The Double Standard of Free Speech

The Double Standard of Free Speech

On March 2nd, 2021, Neera Tanden withdrew her nomination from the Office of Management and Budget. Ms. Tanden, a political consultant at the Center for American Progress, had received a steady onslaught of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for remarks made by her on Twitter, including some personal attacks against Republicans, progressive Democrats, and non-famous Twitter users. Ms. Tanden has apologized repeatedly for these remarks but Senators from both sides of the aisle, including Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va), were not able to overlook her behaviour.

Ms. Tanden’s withdrawal proves that, despite the promising inclusivity and diversity of the cabinet nominations of the Biden administration, women of colour continue to face greater obstacles than their white male counterparts. In the case of Neera Tanden, the obstacles were too large to overcome. 

Comparing the language used by Ms. Tanden and the language and actions of politicians such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Former President Donald Trump leads to the conclusion that, in the United States Senate, white men are consistently allowed to speak with fewer restrictions and consequences than women – particularly women of colour. Furthermore, the rationale used by Senators to challenge the nomination of several of Biden’s top picks, including Neera Tanden, indicates why gender and racial inequity continue to exist in political representation. In fact, the bar for women and people of colour to be admitted and accepted in American politics continues to be far higher than it is for white men. This double standard in the enforcement of free speech prevents fair and equal representation. 

On February 8th, 2017, the US Senate voted to confirm Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, pointedly overlooking his past racist behaviour. J Gerald Hebert, a former justice department civil rights attorney, testified that Sessions had dismissed organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the ACLU as “un-American” when they worked together in Alabama. Furthermore, Sessions had reportedly referred to a black official in his US attorney’s office, as “boy” and instructed him to be careful with what he said to white people. Hebert told the Guardian that Sessions had “never apologized” for the offensive remarks from the 1980s. Sessions continues to deny the allegations of Herbert to this day and has served for 3 and half years as Attorney General of the United States, having been confirmed by the US Senate with a vote of 52-47. 

On October 6th, 2018, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed by the US Senate as Supreme Court justice despite credible allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. Julie Swetnick alleged that she witnessed efforts by Kavanaugh and his classmate Mark Judge to get teenage girls “inebriated and disoriented so they could then be ‘gang raped’ in a side room or bedroom by a ‘train’ of numerous boys.” Kavanaugh denied Swetnick’s allegations, calling them “ridiculous.” When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford alleged that Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her, Justice Kavanaugh stated “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time.” A polygraph test administered in August of 2018 by an FBI agent confirmed Dr. Ford’s allegation. Not only had Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, but he lied about it to the United States Senate and yet was still confirmed to the Supreme Court by a vote of 50-48. 

On January 20th, 2016, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. Amongst the abundance of derogatory and inflammatory language the former President has used to describe women and minorities, two stand out in particular. The first was when Trump described the manner in which he treats women: “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. “Grab ’em by the p****. You can do anything.”

The second is  when Trump mocked a disabled New York Times reporter in front of a crowd: “Now the poor guy, you ought to see this guy.” The former President has neither denied nor apologized for either of these statements. Regardless, he was elected as President by the American people in 2016 with a final tally of 62,979,879 votes. Furthermore, the former President was acquitted by the US Senate not once but twice. This happened first for abuse of power and then, second, for inciting an insurrection against the United States Capital. Mr. Trump’s statement to the violent insurrectionists who marched on the US Capitol on January 6th was simply, “Go home, we love you, you are very special.” 

The worst of Ms. Tanden’s tweets pale in comparison to the racist remarks made by Jeff Sessions, the unapologetic actions of Brett Kavanaugh and the continued misogynist behaviour and bigotry of former President Donald Trump. Yet, Ms. Tanden has faced far worse repercussions for her freedom of speech than these three men and the thousands others like them. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y) acknowledged the double standard, saying: “We can disagree with her tweets, but in the past, Trump nominees that they’ve confirmed and supported had much more serious issues and conflicts than just something that was written on Twitter.” Similarly, Ilyse Hogue, outgoing president of the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, said “they’re saying that Neera cannot be confirmed because of the tone of her tweets. It feels paper-thin to me and certainly a different standard for how they expect women to speak versus the men that they voted to confirm.”

The American people and their Senators must reckon with the fact that white men’s bad behaviour is overlooked and forgiven far more often than that of women, particularly women of colour. When white men like Jeff Sessions, Brett Kavanaugh and Donald Trump make inflammatory and derogatory statements about or commit violent acts against women or people of colour, they are quickly forgiven. By comparison, when women of colour use passionate or outrageous language, the people in positions of power ask: “Can’t we just turn down the temperature a little bit?”.

Janet Murguía, the president and chief executive of the Latino advocacy organization UnidosUS, recognizes that a disturbing pattern is emerging “where people of colour and women seem to be at the bottom of the list in terms of hearings and getting their confirmations finalized.” The pattern extends beyond the realm of representation: women and people of colour are consistently expected to uphold a stricter moral code and abide by higher standards of freedom of speech. They apologize for their actions yet still reap harsher consequences than their white, male counterparts. 

Edited by Ines Navarre.

Photo credits:Neera Tanden” by Gage Skidmore, published on April 27, 2019, licensed under Flickr Creative Commons. No changes were made. 

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