Two days ago, I saw a Pew Research Center study that someone had just shared on Facebook. According to the study, forty percent of Millennials support government restrictions on speech that is offensive to minorities, while fifty-eight percent oppose such censorship. While forty percent is still well below a majority, people from older generations support censoring bigoted speech at far lower rates. The person who posted this study wrote, “A large percentage of Europeans and US Millennials are anti-free speech.” It took me about ten seconds to figure out what was wrong with that statement. Rather than providing information about generational views of various types of censorship, the polling data cited only focused on hate speech. There are two huge problems with this methodology. It ignores the fact that there have been many instances of government censorship throughout American history, and very few of them have involved hate speech. It also ignores the fact that Americans in older generations might be more supportive than Millennials of certain types of censorship, even though Millennials are more likely to support censoring hate speech.
A glance at some examples in American history prove that censorship has often been a go-to response by the State when confronted with speech that government officials dislike. John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts that outlawed “false,” “scandalous,” or “malicious” statements about the government. The federal government and a number of Southern states during the 1800s passed laws restricting abolitionist petitions and other writings. Government officials including Francis Scott Key tried to prosecute abolitionists for exercising their free speech. In the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson signed legislation that, similarly to the legislation Adams signed, effectively banned criticism of the government. In 1940, The U.S. government also passed legislation outlawing any organization that advocated the overthrow of the federal government, regardless of whether or not the members of such organizations were involved in specific violent acts or merely believed that the government deserved to be overthrown. This legal principle, by the way, would mandate throwing Donald Trump in prison, since he has more or less stated that Hillary Clinton should be killed if she is elected. In the 1950s, the government outlawed the Communist Party. Similarly, for much of the 20th century, people could face legal penalties merely for desecrating an American flag. It was not until the Supreme Court intervened in 1990 that this censorship finally ended. Since then, there have been multiple attempts to reverse this decision via a constitutional amendment so that people may once again be fined or imprisoned for protesting the government. Conservatives have favored these amendments at higher rates than liberals. It seems to suggest that a new adage might be in order: When you’re offended, it’s called an outrage, when another (often nonwhite/female/LGBT) person gets offended, it’s called oversensitivity.
There have also been a number of obscenity laws in America, some of which still exist today. For example, there was the Comstock Law that banned people from circulating erotica through the U.S. Postal Service. Or the time the Supreme Court said that there was no First Amendment right to obscene material. Currently, we have a government agency called the FCC that censors television in order to protect children from the terrible damage that briefly spotting Janet Jackson’s nipple might wreak upon them.
Shouldn’t we consider the possibility that older Americans are not more anti-censorship than Millennials but are simply more supportive of censorship in some areas and less supportive of censorship in others? For example, might Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, and the elderly support bans on flag burning, pornography, or sexually explicit T.V. shows at a higher rate than Millennials? I do not have solid statistical evidence one way or the other, but my own gut feeling says “Absolutely.” In any case, until we have assessed this possibility, we should not be labeling Millennials as more “anti-free speech” than any other generation. In fact, some data from Pew Research Center published two days before the study referenced above underscores this point. According to the authors, “Internet freedom tends to be especially important to younger people, as well as to those who say they use the internet at least occasionally or own a smartphone.” They also point out that, “In 16 of the 38 countries surveyed, people ages 18 to 29 are more likely than those ages 50 and older to say that people should be able to make sexually explicit statements in public. And young people in Europe, Canada, the U.S., Australia, South Korea, Russia and Senegal are more supportive than their elders of the press being able to publish sensitive information about national security issues.” Look, I know it’s tempting to blame the latest generation for everything wrong in the world and try to say that they’re the worst group of people ever. But let’s try to stick to facts.
For the record, I strongly oppose government censorship, and that includes censorship of bigoted speech. Censoring bigots drives them underground and can create the illusion that bigotry is no longer a serious problem. Furthermore, there is a risk that more extreme, “fringe” bigoted statements will get censored while more mainstream and therefore more dangerous bigoted statements will be protected. But if we are going to have government censorship, censoring hate speech is far better than most types of censorship. For instance, a ban on flag burning significantly muzzles protests against the government and would put the U.S. on the verge of a police State. On the other hand, bigoted speech denigrates entire groups of people based on immutable traits and can encourage hate crimes as well as helping to fuel mental health issues among the victims of bigotry, up to and including suicide in certain cases. Again, in a free society, we must not use the government to censor bigots, but it would still be a lot less ridiculous than banning an Anarchist from burning a cloth with the government’s logo on it or banning a breast from being exposed during the Super Bowl.