Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In these contentious times, various forms of censorship or discouragement of free speech are continually being fiercely debated.
National Review Online writer Kevin Williamson, hired by the Atlantic for his scorched-earth attacks on Donald Trump, was fired after one column because of his scorched-earth attacks on women who’ve had abortions. Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham’s show has been boycotted by nearly 20 corporate advertisers because of her tweet mildly tweaking David Hogg about his failure to get into some universities. Hogg, of course, is the 17-year-old survivor of the recent mass shooting at a Florida high school who has become a petulant catspaw for the antigun lobby. Meanwhile, revelations of private data being sold or left vulnerable by Facebook, and the continuing censorship of political views by that platform along with YouTube and Google, have heated up calls for subjecting social media to government regulations.
Seems like dangerous times for our first inalienable right, the one protecting free and open speech. But before we endorse policies that end up making matters worse, we should be clear about why the Founders gave us a right that few other nations, including the E.U. states, allow their citizens.
What our Constitution recognizes is that free political speech is indispensable for exercising political freedom, the ability to openly participate in political deliberations. From its beginning in ancient Athens, the constitutional government that made the people sovereign also created the idea of free speech. If people are free to deliberate about and vote for the policies the state pursues, then citizens have to be free to speak publicly without fear of legal restraints or retribution. Unlike elsewhere in antiquity, in ancient Athens there were two words for “free speech,” one of which was also the name of a warship, bespeaking the importance of that right for citizens. And each meeting of the Assembly of citizens opened with the question, “What man has good advice to give the city?” which Euripides praised as “the call of freedom.”
Nor could subjective standards of decorum or “proper” speech be allowed to silence the citizens. In Fifth Century Athens, the rules governing speaking in the Assembly focused mainly on keeping inept, abusive, or repetitive speakers from wasting the citizens’ time. Outside the Assembly, there were no rules. The tragic and comic stages were one of the most important venues of political debate. The policies of Athens, particularly its brutalities during the Peloponnesian War, were criticized in front of 15,000 citizens in the Theater of Dionysus the Liberator, the cult name of the god linking theater to political freedom. Comedy was particularly brutal, depicting politicians by name on the stage and accusing them of every sexual depravity, along with being the spawn of foreign prostitutes and betraying the city for money. So important was this freedom of expression that Aristophanes’ favorite target, the demagogue Cleon, failed to persuade the government to silence the poet.
Free speech, then, is not an accessory of political freedom, it is its essence, as the Founders understood when they included it in the First Amendment. As such, it has ever been the enemy of any kind of oligarchic or tyrannical governments. Modern technocratic governments, such as that favored by the E.U. or American progressives, likewise prefer to privilege the speech of “experts,” or those with the proper credentials that presumable signify their superior wisdom, validated by proper or decorous language. But if political participation is open to a wide diversity of citizens, then any such restrictions will act as a gatekeeper or virtual censor to protect one kind of political speech against another.
Today, the frequent complaints of brutal, mean, “hurtful,” or vulgar language function the same way, as the incessant screeds against Donald Trump’s verbal fusillades show. The political bias of these outcries against decorum is obvious in their blatant hypocrisy. NeverTrump Republicans who carefully criticized Barack Obama attack Trump with unseemly vigor. Late-night comics who obscenely savage Republican political figures tread on eggshells when it comes to those on their own side. Michelle Obama never received a fraction of the crude and brutal treatment Melania Trump has received. Even more glaring, George W. Bush and these days Donald Trump have faced savage levels of insult and invective that Barack Obama never experienced.
But that’s the price politicians or pundits pay once they enter the arena, as it is for all citizens who participate in the deliberations over our country’s policies. Just look at the brutal comments responding to online articles. That too is a necessary cost for allowing millions of ordinary, diverse people to speak their minds. Of course, all of us have to be vigilant about the sort of restriction or censoring of speech we see today, where political prejudice, or subjective class-based standards of decorum, or limitations that protect subjective feelings or standards of offense have become virtual censors. But there too, we are still free to prefer some speech to other speech, one of the great boons of today’s explosion of a historically unprecedented variety of political discourse available on the internet. No one has an excuse for not seeing through “fake news.”
The three examples of censorship above, then, are obviously disrespecting the 2500-year-old tradition of free political speech to which most of them continually pledge their fealty, even as they try as Cleon did to silence ideas they find offensive. But some of the hysterical reactions to leftwing attempts to censor opinions they don’t like are dog-bites-man stories that have been happening for decades. And what can we do about it? As a private publication, The Atlantic is as free to discriminate against any viewpoints its editors or readers object to. Corporations like those boycotting Ingraham’s show are likewise private institutions that can choose where or where not to advertise their products for whatever reason they want. And we are free to ridicule their hypocrisy or cowardice, answer their speech with more speech, or avoid their products, which is the best response in any market to products we don’t like.
The question of social media companies that have unprecedented scope and reach into our lives is more complex. Protecting users’ privacy should be a regulatory requirement, fulfilled by disclosing completely the uses to which their private data may be subjected, such as being sold to politicians, and the government certifying the technologies used to protect data from hackers. Then consumers can decide for themselves whether the benefits of a Facebook page are worth businesses invading their privacy, or personal data being sold to political organizations.
Trying to regulate social media’s censoring of content or search results, however, requires more caution. Do we really want government agencies doing it? Given the sorry track-record of the IRS, the EPA, the CIA, the DOJ, and the FBI during the Obama administration and continuing even into Trump’s first year––when these agencies have continued to be politicized and abused for partisan advantage––why would we turn over to the government any control over the powerful communication and information technologies of social media corporations? At best we could require them to promulgate public statements to all users that their mechanisms for censoring and shaping their information are biased, just as cigarette and alcohol companies are required to disclose the health-risks of their products. Then people can decide for themselves whether to use them or not, instead of trusting nanny-state clerks and political appointees to have all the people’s best interests at heart.
These issues are not just about freedom of speech, but freedom itself. The question is the oldest one in political philosophy: are the people able to use their freedom properly, exercise their autonomy over their lives, and take responsibility for the consequences of their choices? In their policies the progressives have shown they don’t think we the people are capable of freedom, and so require the greater knowledge and increased intrusion of government functionaries to properly run our lives and protect us from our own failures. But if we believe that we are capable of freedom, and that our own experiences and common sense are sufficient guardians of our freedom, then we must make choices that protect our freedom, such as avoiding politically biased social media, or learning how to weed out the partisan prejudices and biases. But don’t give big government the power to do that for us.