Free speech is not absolute, it comes with consequences and accountability


Social media platforms such as Apple, YouTube, Facebook, Spotify and other companies removed or banned the truly vile Alex Jones and his conspiracy theory mongering Infowars from their platforms over the past week or so.

In recent years, Conservatives Have Weaponized the First Amendment:

A new analysis prepared for The New York Times found that the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has been far more likely to embrace free-speech arguments concerning conservative speech than liberal speech. That is a sharp break from earlier eras.

As a result, liberals who once championed expansive First Amendment rights are now uneasy about them.

“The left was once not just on board but leading in supporting the broadest First Amendment protections,” said Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment lawyer and a supporter of broad free-speech rights. “Now the progressive community is at least skeptical and sometimes distraught at the level of First Amendment protection which is being afforded in cases brought by litigants on the right.”

Many on the left have traded an absolutist commitment to free speech for one sensitive to the harms it can inflict.

Conservatives have offered a backhanded defense of Alex Jones, best exemplified by conservative columnists Rich Lowry and David French of the National Review. Don’t Ban Alex Jones:

Social-media sites have moved en masse to ban Alex Jones, the self-parodic conspiracy theorist. Jones is a poisonous toad who leveraged his compellingly ridiculous persona and bizarre rants into considerable notoriety and a lucrative dietary-supplement empire.

He doesn’t represent anything new. We’ve always had our share of paranoid weirdos. Before the age of social media, they relied on publishing underground newsletters and handing out leaflets and the like to get their message out.

What Jones has done is take a cracked worldview that long predated him — lunatic theories about the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bilderberg group have been a fringe staple for decades — and shrewdly marketed it using technologies that afford him a reach unimaginable to his daft forebears.

This is a significant downside of the new media environment, which is more open than ever before. But banning Jones, especially in the manner it was done, has worrisome ramifications for free speech.

Of course, the social-media companies aren’t government entities. They can silence whomever they like without violating the First Amendment. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

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If social-media platforms are going down this road, they should have a much less subjective standard. A clear line would be the one that Zuckerberg enunciated in his controversial interview, which is to act to stop incitement, but otherwise allow users to post as they see fit.

My colleague David French suggests another bright line: banning users who are guilty of libel [and slander]. This standard might bounce Jones for his monstrous lie about Sandy Hook families having faked the massacre of their children. A Better Way to Ban Alex Jones.

The lonely social-media dissenter regarding Jones is Jack Dorsey of Twitter, who declined to ban him. He is getting excoriated for saying that it’s important to stand by straightforward, impartial principles, and that journalists should refute the likes of Jones “so people can form their own opinions.”

This is what used to be a liberal chestnut, that the best way to combat speech is with other speech. Now, it is considered a hateful, retrograde point of view. We won’t miss Alex Jones when he’s gone, but the banning almost certainly won’t end with him.

This view is premised on the fallacy that free speech is absolute. This misconception that freedom of speech is absolute is most prevalent on the Internet. Here’s the thing about free speech: It’s not absolute.

Attorney Anoa Changa argues at the Huffington Post, Alex Jones’ ‘Free Speech’ Shouldn’t Be Your Primary Concern:

After Apple, YouTube, Facebook and other companies removed or banned some of Alex Jones’ and Infowars content this week, both conservatives and many well-meaning progressives popped up to say that allowing these companies to define certain speech as hateful or unacceptable is a dangerous precedent and a potentially slippery slope. As private companies, these platforms have no legal obligation to give Jones a platform. Yet if we value freedom of speech as a broader value in our society, these claims are not without their merits. We have seen these platforms use their terms of service or community guidelines to stifle discourse and minimize the ability of people to organize and engage around pertinent issues.

However — and I can’t say this strongly enough — Jones is not the hill any free speech advocate should want to die on.

In a purely academic conversation, protecting free speech regardless of content seems to make sense. But free speech absolutism ignores the fact that, in reality, speech is not supported equally across all topics and platforms for everyone. This lens fails to consider the actual power dynamics at play and how society works in favor and support of those who uphold white supremacy and white fragility.

Often free speech concerns arise, as with Jones, in the context of those who want the freedom to express viewpoints that are not merely odious or unpopular but are also directly tied to the dehumanization and subjugation of others.

Through his lawyer, Jones has argued that he is a “performance artist” simply playing a character for money. He spends time selling random products and “supplements” in addition to spewing crazy theories and lies. He has victimized immigrants, Muslims and black Americans with conspiracy theories and misinformation, often stoking his followers to harass his targets online and in real life. Most famously, Jones is being sued for defamation by parents of a child killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The parents have had to move repeatedly because of him, and his lawyer is still trying to publicly reveal personal information about them, including their addresses. Up to now, the tech platforms said there was nothing they could do to stop him.

Meanwhile, we have seen numerous instances of progressive activists suspended or banned from these sites for far less than Jones is guilty of. Right-wing trolls have figured out that they can cynically exploit the regulation — or lack thereof — of these platforms to harass and silence minority viewpoints. Apparently, Twitter doesn’t consider hate speech to be harassment or a violation of its terms of service. How many times on Twitter have you seen people pleading with @Jack to reinstate the accounts of individuals who were merely defending themselves from targeted harassment?

When ProPublica reported that Facebook’s internal guidelines protected white males more than any other group, it reaffirmed the experiences of many on the platform, as well as those on Twitter, who had been suspended for commentary that addressed valid issues but were viewed as targeting white people or as hate speech itself. … And because these companies fear endless accusations of anti-conservative bias, we have consistently seen the highest premium placed on protecting freedom of speech only when the speaker is white and conservative. In those cases, the harassment and civil rights abuses that are rampant across these platforms and are the natural result of these decisions are of secondary concern.

Commentators spill endless ink on protests against white conservatives on college campuses but raise no concerns about the harassment of journalists or death threats to progressive academics. This notion that we have to hear and defend all ideas to ensure the rights of others without any concern for the harms being done to marginalized communities is stupid.

Addressing this issue in the context of clashes between the “alt-right” and anti-fascist protesters in Berkeley, California, last year, Meleiza Figueroa wrote in The Nation, “This battle is emphatically not about free speech. This is about the ability to shape consensus in a time of rising mass anxiety and political extremism. The ‘power of framing,’ as linguist George Lakoff puts it, is everything.”

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Considering how crucial social media platforms have become as alternative sources of building power and information, we cannot ignore how these entities determine who is permitted access. It is unsurprising that Twitter has decided to let Jones have a refuge on its platform. The site is perhaps the worst example of enabling the targeted harassment of vulnerable people while banning others for far lesser infractions. When pressured to actually do something about the hatred on the site, Jack Dorsey and his company have so far come up empty.

Yet the message has been clear: They prioritize the right of people like Jones to broadcast misinformation and invective to their audiences over the right of marginalized people to be able to participate in the public discourse without threat or harassment. There is no value in this brand of free speech advocacy that will fight tooth and nail on principal for the unprincipled but stay silent about issues of platform and access that effectively deny equitable free speech to marginalized communities.

The protests over Jones’ banning aren’t about freedom of speech and making sure everyone has a say. This is about maintaining and sustaining white supremacy and power. This is about Jones and his ability to earn ridiculous amounts of money peddling falsehoods, inflaming hatred and selling junk. There is no absolute right to be a hateful grifter without accountability.

Jones and his ilk have built a media empire solely focused on maximizing wealth and opportunity without regard for the impact on society and marginalized communities. Those defending him disregard the attacks that have taken place against independent progressive voices and platforms.

Those defending Alex Jones’ free speech to spew his conspiracy theories and hate speech on Infowars have not been as outspoken about President Donald Trump attacking the press — the one profession given constitutional protection in the First Amendment as the watchdog of democracy — as “fake news” and the Stalinist “the enemy of the American people.” This is dangerous demagoguery. It is poisoning the minds of millions of Americans.

Colbert King of the Washington Post notes that Your everyday Republican has some galling views:

The views of rank-and-file Republicans, captured in voter surveys, are nothing less than galling.

Let’s lead with a poll conducted by the global marketing firm Ipsos and reported by the Daily Beast. It found that 43 percent of self-identified Republicans said they believed “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.”

When asked if President Trump should shut down The Post, CNN and the New York Times, 23 percent of Republicans said yes.

These findings are obviously troubling to me as a member of the Fourth Estate. But in the Trump era, assaults on the media come with the territory.

More disturbing to me as a citizen is that those Trump cultists would knowingly and willingly give him the power to trample on the First Amendment, destroying an essential part of our democracy that he doesn’t like. That is appalling.

Our home-grown destroyers of the First Amendment would have the United States join foes of press freedom around the globe.

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When it comes down to support for blocking news outlets, blessing the sucking up to foreign adversaries, and accepting outrageous and brazen lying by a president, Trump supporters have the field all to themselves. Their view: He has the throne; the rest must obey.

And that is where our democracy faces its challenge. Election Day in November is the decision point. It offers the moment to reaffirm support for fundamental freedoms and integrity in government. The choice will be there in print. The Republican’s name on the ballot in your district may be different, but it is, de facto, Donald Trump. You know where his base stands. Where stand you?

President Trump’s assault on the freedom of the press has led to the Boston Globe proposing that newspapers across the nation express their disdain for the president’s rhetoric on Aug. 16 in editorial opinions. ‘Not the enemy of the people’: 70 news organizations will blast Trump’s attack on the media:

The Globe calls for the opinion writers that staff newspaper editorial boards to produce independent opinion pieces about Trump’s attacks on the media. So far, according to the Associated Press, 70 news organizations have agreed — from large metropolitan daily newspapers such as the Miami Herald and Denver Post to small weekly newspapers with four-digit circulation numbers.

The Globe’s appeal is limited to newspaper opinion writers, who operate independently from news reporters and editors.

“We are not the enemy of the people,” Marjorie Pritchard, deputy managing editor for the editorial page of the Boston Globe, told the Associated Press, using a term Trump has used to describe journalists in the past.

‘‘Our words will differ. But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming,’’ the appeal said.

The newspaper’s rallying cry was being promoted by industry groups such as the American Society of News Editors.

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[Some] have argued that there’s a moral imperative to speak up because Trump’s rhetoric can result in more than words being hurled toward journalists. Some have pointed to the killing of five people who worked at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis as an example. The man charged with five counts of murder in the killings had a vendetta against the newspaper, authorities said. But critics have said that Trump’s anti-media comments do not help.

“What’s clear is that Trump has made it a verbal open season on journalists, many of whom have felt the sting one way or another,” columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in The Washington Post on June 29. “For all of us ink-stained wretches, the hate mail is more vicious than ever. The death threats more frequent.”

Last week, New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens described Trump’s anti-media words as “incitement” and shared a threatening voice mail he had received from a blocked number[.]

The Post editorial board has previously responded to Trump’s attacks on news organizations, but Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said late Saturday that the board will not participate in the organized response.

If Fred Hiatt is making this decision because he is intimidated by Trump’s attacks on Jeff Bezos and “the Amazon Washington Post,” it is a cowardly retreat from The Post’s duty to defend the First Amendment freedom of the press against Trump’s authoritarian abuse of power.

Where do Arizona’s newspapers stand on the Globe’s proposal?

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