Don’t blame protesters on campus when they try to express their opinions

I was a student in the late 2000s when I first encountered cancel culture. A campus group had invited Nick Griffin – a racist Holocaust denier and leader of a fascist British party – to speak.

Peter Certo

Peter Certo

Many shocked students, myself included, called Griffin’s views abhorrent and warned that violent extremists might come to support him. Eventually, the group reconsidered the invitation and canceled the event. Thank goodness.

No one was denied freedom of speech. Others exercised their own.

But just a few years later, right-wing politicians began to abhor such campus protests. They wrote countless tirades against “woke mobs” and the “free speech crisis” on campus. Then they launched a war against free speech on campus and elsewhere.

Protests have never been a threat to free speech – it is free expression. What we have learned is that the real threat is inequality.

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Just think of the recent protests on campuses against Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip and US support for it.

Conservative politicians, upset about free speech on campus, cheered as police beat and arrested protesting students. Some even called for the deployment of the National Guard, which murdered four Kent State University students during the Vietnam War.

Meanwhile, billionaire CEOs like Bill Ackman, according to CNN, ran campaigns to out students who participated in the protests and blacklist them from job seekers.

Representative Elise Stefanik (RN.Y.) cynically labeled these protests, often led by Jews, as anti-Semitic and dragged several university presidents before Congress to question them on why the protests had not been more brutally suppressed.

When Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, offered a half-hearted defense of the First Amendment, a $100 million donor complained and Magill had to resign. Under similar pressure from donors, Harvard President Claudine Gay followed suit. And Stefanik? She raked in a lot of campaign money.

Of course, generous donors also influence what can and cannot be said in class.

Groups funded by corporations and billionaires have poured enormous sums into supporting laws that ban books, restrict what history can and cannot be taught, and severely limit instruction on topics such as race, gender, or sexuality.

Many public libraries and universities are facing funding cuts for offering materials that these billionaire-backed politicians don’t like. And in some Republican states, teachers and school librarians are now facing criminal charges for violating censorship authorities.

In other cases, public space is under sustained assault by the extremely wealthy. For example, after spending a fortune to buy Twitter, billionaire Elon Musk called himself a “champion of absolute free speech” and promptly abolished almost all content moderation.

But perhaps “absolutist” was a relative term.

As the platform was predictably flooded with threats and hate speech, Musk threatened a watchdog group that was cataloging the growing trend with a “thermonuclear lawsuit.” He also appeared to suspend journalists who reported critically about him.

A similar problem is playing out in local news, albeit more in the background: According to NewsGuard, there are more dark money news sites in beleaguered American newspapers that spread false information disguised as local news agencies.

Lying is, of course, normally protected speech. But when it is funded by big money and coupled with a sustained, state-sponsored attack on free speech, then we have seriously distorted the playing field on which free speech is supposed to take place.

And if the Supreme Court rules that paying with cash is “free speech,” then those of us with less cash will have less freedom of speech.

Extreme inequality threatens our First Amendment rights to free speech, to assemble, and to petition our elected representatives.

Along with real campaign finance reform and anti-corruption laws, higher taxes on billionaires and corporations would mean less money for them to manipulate our politics, our classrooms, and our public squares. The same would be achieved by stronger unions that can win pay raises and social movements that protect their communities from retaliation.

If we want equal rights to freedom of expression, we need a more equal country.

Certo is communications director for the Institute for Policy Studies and editor of He wrote this article for