Free speech by Americans that is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution continues to be under threat. Politicians, media figures and wealthy interest groups remain undaunted in their efforts to stop the speech of others with whom they disagree.
The First Amendment contains the affirmation that “Congress [and state legislatures] shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech…” We should want to keep it that way.
Instead, Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is running for president, is the latest example of proposing an assault on free speech; in her case, under the guise of “fighting digital misinformation.” Indeed, Sen. Warren’s plan to attack the stated problem will result in a wider abridgement of free speech.
Citing the efforts of the “Russian government” attempt to influence the 2016 election by using bots to purchase ads on Facebook, Sen. Warren wants to regulate the Internet to determine what speech is acceptable and unacceptable.
Among Sen. Warren’s solutions to fight disinformation, particularly related to American elections, is to “create civil and criminal penalties for knowingly disseminating false information about when and how to vote in U.S. elections.” She also proposes to “establish rules around information and data sharing to ensure that platforms can share with each other and with the government while respecting individuals’ privacy.”
Feel reassured? The government, under a President Warren, would impose criminal penalties for false ads about voting, which sounds benign on the surface. The problem is that once you open such a door, where will it stop? Governments run by politicians and lifetime bureaucrats are no less susceptible than the average person to arbitrariness and subjectivity. They are not infallible. They can make biased judgments. If the government believes your ads or speech are false, or deliberately misleading, you get prosecuted, even if you contend your speech was true and accurate.
Forcing digital platforms to “share information” with the government also is ominous. A president’s appointees in the federal bureaucracy would be making determinations on the degree of “disinformation” in your statements and opinions. Such a growing Orwellian state should concern every American, regardless whether you like or dislike Elizabeth Warren or anyone else in the White House.
Sen. Warren is not the first politician to propose rolling back the First Amendment, and she will not be the last. The late Sen. John McCain was another proponent of curtailing free speech around elections when he lead the effort to pass campaign ad restrictions in the early 2000’s. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the McCain law an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech. Still, there is no guarantee another Supreme Court would do the same thing the next time it is tested with a similar law.
It is not just politicians trying to squash speech from those with whom they disagree. Organizations, tech companies and various media outlets are a danger to freedom of speech when it is contrary to their accepted wisdom. The climate change debate is a prominent example where some media and Internet platforms have blocked any challenge to full-blown, man-made global warming.
With the explosion of the Internet, niche channels and social media, free speech itself is easier and more accessible to nearly every American on a scale unimaginable a generation ago. Yet, this exponential growth in the means to communicate has sprung more efforts to silence.
Let us stipulate that free speech can get messy. No one should condone foreign governments interfering in U.S. elections. No one should countenance falsehoods, deceptions and outright lies in campaign ads. And certainly no one likes when they believe they are being lied about, which is an ugly side of running for and serving in elective office. Indeed, democracy itself can be unseemly. The old expression is true: politics ain’t beanbag.
Ultimately, the answer to objectionable, inaccurate speech (“disinformation”) is not empowering government to play the omniscient referee, which is dangerous and threatens freedom. Rather, the answer is more free speech.
The alternative to free speech, which is a central ingredient to democracy, is for government to control it. The alternative to democracy is tyranny. Americans must be vigilant in protecting their constitutional rights against politicians, media celebrities and interest groups who think they can flout the Constitution and silence their opponents. Otherwise, our rights will diminish and soon be lost.