee passed last year, for instance, makes lesson plans illegal if any students “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress.” (Unmentioned, of course, is the potential discomfort felt by students who are fed a whitewashed version of American history.)

Liberals — and anyone concerned with protecting free speech — are right to fight against these pernicious laws. But legal limits are not the only constraints on Americans’ freedom of speech. On college campuses and in many workplaces, speech that others find harmful or offensive can result not only in online shaming but also in the loss of livelihood. Some progressives believe this has provided a necessary, and even welcome, check on those in power. But when social norms around acceptable speech are constantly shifting and when there is no clear definition of harm, these constraints on speech can turn into arbitrary rules with disproportionate consequences.

Free speech is predicated on mutual respect — that of people for one another and of a government for the people it serves. Every day, in communities across the country, Americans must speak to one another freely to refine and improve the elements of our social contract: What do we owe the most vulnerable in our neighborhoods? What conduct should we expect from public servants? What ideas are so essential to understanding American democracy that they should be taught in schools? When public discourse in America is narrowed, it becomes harder to answer these and the many other urgent questions we face as a society.

ONLINE: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/18/opinion/cancel-culture-free-speech-poll.html

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March 20

The Wall Street Journal argues that, with the pandemic receding, Congress should return to in-person voting

Most Americans have resumed something close to normal life after COVID-19, but not the U.S. House of Representatives. Many lawmakers have become accustomed to the convenience of voting in absentia, and they want to make a supposed emergency measure an accepted practice.

The House has allowed Members to vote by proxy for almost two years, and the COVID-19 dispensation will expire on March 30 unless Speaker Nancy Pelosi extends it another 45 days, as she has many times. Only 101 Representatives didn’t vote by proxy at all last year— 78 Republicans and 23 Democrats, according to a Ripon Society analysis. Proxy voting is especially popular on Fridays—on the rare occasions that Congress works more than four days a week.

Proxy voting is no small institutional change, and having a quorum present is essential to House procedures and character. If Members aren’t around, it’s easier for leadership to ram through bills without debate or amendment. The rough and tumble of negotiation is harder. The Senate — average Member age: 64 — has navigated pandemic risks without proxy floor voting, and vaccines obviate whatever public-health rationale once existed.

Lawmakers seem to have thought better of, say, casting a committee vote while out on a boat, but there’s talk of a new system that allows members to vote by proxy for a good reason, or perhaps a certain number of times a year. “The world has changed. Technology is extraordinary,” Democrat Steny Hoyer said at a House hearing last week, arguing Congress should adapt like other businesses.

But Members have always missed votes. Voters are best equipped to make distinctions between a Member who isn’t available to rename post offices because she’s away due to family illness and a Member who skips votes to attend fundraisers and appear on television.

Some Representatives don’t want to relocate their families to Washington and thus want more time at home. But serving in Congress is supposed to be public service. Voting is the core duty of Congress, and House Members should respect the office enough to come to the floor when the roll is called.

ONLINE: https://www.wsj.com/articles/make-congress-show-up-for-work-again-house-proxy-voting-covid-nancy-pelosi-steny-hoyer-11647637176

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March 21

China Daily says that the U.S. should, as Voltaire said, cultivate its own garden

Due to the two parties’ divergences on its distribution, the United States Senate rejected $15.6 billion in funding for COVID-19 pandemic prevention and control in a government funding bill US President Joe Biden signed on Tuesday last week.

With nearly 1 million COVID-19 deaths and cumulative infections of more than 81 million, the US, with 4.45% of the world population, counts for 17% of the COVID-19 infections and 16% of the COVID-19 deaths worldwide, making it the worst-hit country.

As such, it is easy to understand why the decision to reject the COVID-19 pandemic prevention and control funding in the bill has irked many in the country, as it serves to expose the extent to which US politicians are willing to sacrifice people’s health and life for their narrow ends, if not the interests of partisan politics.

The Biden administration had initially requested $30 billion, only to reduce it to $22.5 billion and, finally, to $15.6 billion. But even with the amount halved, Republicans were unwilling to authorize more money without cuts elsewhere or a full accounting from the Biden administration of the already approved virus funding.

The decision laid bare to the world how political interests can ride roughshod over people’s lives in a country that often lectures others on human rights. Partisan factionalism and political polarization are worsening the social ills in the country, dragging the US into a dangerous situation.

The US’ dealing with the novel coronavirus over the past two years, ranging from vaccination to the allocation of pandemic prevention and control funding, has always been abducted by politics.

As the US Government Accountability Office has pointed out, the US Department of Health and Human Services has failed to play its due role in the response to the outbreak, displaying “persistent deficiencies”, including unclear federal, state and regional roles and responsibilities, failure to properly collect and analyze epidemic data, lack of transparency and lack of communication with the public.

To some extent, the pandemic has exposed, if not enlarged, the institutional loopholes in the US political system which has enabled power holders to become increasingly fearless and shameless in shirking their responsibilities, and manipulating public opinion for their own interests.

The US still has a long way to go to normalize social life. And if, as some experts warn, new variants of the virus appear over the next 12 months, about 80% of the US population will be infected, and even if the death rate is lowered to 0.1%, another 264,000 lives will be lost by March next year.

When asked on Thursday why the COVID relief funding is absent from the aforementioned bill, Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, who was visibly annoyed by that, said “people are dying in the Ukraine and all of that”.

Yeah, but people are dying of COVID too, as the reporter shot back.

ONLINE: https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202203/21/WS62386320a310fd2b29e52515.html

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March 20

According to the Washington Post, certain GOP members shouldn’t waste time attacking SCOTUS nominee

When Ketanji Brown Jackson is sworn in Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, she will be the first Black woman to sit in the hot seat of a Supreme Court nominee. Comments from some GOP senators suggest that her confirmation hearings will be less contentious than other recent ones, in part because many Republicans do not want to be seen attacking a historic nominee and in part because adding her to the court would not shift its ideological balance.

Even so, there is likely to be some grandstanding on the part of some Republican senators, who have indicated that they will try to score points with the far right by assailing Judge Jackson. Which would be a shame, because it would squander what should be a more productive opportunity to explore her judgment and judicial temperament.

Senators should start by asking what commitments, if any, she made to President Biden before he nominated her. This question has become more relevant to ask following the presidency of Donald Trump, who did not hide his expectation that his nominees would rule for his personal benefit. The answer would also help elucidate the extent to which the nation’s leaders are moving toward applying ideological litmus tests to judicial nominees.

The court’s commitment to stare decisis — the principle that the court should only overturn precedent in exceptional circumstances — is increasingly in doubt. When does Judge Jackson believe it is appropriate for justices to nullify previous majorities’ judgments? Originalism is ascendant on the court’s conservative wing. What are Judge Jackson’s views on this philosophy, and how should the court properly interpret the Framers’ words?

If past confirmation hearings are any guide, Judge Jackson will strive to say little, particularly about substantive issues that the court might consider. But she should be able to address questions about the court’s structure and rules. How does she feel about allowing cameras in the chamber, a long-overdue change? Some Democrats favor packing the court with more than nine justices; this is a bad idea that would hasten the court’s politicization. By contrast, establishing an orderly term-limit system for justices might reduce some of the heat. The justice Judge Jackson has been tapped to replace, Stephen G. Breyer, has endorsed this change. What does she think?

Reports suggest that some Republicans will seek to attack Judge Jackson’s representation of criminal defendants when she was a public defender and private attorney, alleging she has been easy on sex criminals and raising questions about her work representing Guantánamo Bay prisoners. Smearing Judge Jackson for her past clients would be particularly egregious. She would be the first former public defender to sit on the nation’s highest court, bringing to the bench a background that should be considered an asset.

The public rarely gets to hear at length from the nine people who are the ultimate arbiters of some of the most divisive and momentous questions that arise in American society. While the political realities of an election-year confirmation process will no doubt incline her to be cautious, Judge Jackson and the senators questioning her should maximize the potential of her hearings to be an opportunity to enlighten.

ONLINE: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/03/20/some-republicans-are-preparing-attack-jackson-why-not-do-something-productive/

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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