By Wendy Blake
Norman Siegel has spent his career defending free speech. For his trouble, he’s received death threats. Protestors have picketed his apartment building twice. But late last year, something singularly shocking happened to him: in October, the former chief of the New York Civil Liberties Union was outshouted at Verdi Square, at 73rd and Broadway, by someone opposed to his remarks at a “Defend Democracy” demonstration.
“It was the first time that had happened to me personally,” said the Upper West Sider, who delivered a talk on the First Amendment at the New York Society for Ethical Culture last week. “I could have upped my volume but I decided to just stop speaking. I figured if what I had to say was so important, I could say it after the march to Lincoln Center” (which he did).
With voices across the political spectrum increasingly trying to silence each other and the level of U.S. political discourse becoming ever more degraded, Siegel, now a civil rights attorney, has grave concerns about the future of free speech rights as protected by the First Amendment, as well as free expression in the private sphere. “The beauty of free speech is to talk it out, and to listen to each other,” said Siegel. “What’s happening is not good for democracy.”
He cited a recent incident at Stanford Law School in March, when a speech being given by a conservative judge was aggressively interrupted by students. Siegel commended the law school dean for adopting policies afterward modeled on the 2014 “Chicago Statement,” in which the University of Chicago actively committed to uphold freedom of expression after a series of similar disruptions.
“The beauty of free speech is to talk it out, and to listen to each other.”
But the Stanford incident is just part of a larger trend that Siegel said has had a chilling effect on academia: Nearly 88% of 486 U.S. colleges reviewed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression restrict student expression. (Columbia has a “yellow light” rating for “maintaining policies that impose vague regulations on expression.”)
Then there are politicians, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seeking to regulate what public school teachers can say about race, racism, gender, and sexuality. “How can this be happening in America?!” Siegel exclaimed. He quoted from an April report by PEN America, the writers’ advocacy organization, which cited 1,477 instances of books being banned in the fall 2022 semester, up 28.5% from the same period a year before. According to PEN, the forbidden books are overwhelmingly by or about people of color or LGBTQ+ individuals.
Even Roberto Clemente is apparently “a threat to America” now, Siegel said. A book about the legendary baseball player was removed from schools in one Florida county because of concerns about its references to discrimination. (It has since been “approved.”)
“It’s a disturbing sign of the times that needs to be closely monitored and, where necessary, challenged,” said Siegel. (Last week, PEN joined a lawsuit challenging some of the Florida book bans.) In some cases, parents are initiating the bans, but, Siegel said, “History shows that once you start using the premise of ‘protecting the children,’ you’re also taking away the right of adults to see books.”
“How am I going to explain this to my mother?”
Siegel emphasized the importance of “neutral principles” in upholding the right of free speech for all. In 1999, he recalled, the “Grand Dragon” of the Ku Klux Klan phoned him asking for NYCLU’s legal representation after then-mayor Rudy Giuliani had objected to the group rallying downtown.
“How am I going to explain this to my mother?” Siegel asked himself. His response: “If I don’t do it, who will?” In the days leading up to the hearing on the Klan, Siegel gave a speech in Harlem, where – to his surprise – he was met with applause. “If Giuliani can do it to the Klan, he could do it to us,” a woman in the largely black audience told him. The Amsterdam News, one of the oldest newspapers geared to African-Americans, even filed an amicus brief, saying the government must protect the Klan’s First Amendment right to peaceably assemble.
So how would Siegel act if he wanted to protest a talk being given by someone whose views he found repugnant? In an interview after his Ethical Culture talk, Siegel said he would do what he did in the 1960s during civil rights and Vietnam protests: “I’d leave. I’d turn my back. I’d hand out flyers, asking people to boycott the speaker. I’d record it and use that as a way to oppose that kind of speech, I’d try to isolate the bigotry of the individual.”
“Censoring speech will just drive it underground and create martyrs,” he warned. “In the public arena, good speech will drive out the bad speech.”
The New York Society for Ethical Culture is located at 2 W. 64th St. For its full calendar of events, click here.
Wendy Blake is a freelance writer and photographer. She worked as a communications consultant for the ACLU from 2005 to 2007.