The Continual High Cost of Free Speech
Now that I have completed my diversion delving into the thorny topic of abortion after last week’s disclosure of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on Roe v. Wade, I can return to my ruminations about free speech.
It strikes me as very interesting how sometimes things just come together, not just in serendipitous ways, but in illuminating ways that grant new insight. For last the couple of weeks, I had been reading Jacob Mchangama’s recent book, Free Speech, A History from Socrates to Social Media. Free speech has been under attack in the twenty-first century, and I felt I needed a better understanding of all the implications and ramifications of free speech. As I read, Elon Musk suddenly announced that he had bought a substantial minority interest in Twitter. He had previously posted on Twitter the following question, “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” About ten days after he divulged his purchases of Twitter shares, on April 14th, he announced his plans to acquire the company.
And just a few days after that, a Facebook friend provided me a link to an essay, Ten Theses on Tolerance by David Blankenhorn, president of the non-profit Braver Angels that is trying to create civil public discourse between conservatives and progressives. Tolerance is, of course, essential to the exercise of free speech.
And then the story of the purloined opinion broke, and I felt compelled to address that issue. But the abortion battle also raises many free speech issues as well. Pro-abortion supporters are protesting, not just in the public square like the street in front of the Supreme Court building, but in the neighborhoods where the justices live. The First amendment allows “the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Petition the government, not to harass individuals and their families for their honestly held opinions that are opposed to yours.
The headlines reverberate with stories about free speech, hate speech, cancel culture and now even a Disinformation Governance Board with eerie connotations of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth that the author described in his book, 1984. I am sure that in the coming off-year elections free speech will be ranked way below inflation, abortion and the war in Europe among the key issues on the minds of voters. But I am also sure that once we are deep into campaign season, Trump and his MAGA supporters along with Pelosi, Schumer and the progressive left will be hammering voters with disinformation, fake news and outright lies. Add in foreign actors like Russia, China and Iran and it will be extremely difficult for voters to discern the wheat from the chaff.
So, a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks to free speech is timely. Mr. Mchangama begins with a historical review of free speech, but historically free speech has been most noticeable by its absence. Monarchs and tyrants, alike, want stability and religious orders want orthodoxy. Sedition, treason and heresy were dealt with harshly, by imprisonment or death. Democratic Athens allowed certain forms of free speech: isegoria and parrhesia. Isegoria related to civic speech that raised issues in democratic assemblies, while parrhesia related to more open or uninhibited speech between citizens in the agora or marketplace. These two forms of speech were established by custom, not law. So, definitions and practices were perhaps a bit vague and variable. Socrates discovered the limits of free speech when he was accused of impiety and for corrupting the youth of Athens. Why he was accused at the age of seventy, after many impious decades of “corrupting” youths is unclear, but after the loss of the Peloponnesian War to Sparta, Athens had gone through a series of crises and purges and people were less tolerant of Socrates’ persistent questions.
Kingdoms and Empires rose and fell, and they all had their laws and edicts against treasonous or heretical speech. The first chink in the armor against free speech came when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the cathedral door in 1517. And that chink widened when he later translated scripture into German. The ability to read the Bible in their own language meant that people could put their faith in what the scripture said, not what some priest told them it said. Bibles in the local vernacular, many of them produced on those new-fangled printing presses, led to a rapid increase in heretical speech (as well as literacy of the public). And since church and state were joined at the hip in those days, heretical speech was also seditious speech. Mr. Mchangama’s book chronicles the many attempts by various regimes to stomp out heretical and seditious speech.
But the real advance of free speech came when the United States enshrined this concept into the First Amendment. The First Amendment also prohibited the US government from establishing a state religion, a practice that was common in Europe and even in some of the colonies at that time. I never really understood the juxtaposition of those two key concepts until I read Mr. Mchangama’s book. But it was religion that drove free speech and so these two founding principles of America are inextricably linked.
The Internet and the World Wide Web were supposed to deliver a glorious golden age of free speech. People from all over the world were supposed to be able to freely express their opinions. Idealists and dreamers thought that the Internet could police itself without interference from governments around the world. In 1996, John Perry Barlow stated, “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” Many felt that Cyberspace and the free speech it promoted would spread democracy all around the world. This prediction actually appeared to be becoming a fact when the Arab Spring led to the overthrow of dictators in the Middle East by young people connecting through their cell phones.
But Arab rulers eventually quashed the Arab Spring, and Cyberspace began filling up with hackers, trolls, bots, foreign actors, fake news, conspiracy theories and all sorts of nonsense. Alex Jones pushed the theory that the Sandy Hook massacre was just a staged event. ISIS broadcast their executions of innocent civilians over the Internet as a recruiting tool.
Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and others began “moderating” content that they thought represented hate speech or promoted violence. Alex Jones was booted off the biggest platforms, although he was able to find alternative outlets and is still on the Internet along with Breitbart News, Occupy Democrats and many others. But this “content moderation” by these platforms with their army of “factcheckers” are themselves biased. Wikipedia cites the New York Times and the Washington Post as reliable sources while they claim the New York Post is unreliable. But it was the New York Times and the Washington Post that had to apologize to the New York Post for saying that the Hunter Biden laptop story that the NY Post broke was disinformation.
Even scarier, the Great Firewall of China strives to control domestic Internet usage and block many foreign sites from the Chinese people. Combined with artificial intelligence, widespread CCTV surveillance and a social credit system that, among other things, monitors Internet usage and grades a person on the choices they make, the Communist Party of China is becoming a hi-tech totalitarian regime unlike any other ever seen.
But it is not just China and other authoritarian regimes that want to control Internet content and the peoples’ access to the free speech therein. The Biden administration recently announced plans to create a Disinformation Governance Board to be headed by Nina Jankowicz, a Democratic operative, who thought that the Steele Dossier was true, and that Hunter Biden’s laptop was disinformation. Even if she is sincere, this shows how confirmation bias can lead government administrators astray. And even worse, Assistance Secretary for Health, Rachel Levine, recently asserted that there is no argument about gender affirming care and her office further stated that, “"There is no debate in the medical community about the medical or scientific validity of gender-affirming care," citing the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). What Levine’s office is saying is that they will not accept any debate against their woke ideology. But these statements are outright lies, not only are there many doctors and scientists that oppose gender affirming care in the United States, the health departments of Sweden, France, Finland, Australia and New Zealand are urging caution in applying these treatments and many recommend psychological counseling first.
John Stuart Mill would have advised Dr. Levine to welcome debate because if the arguments are proven false the validity of her theory would be enhanced, and if the arguments were proven true, she would have the opportunity to rework and improve her theories. But free speech directed against woke ideology of the left is the new heresy, just as woke ideology is the new state religion.
There is a reason why the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law (which must also include administrative actions or executive orders) abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Government must stay out of speech just as it must stay out of religion. And Elon Musk is right as well. Fact checkers, content moderators and their ilk should keep their hands off free speech. But the Internet should not be ruled by the law of the jungle. You need to do your own fact checking before your spread garbage on the Internet.