Open Letter Endorsing Free Speech Sparks Civil War at Vox

Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff / Getty Images
July 7, 2020

Vox editor and cofounder Matthew Yglesias is drawing public backlash from colleagues after signing an open letter endorsing free speech and pushing back against the "stifling atmosphere" in some corners of the media.

Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tweeted a letter she said she had sent to Vox editors stating that Yglesias's decision to sign the letter—which she said was also signed by several "anti-trans" critics—made her feel "less safe" at the publication.

"The letter, signed as it is by several prominent anti-trans voices and containing as many dog whistles toward anti-trans positions as it does, ideally would not have been signed by anybody at Vox, much less one of the most prominent people at our publication," she wrote.

VanDerWerff's criticism is indicative of a growing movement among journalists to replace objectivity in reporting with progressive values. The most prominent flashpoint in this debate occurred when New York Times opinion editor James Bennet resigned after employees said publishing an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) put black staffers "in danger."

"A Letter on Open Justice and Debate," published in Harper's Magazine, denounced the "intolerant climate" in media and advocated for "the possibility of good-faith disagreement" without fear of professional retribution. The letter was signed by left-wing figures such as Noam Chomsky, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, and The Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood. The main point of the letter was to support the free exchange of ideas and push back on retribution in response to "perceived transgressions of speech and thought."

"The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away," the letter stated. "As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes."

Others at Vox voiced their support for VanDerWerff. Katelyn Burns, a political reporter at the site, said she took issue with many of the signatories' "anti-trans" stances and argued the letter's text was aimed at transgender critics.

"The sheer number of signatories who have waded into the transgender debate on the anti-trans side is astounding. I read many of the references to specific gripes in the letter's text as specifically directed at trans critics," she wrote.

Vox engagement editor Nisha Chittal wrote that the letter was from "a bunch of mostly white people with platforms at prestigious media outlets complaining that minorities are silencing them." Former Vox video producer Carlos Maza also noted disapprovingly that he was not surprised about Yglesias's signature on the letter.

But Vox senior correspondent German Lopez defended the letter by saying that the heated reaction to it proves its point.

Jennifer Williams, Vox's senior foreign editor, also threw her support behind the content of the letter, saying it aligns with "what I personally see happening in the media and public discourse."

Vox did not respond to a request for comment on the controversy.

Published under: Free Speech , Vox