Not so free speech

September 1, 2018

 

  In the current political atmosphere, the hardest part of entering a public debate — other than avoiding the social media mob — is avoiding an argument that will automatically make half your audience dismiss it as mere partisan hackery.

 

 The freedom of speech in this country is under attack from multiple directions. Some of the oppressive speech codes are perpetrated by social media giants including Apple, Twitter, Google and Facebook. We’ve seen purges and censorship of ideas that are unpopular or deemed offensive.

 

 And with President Trump’s recent and repeated pronouncements that “fake news media” is the enemy of the people, we see rhetoric coming from the bully pulpit. Defenders of the First Amendment worry about what that might mean for publishers of content critical of the administration.

 

  So, let’s just get it out there: the press is not the enemy of the people. Full stop. But neither are those espousing unpopular — even offensive — ideas. The whole point of freedom of speech is to protect those ideas that may be problematic, even if they have no redeeming value.

 

  Offensive speech is not a violation of anyone’s rights. Equating hurtful speech with “violence” stifles legitimate debate. It violates the rights of those whose dissenting ideas are censored or even criminalized. I don’t buy psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett’s claim that speech can be violent if it “causes harm.” By that loose definition, selling a Twinkie— given that junk food can cause harm to one’s health—  could be considered a form of violence.

 

  Last month four social media giants simultaneously de-platformed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones by banning him or limiting his access on their sites. The general defense of such censorship came from people who see Jones’ old comments on Sandy Hook victims as equivalent to “yelling fire in a crowded theater.”  It’s as if Google and Facebook gave Jones a bullhorn to cause panic in a crowd, but took it away four years after the theater fire and stampede saying, “you can’t talk now.” A bit late for that argument.

  

   Even uber-liberal Bill Maher came to the defense of free speech when he said “Alex Jones gets to speak.” Unfortunately, he was immediately rebuked in kneejerk fashion by his guests, including former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm.

 

  In addition to the point that the tech giants enjoy dominant, almost monopolistic market shares, real First Amendment concerns are raised.

 

  At recent congressional hearings, Alex Jones was repeatedly brought up. “What happened with inforwars?” U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin asked. “They made a cottage industry out of this. Why are they still on Facebook?” Well, here we are several weeks later, and they aren’t on Facebook. The timing and the specificity of the action are suspicious.

 

  This brings us to the recent collusion of hundreds of newspapers writing editorials in defense of freedom of the press. But it was too narrow and too contrived. And, too late. Publishers missed a great opportunity to make a critical stand for free speech after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in 2015. That Jihadi attack killed 10 journalists. At that tragic moment, the media had a chance to stand against a real, rather than hypothetical, threat. One with real risk. One that only together they could face. And they caved.

 

  Journalism’s failure on this issue and their very narrow defense of their own rights in the recent coordinated editorials is itself a big threat to free speech. Despite worries about the potential threat against journalists being accused of disseminating “fake news,” the global jihadists and their apologists actually were empowered, and we’ve accepted their vision on the limits of speech. No debate, no pushback, just surrender. No ideas, religious or political, should be spared vigorous critique. The stakes are too high.

 

  The traditional media have the audiences, the big platforms, and the best resources to get the truth out in the public square. Creating an extremely narrow message here undermines their credibility with the public (which is already low) and promotes groupthink. It is feeble to attack Trump on ill-advised tweets rather than an actual policy proposal to limit their speech. That’s because it doesn’t exist. It’s Star Wars Episode I- The Phantom Menace. It does nothing to address the waning credibility of the press.

 

  Most Americans feel the traditional press is biased, and almost half believe its inaccurate, according to a recent Gallup poll. Only by addressing this real lack of credibility can they guarantee not only their First Amendment rights, but broader free speech rights in a modern society with diverse values and opinions. Including the bad ones, the press is not the enemy of the people. Our social media giants are not the enemy of the people.  But they certainly aren’t our BFFs right now.

 

 

 Joseph Meyers, a self-confessed news junkie, is a longtime resident of Guam. He lives in Tamuning. 

 

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