The right would have you believe that the left hates free speech — but conservative responses to a Supreme Court decision this week show the exact opposite.
In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a Pennsylvania school district was wrong to kick a cheerleader off the squad in 2017 when she posted a Snapchat post declaring, “F**k school f**k softball f**k cheer f**k everything.” The ACLU, which sued on behalf of the cheerleader, celebrated the decision. A large amount of conservatives did not.
Schools have long had the right to impose limitations on student speech to enhance discipline or prevent bullying. The Supreme Court in this case preserved a school’s ability to punish students even for speech which occurs outside of school grounds. However, Stephen Breyer’s majority ruling stated, “When it comes to political or religious speech that occurs outside school or a school program or activity, the school will have a heavy burden to justify intervention.” Schools can’t punish any student who criticizes the school, even if the student uses crude language in doing so.
Given the right’s narrative around cancel culture, you’d think the lone dissent to this opinion would come from the most liberal justice on the court. If the left is the movement of puritan scolds, then it stands to reason that it’s the left that should be outraged by a cheerleader spewing profanity and denigrating institutions of learning.
But that’s not what happened in practice. Instead, the one naysayer was arguably the court’s most conservative jurist, Clarence Thomas. Schools, Thomas said, “historically could discipline students in circumstances like those presented here.” In other words, Thomas deferred to institutional power, arguing that authorities should have the right to dispense with free speech when it suits them.
Thomas was alone on the court, but he was not alone on the right. Many other conservatives expressed disgust and contempt when the ACLU celebrated the victory for free speech online. The organization cheekily offered for sale “F**k Everything” T-shirts that quoted the offending social media post after their victory. In response, conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, who has repeatedly attacked the left for censoriousness, grumbled that “These people are completely lost,” and compared the ACLU to “woke children.” Conservative talk show host Dave Rubin, another free speech warrior, said that the ACLU had a “terminal case of woke.”
Sullivan and Rubin both claim that they must defeat the left because the left hates free speech. Yet, when the ACLU wins a victory for free speech, they jump about in indignation and claim that the ACLU has become too leftist. What is going on?
To me, the answer is simple enough. These conservatives don’t actually care about free speech. What they care about is their own power and standing. In particular, they want the right to speak from every platform without criticism or pushback.
It seems that for conservative pundits with large platforms, “free speech” means that powerful people like themselves should be allowed to speak without interruption. But that’s confused. Free speech isn’t mainly meant to ensure that people like Sullivan and Rubin have even larger audiences. Rather, free speech is important because it protects those with little recourse when they register dissent, crudely or otherwise.
Students have to go to school; they have to abide by administrative regulations. Without the right to criticize or speak out, how can they advocate for change? If students aren’t even allowed to blow off steam on private social media platforms after school, how will they be able to respond if they are actually mistreated?
Luckily, the Supreme Court recognized in this case that the First Amendment shields the powerless as well as the powerful. You can say, “F**k everything,” and still be a cheerleader. That’s a victory for free speech — and a defeat for conservatives who think speech should only be free when it’s theirs.