Should Free Speech Be For All Of Us, Or Only For Those Who Hold ‘Correct’ Opinions?
We are living in a time where the lines between free speech, and hate/fake news type speech, are blurring. Increasingly it seems that the arbiters of free speech are for-profit social media and search companies. As such, I now find myself deeply troubled by where we’re headed with what is, and is not, considered a free speech, press and peaceable assembly, as protected by the United States Constitution’s First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Throughout the Trump presidency, I have railed against The Donald’s bloviating, lying and complete misstatement of facts as well as his constant attempts toward stirring up hate and the speech surrounding it. I am so weary of him that I want to puke whenever I listen to his lies, outright anti-pandemic rhetoric, his inflating accomplishments, and specifically his child-like rantings.
My biggest issue, besides his failed leadership (especially on the pandemic), is that he also constantly provides de facto permission for his base to openly display racist, prejudiced, anti-immigrant, misogynist and “America First!” rhetoric — alongside outcries that social media and search companies are intentionally stifling ‘conservative’ speech when those posts are flagged or removed.
Though I hate to admit it, maybe Trump and conservatives have a point about that implied and expressed stifling of conservative tweets, posts and search results (NOTE: I’m intentionally not using the word “censorship” as I don’t think the flagging or removals are to that extent yet, or whether there is any truth to their belief that search results for their published missives are not displaying).
Whether they’re right, or that we detest conservative’s extreme positions so much that most of us think it doesn’t matter if that objectionable speech is stifled, we at least all need to think about whether or not there is any truth to Trump and his minion’s belief. Why? That belief could affect us all where free speech is concerned if we don’t address this now — and consider those outcries seriously and figure out how to manage our online ‘assembly’ as quickly as possible.
So the question we need to ask is this: Who decides what speech can be published on social media, blogs, websites and be accessible to us all, even in search results? Is it enough to be OK with Twitter, Facebook, Google and other’s Terms of Service that manage and allow them to decide what kind of speech is or is not acceptable on their platforms?
This is especially important since one could easily argue that Twitter and Facebook (as well as possibly Google and others) are, in fact, our online public square and that is where we are ‘assembling’ (which is especially true during this pandemic we’re in).
Unlike those for-profit social media and search companies, the U.S. Constitution does not have Terms of Service that dictate what speech can and cannot be said in a public forum. Our First Amendment is pretty clear that Congress can take no legal action limiting free speech or a press (and yes, we could also argue that a blog, website, Facebook post, Twitter tweet, and other online speech publishing is considered press as well).
Why aren’t there any laws about so-called hate speech? It is because the First Amendment specifically prohibits Congress from enacting any — and this Wikipedia article states it best:
“Hate speech in the United States is not regulated, in contrast to that of most other liberal democracies, due to the robust right to free speech found in the American Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that hate speech is legally protected free speech under the First Amendment.“
See why this is such a troubling and hard issue to wrap our heads around? If Trump were to win a second term (God help us if he does) and the right-wingers out there decided that any left-leaning speech should be stifled (and pressured social media and search companies to toe the party line and squelch dissenting speech that isn’t ‘conservative’ or right-leaning), then intellectual and democratic free speech may very well be pressured to be stopped.
As evidence, we see Twitter label a Trump tweet which didn’t remove it, but only labeled it as caution for those who might not think critically. Add to that Facebook (finally) taking tentative steps to block COVID-19 biased and dangerously misleading posts, including those by the Trump 2020 campaign. They’ve done so especially with those posts which have hate symbols and rhetoric within them, even if they’re promoted by Trump himself or his campaign staff and they are now pushing back.
This morning I read this post by a guy named Luke Boyle, which really got me to thinking deeply about how free speech could be made inaccessible going forward. Not just by the social media companies, but also the media giant, Google.
There are so many gray areas today with stifling some speech that this article outlining the power that Google holds is quite troubling if true. I’m NOT saying that Trump’s — and others bloviating about “fake news” and “conservative censorship” — is correct or acceptable speech, but what is troubling is this: Do we want Google, Facebook and Twitter deciding on what can and cannot be published online?
Here is one excerpt from Luke’s article that really slapped me upside the head:
“You don’t have to agree with them politically to see that Google is applying different standards to conservative content than to more liberal content. I don’t visit Breitbart, I don’t read their articles, and frankly I don’t give a shit what they have to say, but I believe in a free and open internet. If you believe in a free and open internet then you have to agree this is wrong. During the cold war, anyone who didn’t follow the extreme protectionist beliefs of the time were shouted down as communists (Even Martin Luther King Jr. was dismissed as a communist by J. Edgar Hoover).”
Do you believe in a free and open internet? What kind of speech do you think should be ‘allowed’ by social media and search companies? Should these for-profit companies —- who now essentially ‘own’ the public square where people assemble online — be able to disallow certain kinds of speech?
I believe the future of our democracy, and our free speech and press, are as vulnerable as they have ever been to being neutered or destroyed if we don’t pay attention and get in to the debate.