ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Moyers on Democracy. Ellis Cose is here to talk about THE SHORT LIFE & CURIOUS DEATH OF FREE SPEECH IN AMERICA. That’s the title of his provocative new book on one of our essential, and embattled, American rights, by one of our most prolific journalists. An essay he wrote as a high school student started him in journalism, and over his long career he’s written a dozen books, from THE RAGE OF A PRIVILEGED CLASS, a best-seller, to DEMOCRACY, IF WE CAN KEEP IT – his monumental history, published this summer, of the first one-hundred years of the American Civil Liberties Union. Throughout his long career in journalism, he’s been a contributor, columnist and editor for major publications and a fellow at leading research centers on politics and economics as well as civic engagement and race. Steeped in some of the critical debates of our times, he’s grown increasingly concerned about democracy’s fate under the combined weight of technology, political corruption, and inequality. Here to talk with Ellis Cose is Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: Ellis Cose, I’m very glad that you could join us today, and I appreciate very much the book that brought us together THE SHORT LIFE & CURIOUS DEATH OF FREE SPEECH. It’s good to be with you.
ELLIS COSE: I’m delighted any time we can get together.
BILL MOYERS: You report in this book that America has been experiencing a full-blown free speech crisis. What do you see when you use that term, a full-blown free speech crisis? Sum it up for us.
ELLIS COSE: I think it’s a crisis on several levels. I think it’s hard to talk about it without talking first a little bit about how we evolved our current definition of free speech. Because we tend to think that free speech is something that’s been with us as a country forever, that it’s been with us since the founding. And that’s both true and not true. It was part of the Bill of Rights, so yes, it’s been there for a long time. But in the 1790s, those principles were violated. You have the Alien and Sedition Acts. And throughout the 19th century it was illegal to speak out against any number of things, including slavery.
BILL MOYERS: And one of my favorite stories, in 1833, when the Missouri editor Elijah Lovejoy took up the cause of ending slavery he was told by the good citizens of his town that, and I’m quoting, “Freedom of speech and press does not imply a moral right… to freely discuss the subject of slavery.”
ELLIS COSE: And part of the reason for that was because the Bill of Rights was not considered something that applied to the states. But the long and the short of it is that until after World War I, free speech, as we understand it now, didn’t exist in America. World War I brought on a crisis. The government passed a series of laws that essentially outlawed speech critical of the government. So the combination of the war and the war on dissidents left us with some extremely repressive speech policies. And it was out of that combination of things that the ACLU ended up forming to articulate a rationale for speech which had been totally crushed after World War I. And the important part that I’m trying to get to is that underlying all of that was a rationale. And the rationale was that free speech was what protected democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Do you have a working definition of free speech? I have relied on the simple notion of free speech as the right to express an opinion without government restraint. The government cannot tell you what you can and cannot say. Do you accept that as the basic baseline of free speech, that the government cannot restrain your opinion?
ELLIS COSE: I will accept that as a definition of free speech if you say that under certain circumstances which present a danger to society or to others, then the government does have the right to limit free speech. I mean, there’s the classic, you don’t shout fire in a crowded theater. But we’ve always had this tension between the right to absolute speech and the right to speech that somebody or other considers dangerous or harmful. And that continues to resonate today with the whole debate around hate speech.
BILL MOYERS: After I read the book, I wrote down a number of questions that grew out of it for me. For example, does the guarantee of free speech give me the right to lie on this podcast?
ELLIS COSE: The short answer is yes, it does. Because the problem is that one person’s lie is another person’s opinion. It doesn’t give you the right to slander people. It doesn’t give you the right to libel people. But in effect, it does give you the right to lie, particularly in political speech.
BILL MOYERS: Does it give the president the right to lie every time he opens his mouth, to keep shouting over and over that the recent election was a fraud when it was actually free and fair. My point is that the president, any president, has the advantage, doesn’t he?
ELLIS COSE: Of course he does, he—
BILL MOYERS: –when he lies, he lies to millions those—
ELLIS COSE: He had—
BILL MOYERS: Those who believe him don’t even have such reach. They can open the front door. All of us can open the front door and say, “He’s a liar.” But the damage is done.
ELLIS COSE: Bill, you’re taking us full circle, which is the reason that I say free speech is endangered. It’s not shared equally. The president, other people with access to media, with access to unlimited capital, have a lot more free speech than you and I have. Free speech is not a commodity that’s shared equally in society, and it’s becoming less and less so.
BILL MOYERS: And that’s the danger you’re writing about, with some very strong exposition, analysis, and truth telling in here.
ELLIS COSE: And I think it’s only getting worse. I mean, you talk about the president’s right to speech. Congress has tried on various occasions to limit the amount of money that flows into politics. But the 2010 Citizens United decision basically said that companies have the same rights as individuals to free speech.
BILL MOYERS: Corporations are people, in effect.
ELLIS COSE: Yeah, corporations are in that effect people, even though corporations don’t die, these corporations don’t necessarily have to be U.S. citizens, these corporations don’t have to answer to anybody, they don’t have to be transparent. And it let loose basically billions of dollars that can go into influencing political dialogue, which is hard to counteract. Because what is clear is that Congress people, senators respond a lot more to people who fund their campaigns than just people who have one vote to give them.
BILL MOYERS: Let me read you what I wrote in the margin when you were writing about this. “The ultra-rich casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife contributed nearly $220 million in the recent election cycle, all of it to conservatives and Republicans, and a whole lot of it going to dishonest advertising.” So I said to myself and to you, “So Ellis, who has more free speech? The Adelson or an everyday citizen who contributes $100 to the same election cycle?”
ELLIS COSE: And the answer’s obvious. It’s the person who has enough money to gain access to shift political policy. Americans sort of realize that, which is one of the reasons there’s so much frustration. If you go back to the original debates that shaped the way we look at free speech in America today, they were led in large measure by Oliver Wendell Holmes and–
BILL MOYERS: Justice Brandeis.
ELLIS COSE: And their arguments essentially are, look, good speech drives out bad speech, truthful speech drives out untruthful speech. If you want to get to the truth of what’s happening in society, you need to have speech as free and as open, as broad as possible. Because the right to free speech and speech itself is what fuels social knowledge and what fuels democracy. If you accept that proposition, which actually sounds reasonable—
BILL MOYERS: That good ideas drive out bad ideas.
ELLIS COSE: Right. It’s a reasonable proposition, but it’s not true. I don’t believe that truths drive out lies. I mean you mentioned the president who was lying about the results of the election and has convinced, according to what poll you look at, upwards of 70% of Republicans that he was cheated out of an election. It doesn’t matter that he’s lying. They believe that particular truth that he is giving them. Facebook has spent a lot of time justifying its policy, which basically is to let politicians lie. And their justification boils down to a justification for free speech. The First Amendment has nothing to do with what kind of speech private corporations decide they’re going to limit. That’s just an excuse that Zuckerberg is hiding behind. Because what the First Amendment prohibits is the federal government making rules and regulations, also state governments prohibiting certain types of speech. So once you open the floodgates to that kind of speech – which should be self-regulated by Facebook and other institutions themselves – you contribute even more to the lopsided dialogue we have in this society, where those with influence, with money, are allowed to dominate the conversation because they have the resources to do so.
BILL MOYERS: You probably saw that The Atlantic magazine had an article in which the writer, Adrienne LaFrance said it had become a “world-historic weapon.” It’s grown to an unprecedented size, and in doing so, I’m quoting her, allows the worst parts of humanity to go viral. She says Facebook is an agent of government propaganda, of targeted harassment, of terrorist recruitment, of emotional manipulation and genocide. And she puts it right there on the table when she says, no one company or person should retain so much power. Is she right?
ELLIS COSE: I don’t think she’s wrong. Part of the problem is that when you have social media, which depends on views or on clicks to make money, there’s an incentive to promote certain types of speech which provoke a highly emotional reaction. Because that’s the kind of speech that causes people to move, to pass things on. Well, what provokes a highly emotional reaction? Well, hate speech and angry speech, crazy speech, but everything that’s counter to a rational discussion. Rational reasoned dialogue does not create the kind of emotional reaction that causes stuff to go viral. And the social media model is predicated on disproportionately promoting things that do go viral. And part of the problem is that when you have an institution, like Facebook, and a leader like Zuckerberg who basically decides, I’m going to just be content neutral. He’s not being content neutral. He’s favoring certain types of content, many forms of which are very harmful.
BILL MOYERS: What do we do about it if we say they’re just acting on their own free speech? They’re doing what they want to do because they have the right to do it?
ELLIS COSE: Well, I see no problem with limiting the amount of money that flows into these kinds of institutions, particularly for misleading and lying ads. I think we’re kind of stuck until we can figure out a way to change this. Which gets us to actually an even more revolutionary question: when we have a society and a democracy that is broken, and I think ours is in some ways broken now, how do you fix that? It seems to take some fairly radical measures. I mean, we have long prided ourselves on being a country that is democratic, that we believe in one person, one vote. But all our institutions operate on a different set of principles, with everything from the Electoral College and how we elect presidents to the Senate and how disproportionate the Senate power is.
BILL MOYERS: And you write in your most recent essay ‘We’re Trapped in an Obscene Distortion of Democracy.’ Because the Constitution allows each state to have two senators, just over 80% of Americans have no voice over some of the most important decisions affecting their lives. Senators who represent just over 57 million Americans can legally and freely impose their will on those who represent 269 million Americans.
ELLIS COSE: It’s a matter of the structure of a government. Back when the Constitution was formed, the United States had roughly four million people. The disparity in size between Virginia and Delaware was not nearly as large as the disparity in size between, say, California and Wyoming. I mean, Virginia was roughly nine times the size of Delaware, whereas California is roughly 70 times the size of Wyoming in terms of population. So maybe at that point when the votes were limited to essentially white men of means anyway, these differences didn’t mean a whole lot. But I think now what you have is the prospect of minority government driven by a very unrepresentative set of states and a population that’s not representative of the American population controlling the society. We’ve seen it in the Electoral College, I mean, Trump lost in 2016 in terms of the popular vote by roughly three million votes. But he still won because of this weird system we have. Which is based on a set of assumptions that never made much sense. And if he had managed to win this time, he would’ve had a margin even larger in terms of the loss in popular votes, but mathematically could have won by winning in a few states. It’s a system that makes no sense.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s face it, part of that system was designed by slaveholders, or allies of slaveholders who wanted to make sure that as we went beyond four million people and began to grow the institution of slavery would be protected by the structure of government that they had designed, is that right?
ELLIS COSE: Well, that’s right. But that’s not the core problem now. I mean, there were a few rationales behind the Electoral College. One was that people were just too ill-informed to pick a president. And you needed highly educated people who knew the candidates because the only really national politician was George Washington. And they needed to have people who knew who was running and could make these decisions. And so there was this idea of this wise group of people, the Electoral College, who would be the selfless men who would know the people they needed to know, and who could choose the best of the best to be president. But at the time that the Constitution was formed in 1787 there was an agreement made, because a lot of the Southern states were concerned about being outvoted. And the concession that was made was, well, okay, you have lots of residents who are African. We’ll give you some votes allocated because of them. We’ll give you three-fifths of a vote for every slave you have. And of course, the slaves can’t exercise those votes. You, the white owners, can exercise those votes. And so that was part of why for so many years we had Southerners as presidents early on, because there was a disproportionate representation in terms of votes. Flash forward to the Civil War amendments. The amendment ending slavery, the amendment allowing former slaves to vote. In the aftermath of that, the decision was made that the three-fifths rule made no sense anymore. We had finally recognized that African Americans were citizens, they had a full vote. Even though the allocation formula of how the Electoral College makeup didn’t fundamentally change. After the Civil War, and particularly after the end of Reconstruction, basically Blacks were no longer permitted to vote anymore, but they still had the apportionment based on Black citizens. So that meant that whites were voting the full vote that should’ve gone to Blacks. And as a result even post-slavery, the legacy of that artifact in the Constitution ended up giving whites in the South a lot more votes than elsewhere. We’re now coming to a new phase of history, I think. The majority of Black Americans, over 60%, live in the South. Of the counties that are majority Black in this country, 106 are majority Black. All but one of those are in the South. So, because the Electoral College votes are awarded on a winner-take-all system, as long as white voters outvote the Blacks in those states, they get the benefit of the Black numbers without having to pay any attention to the Black voters themselves. And so you’ve had this situation in the South where the majority Black population in America is without representation, as long as their opinion is different than those of whites when it comes to electing a president. Now, when I say we’re at an interesting moment partly because of the work of people like Ms. Abrams in Georgia and others, where you are finally eroding the disenfranchisement of so many Black voters, is that those Black voters are beginning to make their voices heard. And you have these states that used to be reliably red becoming purple and maybe blue. And I think that’s sort of one of the new dynamics we’re going to see happen more and more as the population of nonwhites, the population of young people grows relative to the population of older whites in these Southern states.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s what some whites are deeply worried about, that they’re going to become a minority and they’ll be outvoted and outrepresented. Did you ever imagine Ellis, that two elections on the same day in Georgia would decide the who controls the U.S. government for the next four years?
ELLIS COSE: No. It’s quite incredible. And it’s going to be a nail biter. But I also didn’t imagine that we would have a situation where Georgia might turn blue. And that’s what we’re looking at.
BILL MOYERS: What you’ve described in the book and briefly in this conversation is what many people call structured racism. The design of the federal government, the growth of powerful private businesses and companies, corporations like Facebook, YouTube, the Electoral College. All of this is part of what is at the core of your book, which is that some people’s vote is worth more than other people’s vote. And some people don’t want to change that.
ELLIS COSE: I think that’s part of what’s driving dialogue now. I think that it’s interesting, I mean, when Obama was elected in 2008 there was exhilaration among African Americans, because there was this sense, my god, with we have finally reached this milestone where we have gotten past this sort of power of racism and Black people are being accepted even as president. For the first time in history you had Blacks more optimistic than whites about the future of this country because there was this sense that this weight had finally been lifted. What that exuberance and that optimism didn’t take into account was that whereas there were certain communities, not just Black communities, but there were certain communities that were delighted to see this milestone reached, there were other communities that were terrified. And which said, “My god, you know, those people are taking over. We can’t have that.” And you can’t understand the Trump phenomenon without Barack Obama. Trump is the push back to that. Trump is the reaction to that. Because we’ve always had this huge strand of racial polarism and blatant racism in American thought and in American politics. It was just not in the cards for the Obama presidency not to be answered with something that tried to reverse that. And so, you had this huge space created for someone, you know, who ran a campaign that was one of the most openly racist campaigns in modern history. But nonetheless, he got a huge amount of support.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve become an historian as well as the journalist you always were. And one day we’re going to have to talk about that cycle of backlash to which you just referred after the Obama victory. The backlash after the Constitution was passed and abolitionists began to try to deal with the consequences of its structure of racism. After the Civil War and Lincoln, emancipation, it took 100 years before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of ’64. And there was Reconstruction followed by Jim Crow laws that locked Blacks—
ELLIS COSE: Well, the interesting thing about the end of Reconstruction is that, of course, grew out of the election of 1876. It was a deal that the troops will be removed from the South, that Reconstruction would end, that Black Americans would be subjected again to the virulent racists who had decided to leave the Union rather than accept that slavery would not be allowed to expand in this country. And you’re absolutely right, it took 100 years, to get back again to where we were in 1876 because there was this huge reaction. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we’re seeing something like that now.
BILL MOYERS: But after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there was another backlash. It was led by Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, and other conservatives who were finally coming–
ELLIS COSE: Oh, you’re absolutely right. And I think you can draw essentially a straight line from the Goldwater campaign and the Nixon campaigns of ’68 and ’72 to where we are now. Because it was in those years that the decision was made that the Republican Party, which was Lincoln’s party which had been a progressive party when it came to issues of equality in a relative sense and, in fact, what’s funny is that back when the Republican Party was formed it was so radical that they were derisively called Black Republicans. Because they were considered too sympathetic to Blacks back then in the 1850s. But when you move forward into the late 1960s and the early ’70s, the Republican Party made a decision, consolidated under Nixon, which was that they were going to try to appeal to white voters at the expense of Black voters, particularly in the South, but also in the suburbs and elsewhere. And law and order became a code word for being anti-Black, there were a whole sense of policies. And there have been shifts and changes in that, but that decision basically laid the foundation for the modern Republican Party and put them in a position to become not only the party of racists, but the party of crazies, the parties of anti-science, the party of weird ideas, the party of stuff that is not progress. And here we are in 2020 with a figure who represents all of that proudly. Who launches his political career by claiming that Barack Obama was not an American. Who launches his campaign attacking Mexicans because they’re rapists and bad people. And who doubles down on that on every occasion. And who also, because, in my opinion, a lot of the racism kind of is the same kind of crazy philosophy that is anti-scientific that goes along with a lot of other crazy philosophies. You have a party that’s given more and more of its legitimacy to people who are on the fringe, as far as I’m concerned.
BILL MOYERS: Where do you put something like Fox News in this picture you’re drawing of what we are up against?
ELLIS COSE: Well, I think they’re part of the problem. Obviously, the origins of Fox News has a lot to do with Roger Ailes who was a Republican operative and who made a decision that they were going to go in a certain direction. But it’s also a commercial decision underlying this. I mean, there is a huge appetite for this kind of programming which reassures angry people, angry white people for the most part, that they have every right to be angry. And that the enemy is people that they’re angry at. Immigrants who are coming across the border and trying to raid the country. The enemy are people who want to spend all their money on welfare and the enemy are these radical socialists who actually believe in something like equality. And there’s an appetite for that. And I think that they just decided they were going to make a lot of money servicing that appetite.
BILL MOYERS: And, because they operate under the guarantee of a free press they can exercise their free speech and censor others who want to reply to them, who have an alternative view of reality.
ELLIS COSE: Yeah. We have a right that we aren’t wise enough to know how to operate. And that’s the right of free speech, because of these naive conceptions about how speech is inherently good errs on the side of even permitting bad speech, inaccurate speech, misinformationist speech to spread unimpeded. We now have an information environment where people are getting information from all kinds of unscrupulous operators, who’ve mastered the internet and the algorithms to get lots of views. And they know that if they put polemical things up that are totally untrue, they can make money doing that. We have incentives that undermine information. And the American consumer, I mean, most people aren’t professional fact finders. They have a limited amount of time to absorb whatever information they’re going to absorb. And so for many people, that means, “Okay, we’re going to look at Facebook.” Or, “We’re going to turn to Fox News for the night.” And they will accept that as their news diet.
BILL MOYERS: You write a lot about the struggle between knowing and not knowing truth and lies. And here we are almost 200 years later, and we’re still fighting the same battle in different guises, right?
ELLIS COSE: I think we are. But I think we are looking at a generation where we’re trying to figure out what we are as a nation. And part of that is figuring out where we come down on this issue of equality, how we define ourselves as Americans. And to what extent we do become a nation that welcomes diversity, that welcomes all people. And to what extent we become a nation that tries to more and more hue to a minority rule perspective. And I think that some of the biggest fights over the next few years are going to be over voter suppression. We’re going to see a lot of very divisive rhetoric. We’re going to see a lot of two Americas rhetoric. We’re going to see a period in the Biden presidency where most Republicans don’t accept him and consider him illegitimate and think their job is to oppose everything that he stands for and represents as opposed to uniting behind him. I think we’re going to go through that over the next few years. And we’ll see where we come out on the other end.
BILL MOYERS: Did you in your research come across the ideas of Carolyn Rouse who teaches anthropology at Princeton? She said free speech is a political illusion, a rouse, that enables people to say whatever they want to say. Do you agree with her, that that’s what free speech comes down to, a political illusion?
ELLIS COSE: I think it doesn’t exist in the way we think it exists. We have a notion of free speech that doesn’t accord with reality. We are a nation that believes very much in free speech. There was a Harris poll last year which showed that support for free speech was 91% and support for a free press was right behind it at 89%. But interestingly, the same poll showed that around 30% thought that it was perfectly okay for Trump to outlaw The New York Times and CNN and other outlets that he didn’t agree with. So we have a kind of flawed understanding of what free speech is. And the whole idea of free speech is shrouded in mystery. If you ask many people what free speech is, they will say, “Well, it’s the right to say whatever you want to say.” Really, it isn’t. And so we have a huge educational job that we need to do about democracy, about speech. And about the responsibilities of citizenship and critical thinking.
BILL MOYERS: You wrote a terrific history just recently published on the ACLU. The ACLU admits that its work confuses people advocating for the rights of everyone, including Nazis, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, provocateurs like the right-wing extremist Milo Yiannopoulos. The ACLU acknowledges that it doesn’t burn flags, but that it defends the right of those who do. Should free speech always be protected?
ELLIS COSE: I think my position is a little bit different than the ACLU position on this. My short answer is, no, it doesn’t mean you have to protect all those kinds of speech. The ACLU has a tradition going back to the 1920s of defending free speech. They have always defended people who belong to the KKK. They defended Nazis. And the argument again came up in 1978, in Skokie, Illinois when there were a group of Nazis who wanted to march on the suburb, which at that point had a large number of Holocaust survivors in it. And the Skokie suburb passed a group of laws which would’ve outlawed that march, or marches like that. And the ACLU came to their defense. And it created a crisis for the ACLU. And part of that crisis was that a number of their members dropped out. They got heavy criticism. And they decided that they needed to respond to this. The attorney who defended the Nazis in that case was a guy named David Goldberger who was a Jewish guy. And he wrote what became the most successful fundraising letter the ACLU had sent out in that time. And he explained his justification. He said, look, I don’t like these Nazis. And in fact, I refuse to capitalize the word “Nazi” in this letter that I’m sending you. I just have no respect for these people. He said, but first of all, they’re a small part of what we defend. He said, secondly, the reason I’m defending them is I can’t defend the rights of civil rights workers in the south if I can’t defend the rights of marchers in Skokie. And the issue for us is not about the content, it’s about the right to speak and to protest. Flash forward to 2017 where you had the incidents in Charlottesville. Again, you had a white supremacist group which wanted the right to have a protest in the center of Charlottesville, which ended up being defended by the local ACLU. That march never took place in part because things got so violent beforehand that the police called it off. But the ACLU won them the right to have their demonstration. But even though it didn’t happen, in the aftermath of the canceled march a young Nazi sympathizer ran his car into a group of anti-white supremacist protesters and killed a young woman and injured roughly 30 other people. And this caused a crisis within the ACLU because a lot of people within the ACLU were saying, “Why are we defending these people? What are we about? Don’t we stand for something other than that?” And it caused a lot of soul searching. Ultimately, the ACLU sort of came back to a version of its traditional position, which is that, in order to defend the right to speech they needed to defend even objectional speech, even though they would not defend speech from people who were carrying weapons and who were urging violence. So that’s been a long held position for them. My position is that an intelligent organization can make a decision about who it defends and what it defends. And I don’t think that an organization is beholden to defend objectionable people. I think that it’s very difficult to say on what grounds something is hate speech and who should make that decision because some people find Zionism hate speech. Some people find Black Lives Matter hate speech. It’s easy to use the phrase “hate speech,” but it’s a little bit like pornography. It means different things to different people, even people who think they know what it is when they see it. And I don’t have a problem with the government saying we’re going to ban hate speech. But I do think it’s a very high bar that needs to be reached in terms of how that hate speech is defined.
BILL MOYERS: So help us understand someone you quote in your book, the president of the ACLU today, Susan Herman. Even she is questioning whether old assumptions about free speech still apply. Here’s her quote in your book, quote, we need to consider whether some of our timeworn maxims, example, the antidote to bad speech is more speech, the marketplace of ideas would result in the best arguments winning out. They still ring true in an era when white supremacists have a friend in the White House. So do you have an insight into what she means when she says we need to question some old assumptions about free speech?
ELLIS COSE: Sure. That comment came about in the aftermath of the incident in Charlottesville where the ACLU was under a lot of fire from lots of different quarters, including from a lot of young activists who were saying, “This is not what you should be defending.” And I think she was raising a legitimate question, which is to what extent should we do work that defends people who are saying things that none of us consider valuable or worthwhile speech. And ultimately, I don’t think there is a one situation fits all kind of answer for that. I think those decisions have to be made one by one. I don’t think that the ACLU should declare and I can’t speak for them, and don’t speak for them but I don’t think they need to say, we’re no longer going to ever defend Nazis again. We’re no longer ever going to defend the KKK again. I think if cities pass laws that are broad enough that suppress speech and could have implications for other types of organizations, other types of institutions, it’s worth seeing whether they’re going to oppose that. But I think what Susan Herman was saying is that the ACLU almost has a reflexive response of, we’re going to defend this stuff because it’s opposing speech. And that’s rooted in a very naive idea of what the value of certain type of speech is, I believe.
BILL MOYERS: It seems to me we have created a society in which lying is both endemic and purposeful. And I wrote that in the margin of your book when I read this by you. Quote, “We have brought the worst values of advertising into the political sphere and wedded that to long-established tactics of political propaganda, even as our political class has learned to use social media to spread disinformation that propagates at a breathtaking rate.” You write, “The very idea that political speech would expose and therefore vanquish ‘falsehood and fallacies’ now seems incredibly naive.” I agree with you, but what do we do about it?
ELLIS COSE: Well, that’s the question, isn’t it, Bill? I mean, first of all, I think we just need to let the scales fall from our eyes. We need to get rid of this nonsense that speech in all cases is good. We need to get rid of this nonsense that good speech automatically dries up bad speech and just be honest with ourselves about what’s actually happening. And then we need to decide, how do we as a society respond to this? I don’t think we as a society can have a wild west where any lie that any politician wants to tell can be allowed to circulate unchallenged. Or even permitted in some cases. The interesting part of that question for me is what is the institution you put in charge enforcing limits that need to be enforced? And how do you go about doing that? And I think that’s a work in progress. I think it’s engagement that we need to sort through over the next few years as we get further and further into this age of social media and this post legacy media environment.
BILL MOYERS: At the core of that debate, that wrestling that we have to do over this issue of free speech is academia, the universities, the colleges in this country. Should college campuses have the right to limit free speech?
ELLIS COSE: They already do. I mean, it depends upon whether they’re public universities or whether they are private universities. And that goes back to what the First Amendment guarantees. The First Amendment doesn’t say you have a right to say whatever you want to at any college you want to. What it does say is that Congress cannot abridge that right. And by “Congress,” it basically means the government can’t. And that’s been extended to both the federal and state government. So if you have, like, a University of California, for instance, which had a big issue with Milo Yiannopoulos, as you mentioned earlier, it’s a real issue for them because they can’t be in the business of prohibiting speech because of content. If it’s Brown University or some other private university, it can. You know, nobody says that they have to let people speak if they don’t want to. So you have this disparity between public universities and private universities. Is there a role for universities to think about can they bar certain speakers? Sure, they can. And they do that all the time.
BILL MOYERS: But what about the argument that students, especially minorities, should not be subjected to hate speech that makes them feel uncomfortable, diminished or even unsafe in their place of learning. Are there no restrictions for that?
ELLIS COSE: I think that begins to take you down a very fraught path because first of all, people have different thresholds for what diminishes them in their eyes and what insults them in their eyes. But also, I mean, ideally, the college experience is an experience that’s going to challenge you. So it’s an experience that’s going to expose you to things that are inherently uncomfortable. It shouldn’t expose you to blatant hatred, but it will expose you to things that, if you are queasy about certain sexual things or what have you, it may expose you to ideas about those things that you will find uncomfortable. I don’t think that’s bad. I think that part of being educated is being exposed to thoughts and ideas. But I don’t think that any of this means that, just because it’s in a university, there’s a license to invite people who say any crazy thing they want to say. I think there’s a responsibility a university has to invite people who have something to contribute to university dialogue.
BILL MOYERS: There was this incident at Duke University when students demanded that professors be put on notice, that they would lose their jobs and some faculty lose their tenure status if, quote, “They perpetuate hate speech that threatens the safety of students of color.” And there was a course in the humanities at Reed College that began with student demonstrations in the classroom, who attacked a gay, mixed race professor as a race traitor. Matters got so ugly, she later said she was scared to teach courses on race, gender or sexuality or even texts that bring those issues up in any way, especially since many of these students, she said, don’t believe in objective facts. Did you come across her in your research?
ELLIS COSE: I didn’t look at her situation specifically. But certainly, I look at the whole issue of what’s permitted on college campus. And it’s interesting. I mean, there’s been a vigorous debate about that. The University of Chicago a few years back articulated a set of policies, where they were basically saying that we’re going to err on the side of free speech. And we’re not going to create, quote, ‘safe spaces,’ willy-nilly because that’s not what college is about. Other colleges have taken very different approaches to that. The appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California was a hugely controversial event a couple of years ago. It was an event that became violent and they ended up shutting down the event. And Yiannopoulos accused them of being anti-free speech. The president got involved in it, this being President Trump, and accused them of being anti-free speech. You had the Republican Convention, if you recall, a few months ago, where you had speakers on several succeeding nights declare that the Republican Party was the party of free speech because they didn’t believe in cancel culture and that they allowed all voices to speak. Well, that’s nonsense. But it gives you a sense of how politicized and polarized the situation can get, depending upon what people were saying with their speech. I think there’s a tradition of academic freedom that allows people a broad range of things they can say under certain protection. And I think that’s proper. We have a tradition of speech on college campuses that sees campuses as centers of open debate. Does that mean that people can go too far? Yes, does it mean that people ought to worry about being fired because they say something that unwittingly offends people? I think that’s absurd. But that does happen, you know? And I think that’s part of what we are struggling with as we try to find the proper balance of allowing free speech, but also allowing other values to coexist.
BILL MOYERS: One of the troubling aspects of this to me is that more college students than ever seem to be claiming that they have reservations about free speech. Brookings Institution did a study which reported that 44% of surveyed students in one report said they do not believe the First Amendment protects free speech. And a full 20% of respondents maintained it acceptable to inflict physical harm on those who deem to have made offensive and hurtful statements. And a noted professor of history, a scholar of the Civil War, a biographer of Abraham Lincoln, looked at this information and wrote that, “This suppression of speech is fast becoming the norm throughout civil society.” Not just on campuses, but throughout our society. Do you find that to be the case?
ELLIS COSE: No. But you can certainly point to examples where that is the case. And you can point to an example of acts of excess. You had a house dean at Harvard fired who was a member of the law faculty simply because he was representing a person who had been accused of sexual assault. Should someone be fired because they are an advocate for someone who’s objectionable? No, not in my opinion. That’s an overreach. It’s interesting. You have all these different groups saying that they stand up for free speech. And first of all, you have a very unclear understanding, as I already mentioned, in American society of what free speech is. But you also have this tendency for people to define free speech of, as long as someone agrees with me, they should have free speech. If they don’t, they shouldn’t. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. But that’s the way a lot of people define the issue. And I think that requires an approach to education and letting people know what free speech values are. I think we should have a required First Amendment course for undergraduates where they actually learn what these values are, where they came from, what they’re supposed to protect. And also what’s wrong with them. You know, so you won’t have the study you cite where a huge number of students believe that free speech is not protected by the Constitution. That’s just ignorance.
BILL MOYERS: I know that you once assumed that freedom of speech and a free press could protect vulnerable Americans from the tyranny of powerful interests. Not just the government, but all the other powerful interests in this country which are competing to dominate the society. Do you still believe that?
ELLIS COSE: Not the way that I did. I think I’ve become, maybe it just happens as you get older, I’ve become less naive, you know? And maybe a little bit less idealistic than I used to be. I think also though that press has changed. I mean, the press that shaped me, the values that shaped me as a young journalist coming up are different than the values that are shaping a YouTube influencer who sort of serves that same function for lots of people. And who is shaped very much by the values of the internet. And which have very little to do with truth and objectivity or any of that stuff. So no, I don’t believe that, in and of itself, just articulating truth is the same as spreading, or is the same as getting people to accept truth. I think that what we’re learning is that, particularly when people get a choice, a lot of people decide to believe what’s more comfortable for them, even if it’s not the truth. And I think that’s why you have over 70% of Republicans who believe that the election was stolen from Trump. Even though there’s overwhelming evidence that it wasn’t.
BILL MOYERS: So Trump seems to me to lie not because he wants you to believe the lie necessarily, but because he wants you to doubt the truth.
ELLIS COSE: Well, both. I think that a lot of lies he tells, he wants you to believe. But I think, behind his method is a frontal assault on the whole ethos of truth.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
ELLIS COSE: There’s a phrase that he used in a speech in a rally a couple of years back where he said, essentially, and I’m paraphrasing it, don’t believe what you’re watching, don’t believe what’s in front of you. Believe what I tell you. What he’s telling them is there’s no objective truth anymore. That just because you see it on television and broadcast by a respectable person, doesn’t mean that’s true. The only thing that’s true was what he validates as truth. I mean, that’s the values of a cult. That’s the value of a superior being, who is positioned to be a sort of a God-like figure, who tells you what you should believe, what you should think. And I think that’s dangerous. But that’s what I think he believes in. He believes in his truth trumping truth itself.
BILL MOYERS: What actually led you into journalism, Ellis? And what then moved you to engage yourself so deeply in the issue of free speech?
ELLIS COSE: I’m a projects kid from Chicago. And I grew up in a community that was absolutely devastated by the riots when I was a kid. Two things I will always sort of carry with me from that. One was reading the description of my community, which is on the west side of Chicago, in The Chicago Tribune, where they describe this community as a jungle from which white Chicago needed to be protected. And they were this community of non human people who needed to be somehow contained. I thought that was awful journalism. And I thought that I could do a better job of writing about my community than whatever reporter it was who had written that story. That was one of the motivations. The other was that my last year in high school, I convinced my English teacher to put aside the normal assignments and to let me write about what I wanted to write about. And she said, “Well, what is it you want to write about?” And I said, “Well, let me write about riots, you know, in America.” So at the age of 16, I wrote what became a 150 page manuscript about the history of riots in America. And she took it home, read it over the weekend. Came back and she said to me, she said, “Look, Ellis, I’m going to give you an A, in the course. But I’m not really capable of judging this. You should show it to a professional.” But I didn’t know any professionals. And she said, “Well, have you heard of Gwendolyn Brooks?” And I said “Yeah. She’s the poet laureate of Illinois, whatever that is.” “So you should send it to Gwendolyn Brooks.” So I did. She taught at a college on the outskirts of Chicago. Gwendolyn Brooks called me maybe two months later. Said I should come out and talk to her. And when I went down to see her in her office, she pushed my manuscript back to me. And she had scribbled across the manuscript in blue and black ink and she wrote, “One day, you will be a great writer.” And I was, “What?” And she basically said, “Look, kid. I don’t know what you want to do.” At the time, I thought I was going to be some kind of physicist or a mathematician. She said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do with your life, but you should be a writer.” So for the first time, the idea takes root that I should be a writer. Flash forward a year or two. I had written a couple of book-like manuscripts. They weren’t published yet. At this point, I’m 18. I’m in college, but working in a clothing store. I’m saying, “There has to be a better way to make a living.” So I sat down that weekend and wrote several sample columns. Sent them to The Chicago Sun-Times and addressed it to the managing editor, a guy named Ralph Otwell, whose name I got off the masthead, with five sample columns. And I called up Ralph Otwell after not hearing from him for, like, a couple weeks. He actually got on the phone and I said “This is Ellis Cose. Have you got the material I sent you?” He said, “Yes, we did.” I said, “Well, what’d you think of it?” He said, “Well, it’s actually pretty good.” I said, “Great. So Mr. Otwell, when do I start work?” He said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, I want to be a columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times.” He said, “Look, kid. We don’t hire 18-year-old kids as columnists for The Chicago Sun-Times.” “I’m going to make you an offer.” Publish something in schools called Viewpoint for Schools. Goes to high schools in the city. I’ll give you a column in that. And I’ll pay you $50 a week to do that if you want to write that column every week.” I said, “Great.” So that was my start in journalism. Flash forward to a few months after that. School year’s ending. I get called into Ralph Otwell’s office. And also in the office is Jim Hoge, who was the editor of the newspaper. Both of them became very important mentors of mine. And Jim Hoge says, “Look, kid I’ve been reading your stuff. And I think it’s pretty good. In fact, I’ll tell you what.” I said, “Yes, sir?” He said, “Starting Monday, you have a column in the real newspaper.” He said, “What do you think of that?” I said, “Well, that’s what I wanted all the time.”
BILL MOYERS: What did you learn in studying riots in America?
ELLIS COSE: What I learned was that we had a very rich history of riots. What I also learned was that, despite what I had been led to believe as a young man, that the worst riots in history, and certainly the worst race riots, were not riots in Black communities. They were riots that white Americans basically were behind because they wanted to prevent Blacks from integrating. A huge riot in 1919 where a Black person wandered into the white part of the beach. There were riots even going back further. The draft riots in the 1800s in New York where there was this idea that Blacks needed to be kept out of certain jobs so that the most violent race riots in this country’s history were basically anti-Black riots, was part of what I learned. And to me, who was a kid who had not had that context, but only sort of experienced riots as something that they claim happened in so-called ghettos, that was eye opening.
BILL MOYERS: What have you done over the years with the anger you must’ve felt?
ELLIS COSE: I think, first of all, a lot of it went into my writing. But I think also, early on, I would get all kinds of hate mail from people. Mostly white readers who just didn’t like a Black kid writing about racial issues. And Jim Hoge, who was the editor of the newspaper said to me, “Ellis, if you’re going to be a journalist, you’ve got to have a thick skin. You know, particularly if you’re going to be an opinion journalist, you’re going to get all kinds of people saying all kinds of things to you.” And I took that to heart. He’s right. And so I, as a very young person, decided it made sense to take a longer view.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that longer view has brought you to the heart of one of the great debates of our time on the fate of free speech. Ellis, thank you for your work and for joining us today.
ELLIS COSE: It’s been a great pleasure, Bill. Thank you very much.
ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening to Moyers on Democracy. On our website you can find more about free speech in America. Until next time, you’ll find all this and more at Billmoyers.com.