The Web of Language

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  • The First Amendment, from North Carolina's copy of the original Bill of Rights

    Will the Supreme Court soon be policing your speech?

    Last week Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito delivered a politically-charged speech to the conservative Federalist Society. He denounced same-sex marriage, bemoaned the loss of religious freedom in America, complained that the Covid-19 pandemic gave government unprecedented control over our lives, and lashed out at experts influencing public policy. Justice Alito also reminded his sympathetic audience of the dangers to the First Amendment posed by the “growing hostility to the expression of unfashionable views” on campus or in the office. His one example: “You can’t say that marriage is the union between one man and one woman.”

    In June, Alito dissented from a Court opinion upholding the rights of gay and transgender employees. In a section of his dissent headed “Freedom of Speech,” he attacked laws and regulations targeting language discrimination, citing what he considered two blatant First Amendment violations: a New York City’s human rights law that makes ignoring someone’s pronoun a punishable offense; and unspecified college regulations that require the use of singular they or coined gender pronouns like xe, zie, and hir. These rules encourage the use of inclusive language, but Alito implied he would welcome litigation asserting the First Amendment defense, “You can’t make me say your pronouns.”

  • Trump’s words on January 6 were a clear and present danger

    The defense in Donald Trump’s second impeachment rested in large part on the assertion that his fiery words to protestors on January 6 were protected by the First Amendment. Republican senators used free speech—along with other pretexts—to ignore Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors. But they were wrong. Trump’s incitement was not protected speech. His words posed an unambiguous, clear and present danger.

  • The right's new slogan: My free speech, not yours

    Conservatives are attacking what they call “cancel culture” for violating their First Amendment right to free speech, so much so that the theme for the ultra-conservative CPAC conference in Orlando last February was “America Uncanceled.” 

    Everywhere you turn, conservatives are wrapping themselves in the Constitution as readily as they wrap themselves in the flag, but they do so selectively and hypocritically. My right to pray, not yours. My right to bear arms, not yours. My right to vote, not yours. And of course their culture war slogan, “My free speech, not yours.”