The signatories celebrate all free speech but that which criticises them
Inherent in the right to free speech is the right to critique the speech of others. The phrase "freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences" is often used to clarify that the fundamental right to free speech does not mean automatic exemption from social consequences. The inclusion of controversial figures such as J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, or Noam Chomsky on the list of signatories makes the letter feel like a spiteful response to those social consequences, rather than an objective or impassioned defense to uphold democracy. Considering those involved, the letter does not read as an objective statement, but rather an attempt at vindication for those who believe they have been unjustly “punished” by society. The letter’s original author, Thomas Chatterton Williams, intended to critique recent public reprimands such as the firing of David Shor or the resigning of the entire Poetry Foundation Board, but the lack of specific examples in this open letter along with the presence of controversial figures means that legitimate judgments get lost in the ethical and philosophical confusion. Cancel culture has become a phrase so “hazy and incendiary that is broadly applied and often used defensively, the way someone might describe an article they don’t like as ‘clickbait,’ simply to dismiss it.” Using it as the basis for open debate in a public forum feels like a murky way to make meaningful democratic strides, which is the letter’s proclaimed intent.
In writing this letter, the signatories were, in fact, exercising free speech to respond to a perceived societal injustice. The outraged response to the letter may prove its point that people today get so caught up in “moral attitudes” that the overall goal of defeating democratic threats gets overshadowed.