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Freedom of speech is a founding principle of the U.S. constitution, read how both sides have threatened that principle.

  • Censoring “hate speech” on social media
  • Sensitivity readers; editing classics to fit modern inclusivity standards
  • Compelling the use of certain pronouns
How Both Sides Suppress Speech
  • Book bans on subjects related to gender and race
  • Banning public drag shows
  • Limiting teaching about LGBTQ+ and racial issues  in the school and workplace
  • Banning “Latinx” from government documents
  • Banning preferred pronoun mandates

A Brief History of Free Information

In 1798, free speech was tested for the first time when the federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Sedition Act criminalized "print[ing], utter[ing], or publish[ing]...any false, scandalous, and malicious writing" directed toward the government. The Alien and Sedition Acts were all repealed or expired shortly after the Republicans came into office in 1800. 

In the more recent past, the left championed free speech. They were often generalized by the term “hippies'', and were invested in medical freedom, free love, and free speech. The right tended to invest in the general preservation of traditional and religious values, meaning they were generally more prone to book banning and other restrictions in the name of maintaining a status quo, or traditional mores and values. 

Some on the religious right once advocated to ban Harry Potter over concerns of teaching kids witchcraft and highlighting the occult. Meanwhile, some on the left advocated for citizens’ right to burn flags during the Bush administration, while President Bush (R) wanted to ban the act. Members of the ACLU (Lean Left) originally condemned McCarthyism, which was the practice of accusing citizens of communism — often with little evidence — during the Cold War. 

How the Left Suppresses Speech, According to the Right

Recently, the left and right’s stances on free speech have shifted. The right is now more likely to advocate for medical freedom when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, with many opposing vaccine mandates regardless of whether or not they personally choose to take the vaccine. Simultaneously, the right is more concerned about bias and censorship on social media, while the left has been more restrictive of speech, prioritizing speech they consider to be more inclusive. This is evidenced by cancel culture, which includes campaigns to remove content from social media and streaming platforms for being purportedly offensive and/or spreading misinformation. (Notably, few political issues constitute a monolith: some on the left vocally oppose cancel culture, speech restrictions online, and vaccine mandates, and some on the right support mandating vaccine and limiting hate speech.) 

As The Twitter Files have shown, many on the right feel unfairly censored, and it makes sense for someone to take a free-expression stance when they are the ones facing censorship. Whereas some on the left want to protect marginalized communities from what they consider hate speech, and therefore do not currently prioritize free speech.

The left has orchestrated book bans of their own in the name of diversity: To Kill a Mockingbird is banned in California public schools for “containing racism,” and Amazon removed books by Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist who advocated and practiced what he called “reparative therapy,” which the left refers to as “conversation therapy.” Across social media, some on the left have burned Harry Potter books because of J.K. Rowling’s views on transgender issues. There have also been edits made to classics or books before they have made it to press due to “sensitivity reading” designed to promote inclusivity. Warnings have been added to movies such as Gone with the Wind and The Aristocats to account for the perception that they depict racism. Donald Trump was removed from Home Alone 2, with some arguing the move should be made because they see him as racist. There was an uproar earlier this year concerning edits made to Ronald Dahl's books; some references to skin color, weight, gender, height, and mental health were removed. Free speech organization Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) says “Sensitivity readers either claim or are assumed to have expertise on what words, ideas, or language cause offense…This raises a number of questions: How can any given reader know what you or I might find offensive? Whose “sensitivities” are really being considered, and how are they determined?...While the idea is to prevent offense and promote inclusivity, the reality is that sensitivity reading and the publishers who commission it foster a chilling effect on free speech, a sanitization of art, and a corrosion of our larger cultural discourse.”   

Another concern of the right is the act of compelling people to use pronouns that align with someone’s gender identity. They argue the left compels speech by canceling or firing those who don’t use a transgender person’s requested pronouns, and that the left compels speech people do not agree with. For the right, using preferred pronouns can signal adherence to gender ideology, which they do not agree with. Furthermore, to force someone to use certain pronouns against their wishes, even through social coercion, runs contrary to the principle of the First Amendment.

How the Right Suppresses Speech, According to the Left 

The left would argue that the right is no stranger to using the state to limit the expression of LGBTQ+ people and people of color when it disagrees with them. 

The right has banned a plethora of books in public schools, especially pertaining to LGBTQ+ and racial issues. 

Related: Misinformation Watch: Book Bans in the United States

According to the left, the right has moved the culture war into schools by restricting speech there beyond book bans. In Florida, the “Stop W.O.K.E Act” has become law, which was initially blocked by the courts for First Amendment violations because it limits the way diversity, equity, and inclusion can be taught in schools and to employees. Another bill is pending in the Florida legislature (HB 1069) which critics argue would restrict girls from discussing their periods in schools. 

The right has also banned or attempted to ban public drag shows in many states, infringing on free expression, according to the left. FIRE says a Montana bill to ban drag queen story hours in public schools and libraries is too broad – defining drag as a “female performer” with a “flamboyant . . . male” or “feminine persona” using “glamorous or exaggerated costumes and makeup.” They argue this definition not only infringes on the First Amendment, but could be used to ban other types of performances, such as Shakespeare plays.

An anti-drag show law in Tennessee was recently shot down as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem called on colleges to ban drag shows, which the left argues would not only prevent the rights of drag performers to express themselves, which is itself a form of speech, but the right of college students, who are adults, to choose what types of entertainment they want to attend.  

On the issue of race, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-AR) signed an executive order banning the word "Latinx" from all government documents on her first day in office.

Free Speech Preserves Democracy

The left and the right have banned books and tried to compel Americans to commit to similar values through policing language. Being a nation founded by immigrants with a wide breadth of different cultures and values, this fight is likely to continue on While other nations are built on shared heritage, culture, ethnicity, and history, America was built on a set of ideas that binds us together just loosely enough to afford the name United States of America. Making America more homogenous in beliefs is a difficult road that raises questions of whose views are authoritative and what role the state must take in enforcing the lines. The way for us to move forward and maintain our democratic freedoms seems to rely upon us coming together to discuss the ideas, books, and conflicts, as well as working together to organically form a solution. 

Read banned books. If you disagree with its contents, speak openly. Disagreement leads to a stronger and more resilient democracy.


Clare Ashcraft is the Bridging and Bias Assistant at AllSides. She has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed by Johnathon Held, Research & Content Intern (Lean Right Bias), Joseph Ratliff, Daily News Specialist (Lean Left), and Julie Mastrine, Director of Marketing and Media Bias Ratings (Lean Right).