In the mid-19th century, minstrel shows were all the rage across America. White actors would wear black grease paint on their faces and act out stock caricatures of Black people who were lazy, stupid, and hypersexualized.
These cartoonish, demeaning, and dehumanizing portrayals were wildly successful commercially, spreading through both North and South as entertainment for white audiences. The term “Jim Crow” even originated with a parodic caricature created by a white performer in blackface for an 1832 minstrel show.
The popularity of the grotesque portrayals eventually found the character exported to Europe. The BBC ran The Black and White Minstrel Show from 1958 to 1978, setting box office records and winning prestigious awards.
For over a hundred years, these racist portrayals were a common entertainment staple in American life—until Americans collectively decided that the practice was no longer socially acceptable.
It’s a process that has continued unabated ever since, a collective debate about what is socially acceptable and what is not, sometimes implicit but just as often explicit. As a result of evolving sensibilities, many words, symbols, and behaviors that were socially acceptable a century, generation, or even a decade ago are not acceptable today.
This collective decision-making process over acceptable speech and action is something that all groups engage in, from a couple to a family to a workplace, all the way to the levels of society and the international community. Everyone participates, in some form or another, in this process of shaping social conditions. It’s a form of politics, as ultimately those with the most power have the larger influence on what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. And it is a testament to the growing political power of social liberals and minority groups that things like minstrel shows are now largely in the past. Anyone working on a minstrel show today is likely to face stiff social penalties. Others may not want to be associated with them. But it is important to note that this is not interference with freedom of speech. That is something entirely different.
So what is interference with freedom of speech?
The 1st Amendment protects speech from government interference. That means that both individuals and groups are free to express themselves without any government penalties. Government interference with free speech is about the government penalizing you for speech they deem unacceptable. That penalization may come in the form of government threats, coercion, fines, or even imprisonment. The key distinction here is that the government is preventing you from exercising speech. This is what the 1st Amendment is supposed to protect Americans from. The government is not supposed to be in the business of telling Americans what they can and cannot say. Which is why all sorts of abhorrent speech is still legal. Americans can wave Confederate or Nazi flags. They can praise genocidal leaders. They can proclaim that other racial or ethnic groups are inferior. The government won’t interfere or prosecute them for this loathsome speech. But there may be social penalties. Societies are constantly debating what is and is not socially acceptable. So these embracing detestable speech may cause one to lose their job, or social status, or maybe their account on their favorite social network. This is not interference with free speech, it’s how societies have always debated what is and isn’t acceptable in the public discourse.
Which brings us to recent claims that social media and corporations are censoring conservative voices. We heard talk that Trump was being censored when Facebook and Twitter decided to ban his account in early 2021. In the last few weeks, conservative outlets have claimed that podcaster Joe Rogan is being censored for his speech on race and vaccines. But remember the distinction. Is government levying penalties against Trump or Rogan for their speech? Or is it private individuals, corporations, and organizations making the unhindered decision to disassociate from them? Since no government actors are involved, this isn’t interference with free speech. Trump and Rogan are free to continue their speech without threat of government intervention. But that doesn’t mean that everyone has to enjoy their speech and reward them with unlimited platforms and associations. It might mean that some people don’t like what they have to say and decide it isn’t fit for the public arena. The government isn’t going to fine Rogan for saying the N-word, just as the government has not banned minstrel shows. Americans are free to express themselves with almost any speech they’d like, but they also have to be prepared to suffer the social consequences.
What is hypocritical is that at the same time that conservatives are claiming that Rogan and Trump are being censored, a sizable number of Republican state legislatures are actually interfering with free speech. Since January 2021, at least 14 states have banned critical race theory in schools. Many of these states have also banned The 1619 Project, as well as books on sexuality and the Holocaust. The penalties for teachers are stiff, as educators could face large fines and loss of their license if they are ‘caught’ teaching any banned concepts or materials in the classroom. This is actual interference, conducted by the government. Some state legislatures are going as far to propose permanent cameras in the classroom for the state to monitor teachers’ every word and facial expression.
We need to make a critical distinction between government interference with free speech and public debates on what is acceptable social discourse. When the government censors an individual or a group, they are levying real penalties for certain types of speech. The individuals being censored may face the threat of fines or jail time. But it isn’t government interference with free speech when Americans collectively decide that a certain type of speech is unacceptable and they don’t want to be associated with it. Government restrictions on speech are enforced by the state. Debates on acceptable speech in the public have no state enforcement mechanism. When Trump gets kicked off of Twitter, or people decide they don’t want to support Spotify if it supports Joe Rogan, that isn’t a violation of the 1st Amendment. It’s ordinary public discourse.