There’s a dangerous backlash against free speech brewing this week, in which a vindictive Twitter user, backed by mobs of followers, seeks to cow open discourse and instill fear in people who disagree with him.
Wait—don’t go! I’m not talking about The Letter! I’m talking about a missive from President Donald Trump Friday morning, which as of writing has more than 80,000 likes and more than 30,000 retweets:
... and/or Funding, which will be taken away if this Propaganda or Act Against Public Policy continues. Our children must be Educated, not Indoctrinated!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2020
The president’s message provides an interesting counterpoint to a raging controversy in journalistic and academic circles over the state of liberal (in the nonpartisan sense) debate. If you are lucky (but who is, these days?), or if you are living under a rock (and who isn’t, these days?), and you have avoided Twitter this week, you may have missed it. I won’t weigh in on the debate itself, which you can find amply explored elsewhere, or characterize the views of the (generally) opposing sides, but the dispute is about the culture of speech, and whether there is a healthy forum for openly debating ideas.
By contrast, what Trump is doing is making a bona fide threat against First Amendment speech itself, trying to use the power of the government to punish people whose expression he finds objectionable. The signers of The Letter acknowledge that internecine debate is not the most pressing political issue of the moment: “The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy.” Here’s proof that’s true.