Freedom of speech – a right guaranteed in the Constitution – has been the subject of increased debate in the United States and around the world, with questions over what speech should be protected, and fears among some that not adhering to a specific set of beliefs could lead to job loss or reputational harm.
After the recent Trump indictment, a New York Times column questioned “Does Free Speech Protect Trump’s Election Lies?” The former president’s attorney, John Lauro, has argued that the indictment shows free speech is being criminalized.
Even former president of the American Civil Liberties Union Nadine Strossen recently warned that freedom of speech is under attack at college campuses, libraries, governments, social media, and in the public square.
Around the world, debates over freedom of speech continue to rage. Last year in Finland, a member of parliament was on trial for a social media post in which she quoted the Bible in opposition to her church’s stance on gay marriage. Lorcan Price, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, said the case was a “clear warning” of the consequences of eroding free speech.
And while, within the United States, freedom of speech remains a constitutional right, some have experienced social consequences, even being fired from their jobs, over their expression. This monoculture of political thought has tangible consequences for businesses, warned Jennifer Sey, a former marketing executive at Levi’s.
Sey called the silencing of opposing views within businesses “incredibly frightening,” and pointed to Bud Light as a prominent example of what can happen in a company where honest and open debate isn’t fostered. The beer brand, which was previously one of the top-selling American beer brands, has seen plummeting popularity after it partnered with transgender activist and influencer Dylan Mulvaney and its marketing vice president was caught on camera criticizing the brand’s consumers as “fratty” with “out of touch humor.”
“My guess is there was no open debate and discussion about the choice to hire Dylan Mulvaney as an influencer for the brand,” Sey told Fox News Digital. “Whether or not you agree with it or don’t agree with it, the discussion, a rational discussion around whether it was good for the business, whether it was relevant to their brand, is one that should have been.”
Sey said she was forced out from her C-suite marketing job at Levi’s during the pandemic for voicing her belief that San Francisco public schools should open so disenfranchised children could attend in-person school. Sey said her views were considered “beyond the pale” by her colleagues at the time.
“They were considered right-wing, and ultimately I was pushed out the door, even though I was a lifelong Democrat, it didn’t matter,” Sey said. “My views veered from the Democratic Party platform and that was unacceptable.”
“People distanced themselves from me internally… They didn’t want the taint of my views, which were considered Trumpy, to affect them,” she added.
Before she was fired, Sey said she was asked to go on an “apology tour” where she had to answer questions like, “Are you a conspiracy theorist?” “Are you a racist?” and “Are you an anti-vaxxer?”
“It’s like they were sending me to a reeducation camp,” she said. But, it ultimately wasn’t enough, and she was asked to leave the company nine months later.
In hindsight, she said this crackdown on free speech accelerated during COVID, but admitted “it was there all along,” starting in the mid-2010s when Levi’s started speaking out about gun safety and against the Second Amendment.
“As I look back, especially around [Levi’s] stance around gun safety… there were employees that expressed extreme discomfort with this stance and at the executive level, they were dismissed as crackpots,” Sey said. “That’s a problem because you’re telling certain employees they aren’t welcome in the company.”
It was not just at Levi’s that the push toward one ideology has appeared. Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said it has made its way across corporate America, into education and entertainment as well.
Rufo sees the establishment of a “permanent administrative bureaucracy” as a “really serious challenge” to the future of the United States because American institutions have stopped prioritizing excellence and substantive debate and replaced it with a “really brain-dead monoculture and ideology that we’re all supposed to glom onto, whether it’s critical race theory, whether it’s the tenets of radical gender ideology or whether it’s our annual diversity, equity and inclusion training that is supposed to rewire how we all think.”
Comedian John Crist said this political and cultural climate has made the job of comedians easier, because all you have to do is “question everyday normal things and that is now comedy because it’s across the line.”
“To say something offensive back in the ’90s, you would have to go so far, be so egregious to say something that flabbergasted everybody,” Crist said. “But now all you have to say is like, ‘I don’t know about the vaccine or like some of these like marches seem to be a little bit narcissistic.'”
Society’s crackdown on what is and isn’t acceptable hasn’t quashed Crist’s resolve to push the envelope “pretty far” in his shows and on his social media platforms, which he credits for his career, but also for censorship and restrictions about what you can and can’t say.
When certain speech or information is forced on people, Crist said that is what comics want to go after and make fun of. In contrast, if people approached more situations with levity, a sense of humor or self-awareness, he believes people would be much more supportive.
“Freedom of speech is not removing things,” he said. “It’s just intelligent people sorting things out for themselves and having all the information and not giving attention to ideas that are not wise and not helpful… not the silencing of people.”
But Sey said she was silenced at Levi’s, and this monoculture of thought is damaging to the country as a whole.
In the summer of 2020, she said people in the company started to self-censor as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainings became more common.
“As we started to go through all those trainings, I had employees that would come to me on my team and they would say, ‘I’m afraid to talk in a meeting, I’m afraid I’m going to say the wrong word, something that was OK yesterday is not OK today,’” she explained. “If you have leaders in the company afraid to talk, how are you going to create an environment not just of real inclusion, but of innovation and collaboration?”
If a “punitive culture” where employees are afraid to speak is allowed to proliferate, Sey argued that will be the death knell for American innovation and leadership.
“When certain views are considered so beyond the pale that people self-censor, you don’t actually have free speech in this country,” she said. “If you don’t have free speech, you don’t actually have a democracy and I would argue, what is most frightening about that is, you’ve given up on any pursuit of truth, because if you can’t have open debate and dissent, you can’t reach truth.”
“If you just accept government-issued talking points as truth, then the government decides what is true,” she added. “We certainly saw that play out quite a bit during COVID and even before.”
Rufo also emphasized how a failure to foster the freedom of speech and expression goes against the bedrock of American society.
“Orthodoxy is not the American way,” Rufo said. “Orthodoxy leads to practical consequences, it stifles genius, it relegates new ideas to the fringes, and it will slowly degrade the quality of intellectual life, moral life, spiritual life, and even physical life, infrastructural life on which we all depend.”
“We need to have a system of dynamic debate, innovation and freedom,” he added, “if we want to have all of those great principles and innovations that have made this country what it is today.”
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