Last Friday, Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy spoke at Academia’s COVID Failures, a symposium held at the University of Chicago. He focused his remarks on the threat to free speech emanating from the “merger of state and corporate power” and posited an urgent need to revitalize America’s culture of open dialogue.
Ramaswamy contended that the First Amendment not only establishes a legal right but seeks to establish a culture that values free expression. The best gauge of a country’s free speech culture, he claimed, is whether “citizens feel free to say in public what they would otherwise say in private.”
Ramaswamy reiterated that the “greatest threats to free speech do not come directly from the government,” but rather from a dangerous entanglement of state and corporate power. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, federal agencies deputized private social media companies to censor inconvenient speech on the public health policy.
According to Ramaswamy, this sort of “state action in disguise” is, in some ways, “more dangerous” than a frontal government assault on free speech rights because it “allows us to indulge the illusion that we live in a country with free speech rights” and suppresses the flow of ideas in ways that we do not fully appreciate.
While acknowledging the importance of academic exchange, Ramaswamy emphasized that “free speech is not a liberal arts luxury.” Rather, it is a precondition for the pursuit of truth in everyday life. Extended school closures, for instance, arose directly from the suppression of dissenting viewpoints both online and in the public square, Ramaswamy argued.
Ramaswamy ended his remarks with a call for introspection. He urged attendees to reflect on “what is it inside of us that causes us to want to bend the knee,” alluding to the Israelites who preferred to return to slavery under the pharaoh rather than endure further desert wandering.
The “vacuum at the heart of our national soul” represents the greatest threat to liberty, Ramaswamy further contended. During the question-and-answer portion of his remarks, he clarified that statement: “Young people do not value a country they simply inherit. They value what they have a stake in.”
Ramaswamy encouraged ambitious solutions to this crisis of civic pride, calling on Congress to raise the automatic voting age to 25, while allowing those 18 to 25 years old to earn their right to vote by serving in the military or passing a civics exam.
Ramaswamy’s broader outlook? We cannot simply wish a robust free speech culture back into existence. Rather, “free speech culture is going to be revived through a revival of the culture itself.”