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.
What teacher can and can’t say? Isn’t it too generic? Of course teachers can’t say certain things and it has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Teacher can’t voice their personal views into a classroom especially for the young kids. Is the author trying to say that let’s say gender affirming surgery talk is appropriate for 5-year olds? Is it appropriate to divide a diverse classroom by stating that white race is the oppressors and pitch the kids against each other?
There’s a huge difference between freedom of speech and hate speech, freedom of speech and sexuality- and age- inappropriate speech, freedom of speech and divisive speech.
It’s a harder question than I think a lot of people want to admit to know what to teach children about racism and oppression. I did grow up in a surprisingly more enlightened time, and we were taught about racism. And we were taught that in this country, white people have generally been the perpetrators of it, and have done terrible things in the name of white superiority. But it is true that we didn’t start learning those things until we were a little older – 3rd or 4th grade. What we were taught at 4 and 5 and 6 was that it is important to be fair; not to judge a book by its cover; to include everyone; not to be afraid of people, just because they are different; to be generous to those in need; and so forth. Those lessons can and should be taught to 4 and 5 and 6 year-olds. And yes, privileged kids should know at 4 and 5 and 6 that they are privileged, though we learned it as “lucky”.
And as for sexual orientation and gender identity, we didn’t hear about any of that when I was little – but my parents did make it plain that you can’t judge other peoples’ families (though where I grew up, it was more likely to be used Catholics with 8 children that were judged, or single mothers). What I taught my own kids at that age was that families come in all kinds; that some families have one parent, some two, some a man and a woman; some two women; some two men; that girls don’t have to behave in any given way nor do boys; that people who think that some things are only for one gender and not the other are generally wrong (and generally rather stupid); and that kids are kids and who their parents are doesn’t matter. I was not aware of trans issues then, but I did see boys taunted for being “gay” at 4 and 5 and 6 and so I made sure my kids knew both that your interests aren’t determined by your gender, and that boys can like things traditionally liked by girls and vice versa; that being “gay” is not bad (they never asked what it meant, they just knew kids used it as an insult, and I told them that people who used it as an insult are rather evil and should be disregarded); and that shared interests can be fun. What I would add now is that some kids who seem to be boys feel like girls and vice versa and that you can’t know what’s inside someone’s head and that you should welcome people as they come.
What is so shameful about Florida and Texas is not that they ban discussing gender-assignment surgery with six-year-olds, but that they want to prevent kids from welcoming others who make them uncomfortable, because they do not want there to BE trans kids, gay kids, two-mommy/two-daddy families and so forth, and they seem to think that those folks will all go away if we just don’t talk about them. And they don’t just want their kids not to feel guilty for the sins of their parents, but to perpetuate them by refusing to see racism even where it exists today. It is not a benign protection of small children from things beyond their understanding – little kids understand fair and not fair (just try to divide a candy unevenly) and mean and nice, and they can understand those lessons at that age. And if we don’t discourage them from being mean to those who are different, they know that they can go ahead and be mean. When they are being led by an entire generation of parents who take their social cues from the mean girls and bullies of our childhood, they learn that too. And that is precisely the goal of many of these “parents rights” groups. They don’t want to stop over-the-top and extreme statements – they just don’t want anyone teaching their kids that it is wrong to be mean to someone for being gay, or having two moms, or not fitting the typical mold of boy and girl, and they definitely don’t want anyone to point out that the world unfairly benefits some people over others.
Yes but who decides? one mans free is anothers hate
Tell me, who gets to decide what is what? Don’t you think (know) that teachers know what to teach and what to say? These laws are bogus attempts to silence, and ultimately criminalize, anything that “someone” (an anonymous person) “doesn’t like.” We need to treat people as the ADULTS and PROFESSIONALS that they are. ALL of this is subjective and I need NO ONE to tell me what to read or discuss at any age.
With all due respect Sam – read all you want and so will I. Nobody forces or bans us from reading certain things and they shouldn’t.
It is not the same with children. Children are made to read certain materials at school. They may or may not be appropriate. To trust ALL teachers? No, thank you, not every teacher and school board are 100 percent trustworthy.
Sorry, like in every profession there are just bad teachers. To trust them blindly – absolutely not.
Here are a few examples, but I could provide the pages of it. Everyone with school-age children know that. I assume you don’t have children , otherwise you wouldn’t be making a blanket statement about all teachers professionalism.
Florida teacher makes white students bow to Black kids in viral videos:
Teachers made a student eat vomit:
Teacher wears Z-cup prosthetic breast to school (it has been going into for months)
Should I go on? Should we just blindly trust teachers and school boards?
I hear you. Some teachers in my children’s schools express their personal views in a signature and signage in their work NYC schools email. I find it very unprofessional, nothing to do with freedom of speech. However imagine if some of them put a MAGA sign instead of the rainbow. I bet it wouldn’t fly. Carefully curated freedom of speech.
It’s troubling — but not altogether surprising — that you can’t see the difference between a “MAGA sign” and a pride rainbow in a teacher’s email signature.
It is troubling how you can’t even process what was stated when you read the word “MAGA”.
I was not advocating for MAGA sign in lieu of the rainbow. But it is not surprising you missed that.
As they say “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
Uh, I wasn’t saying you were advocating for MAGA signs over pride rainbows? My point is that you were drawing a false equivalence between the two to allege some sort of (purely speculative) hypocrisy. Reading is fundamental, as they say!
FIRE is a good organization, IMO;)
But don’t yell FIRE in a crowded theatre!
I think it’s “falsely in a crowded theatre”, (:
lol. good distinction, neighbor…
Freedom of speech on UWS? It is an oxymoron. Only the left have a right to free speech. The rest is not as equal. We are Orwellian Neighborhood.
A+ for hyperbole, Flo. It’s a shame so many of our UWS neighbors are being prosecuted, imprisoned and otherwise punished by the government for expressing conservative political views.
Re: “punished by the government for expressing conservative political views.”
The ONLY response to that is to ask Who, What, When, and Where,
I DO read the NYT and also watch the left-leaning MSNBC, and I have NEVER seen anything remotely close to what you claim.
Eager to read your explanation.
Only a few years ago we had the left demand (and succeed) in getting six books by Dr. Seuss banned. We even had college-level courses banning Huck Finn because some of the woke students found the characters’ language offensive. Nothing to see here…..
That is not actually what happened in the case of the Seuss books.
This is misinformed. The six Seuss books were not “banned” — his estate (or rather, his family-owned company that administers his copyrights) voluntarily decided to stop publishing new copies, saying they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” In other words, the books contained a number of insensitive racial stereotypes, so Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided it was bad for business to keep marketing them as is.
There have been apparent attempts to silence the ones not conforming to the left- wing views.
This probably needs a correction: “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.”
No free speech….
Maybe Norm should spend a bit more time helping the rest of the city get a grip on his friend Eric’s bonanza of naked pay-to-play corruption & cronyism? He honestly has lost a lot of his credibility a long time ago – easy to bang on about 1A issues in the South while enabling some real depravity at home in the 5 boros
Here’s the example of very biased “freedom of speech. I’m posting the link from 2 sources with 2 different views on the issue. I’m pro-choice just fyi, but I do not condone Shellyne Rodriguez’s behavior.
Triggering? It’s insulting that she thinks college students can’t handle controversy. What’s the point of going to college if it weakens your ability or willingness to think?
Shellyne Rodriguez’s behavior is disgusting and criminal. I just saw a YouTube video how she put a machete to a reporter’s neck and then threatened a photographer.
She is a prime example of left-wing silencers of free speech. In addition she is unhinged and criminally aggressive.
And she is a college professor?! Who on earth hired her?
The Daily Mail is not a neutral source, at all. Do you have a better citation so we can read what happened?