Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences

I could get fired for what I’m about to say.

Mind you, that’s not something I expect. I’m just saying it’s theoretically possible. Somebody could object and complain to my boss. Next time you see me, I’m standing on a median strip holding a sign: “Will Opine For Food.”

That would not thrill me, to say the least. But I long ago recognized that the risk is present any time I — or anybody, for that matter — ventures an opinion. Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. You’d think most adults — and in particular, those who do this for a living — would know that.

But you would be wrong, as a Sunday editorial in The New York Times just made appallingly clear. Under the headline, “America Has a Free Speech Problem,” the Times analyzed so-called “cancel culture,” which it called a “social silencing” that has intimidated Americans out of voicing difficult opinions. Said the Times: “For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.”

It’s a stunningly incomprehensible statement for a jarringly obvious reason. The “right” to which the paper so airily alludes flat out does not exist, certainly not as a legal matter — the First Amendment contains no “unless somebody’s feelings get hurt” clause — but also not as a moral matter. To the contrary, it could be argued that morally, one is, in fact, obligated to “shame and shun” those who support, say, white nationalism, insurrection, child pornography or genocide.

Thus does the moral panic over an invented crisis reach a new apex of absurdity. We decry “cancel culture” as if it’s a new idea that people face repercussions for controversial opinions. Ask Andrew Dice Clay about that. Ask Al Campanis. Ask the Smothers Brothers.

Which isn’t to say the invented crisis has not proven useful for some people. Just a few days ago Vladimir Putin claimed the West is trying to “cancel” Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. You might marvel at his cynical appropriation of an American political trope, but don’t let that blind you to the fact that — at least by the terms of The Times’ argument — he’s actually correct. In imposing crippling sanctions on Russia for its behavior, America and much of the rest of the world are, indeed, “canceling” that nation.

Which only underscores how fatuous this trope really is. Or do any of us really weep over the way Russia has been treated?

Look, there is certainly an argument to be made that, in recent years, self-appointed guardians of public thought have been brazen and intrusive in trying to police expression. Between them, lawmakers and officials of both the left and right have banned books, shut down speakers and hounded teachers from their classrooms. Lawmakers on the right are even now trying to outlaw entire fields of academic study. To say this has had a chilling effect is to understate.

But there is a qualitative difference between protecting diversity of opinion from official encroachment and inventing some magical “right” to say any harebrained thing you want without being “shamed or shunned.” Such a “right” would be more dangerous than the problem it purports to correct. And The New York Times, of all entities in this country, should know that. To hold someone accountable for what they say does not abridge free speech.

It is free speech.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.