Close this search box.

well established and here for you

independently owned and operated since 1977

First Things First – Naomi Wolf on Free Speech

by Steve Desroches

Last October, Yale University lecturer Erika Christakis wrote an e-mail in response to the school’s Intercultural Affairs Committee warning students to not wear Halloween costumes that were deemed offensive or culturally insensitive, posing the question of institutional overreach and adding, “I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious, a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” The New Haven campus exploded in outrage, and shortly thereafter Christakis, an expert in early childhood education, resigned stating that the Yale campus was not “conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.”

This incident at author and journalist Naomi Wolf’s alma mater is just one of many examples she sees of an eroding respect for public discourse and debate, an abandonment of the principles of the First Amendment and free speech, and an attempt by those largely on the left to silence voices they disagree with. Wolf believes that for the most part the only thing to save us from our social ills, conflicts, and inequalities is more free speech.
“The whole point of free speech is that it’s annoying,” says Wolf. “The First Amendment guarantees that you’ll be offended and annoyed.”

Perhaps best known for her 1991 debut nonfiction book The Beauty Myth, which made her an icon of third wave feminism, Wolf has continued to be a voice for public intellectualism and the preservation of democratic ideals, two things she believes are suffering in our society now more than ever. Wolf will visit Provincetown for the first time as part of Twenty Summers programing at the Hawthorne Barn where she will be in conversation with Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer Megan Marshall.

Having recently completed her Ph.D. in the history of discrimination at Oxford University, where she is a research fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, Wolf is also a consultant at Barnard College’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies; a co-founder of DailyClout, a tech startup focused on bringing the practice of democracy into people’s daily lives; and a visiting lecturer at Stony Brook University on Long Island where she trains professors to be “public intellectuals.”

She notes that since World War II intellectualism has retreated into “academic ghettos,” giving rise to remote ivory towers distancing the general population from substantive debate rather than including them in it. Prior to that, intellectuals had public lives demonstrating and debating their ideas, like Charles Darwin did, according to Wolf. That phenomenon is terrible for democracy and America has suffered as a result, she says, adding that Americans need to be addressed as critical thinkers. But for that to happen academics and intellectuals need to know how to speak in mass media, rather than just in the cultural world of academia. Her work trains them how to write an op-ed or to speak with Katie Couric on the Today show. This is vital, she says, in order to get over the current culture of censorship, stifling dissent, and a rigidity of thought that seeks purity rather than nuance and honest debate.

“All that saves us is when people fall in love with free speech again,” says Wolf.

The three biggest culprits of our current cultural climate, as she sees it, are the aforementioned left wing trying to stifle those that they disagree with; technology that creates an echo chamber designed by both users and search engine algorithms, and provides anonymity that removes responsibility and substantive discussions; and lastly, the “threat of plain old fascism.” Often using the cover of combating terrorism, there are forces seeking to limit our freedom and subvert democracy, she says.

Wolf, who is working on a new book titled Outrage about obscenity laws and how they can be used to terrify a society to the point of persecution, speaks with concern about infringements on our civil liberties by government agencies like the National Security Administration. In addition to public debate and reclamation of the freedoms provided in the First Amendment, technology can be used to protect citizens from government overreach. She mentions Billcam, a tool available through DailyClout, that allows citizens to track the legislative process on both the state and federal levels through a variety of forms of media, something that is incredibly important, as bills can be complicated and filled with seemingly small provisions that erode the rights of American citizens in a big way. Wolf particularly points out a provision in the Defense Authorization Bill that allows those suspected of terrorism to be held indefinitely without any official charges or a court trial.

“I don’t love Hillary Clinton and I really don’t love Trump, and I don’t want either of them to be able to lock up anyone without charge or trial,” says Wolf.

Things are changing in America and elsewhere in democratic societies, says Wolf, as there is a palpable shift toward authoritarianism. Wolf chuckles with exasperation as she remembers being arrested in an evening gown outside an event she was attending in 2011. Occupy Wall Street protesters were gathered to get the attention of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who was also attending the event. When Wolf saw their rights being violated, she joined the peaceful protest and found herself arrested by a police officer who said she didn’t have the right. Free speech is clearly under assault from multiple forces and sides.

“It’s really 1933 in some ways,” says Wolf. “We need to wake up.”

Twenty Summers presents A Wolf in the Barn: Naomi Wolf in Conversation with Megan Marshall on Friday, May 20, 7 p.m., at the Hawthorne Barn, 29 Upper Miller Hill Rd., Provincetown. For information call 508.812.0278, e-mail [email protected], or visit, where you can also buy tickets ($25). There is no parking at the Barn; ticketed attendees may park at the Gately McHoul Funeral Home, 94 Harry Kemp Way.

Recent Posts

Sign up for our Newsletter

Scroll to Top

Sign up for our Newsletter

Graphic Artist

Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

Keep in touch

Fill in your details and I will get back to you in no time.

Phone: + 1 508-487-1000 ext 6
[email protected] 14 Center St. Provincetown MA, 02657