It’s been a rough few years for classical liberalism in America. Elite institutions of higher education have been engulfed with student demands to restrict speech they deem offensive, and many supposed academic leaders have buckled under the pressure. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s scorched-earth populist campaign has sounded menacing notes when it comes to press freedom, with the candidate promising to amend libel laws to punish publications that criticize him.
The Pew Research Center’s FactTank reminds us that while American liberal norms may be under siege from a variety of quarters, the country remains exceptional when it comes to free speech:
Americans are much more tolerant of offensive speech than people in other nations. For instance, 77% in the U.S. support the right of others to make statements that are offensive to their own religious beliefs, the highest percentage among the nations in the study. Fully 67% think people should be allowed to make public statements that are offensive to minority groups, again the highest percentage in the poll. And the U.S. was one of only three nations where at least half endorse the right to sexually explicit speech. Americans don’t necessarily like offensive speech more than others, but they are much less inclined to outlaw it.
That said, the recent high-profile authoritarians turn in politics and culture may be a warning sign: Pew notes that younger Americans are far more open to censorship than their elders:
There are some important generational differences on this issue. For instance, 40% of U.S. Millennials think the government should be able to prevent people from making statements that are offensive to minority groups, compared with 27% of those in Generation X, 24% of Baby Boomers, and just 12% of Silent Generation Americans.
In other words, it’s not just elite college campuses. Millennials, as a group, report a relatively weak commitment to free expression as it has been understood by American courts. It’s easy to imagine an authoritarian demagogue exploiting this somewhere down the line.
American liberal norms, while embattled, remain strong. No matter who wins this election, America will likely remain more protective of controversial speech than peer countries. But to remain vital over the long run, principles like free expression need perpetual, energetic advocacy. Is our leadership class up to the task?