Let’s Stop Talking About Free Speech and Start Defending It

In New York City, where I live, clothing stores have reopened, but with a hitch: You can’t browse the aisles freely or try on anything, but the clerks can bring whatever you ordered online out to you, via “curbside service.” Hallelujah.

The last time I encountered something so restrictive, limiting, and stupid was when I lived in Philadelphia in the 1980s and had to shop at the state-owned stores that had a monopoly on alcohol sales. A few of the bigger stores let you walk the aisles, but most had a counter up front and a massive catalog from which you had to choose your preferred poison. The salesperson would then head back to the storeroom and bring your order out to you. This was true even for the $2.99 and $3.99 bottles of Yugoslavian wine I could afford at the time, and I remember wasting everyone’s time by sending people back in search of the cheapest plonk imported from the one semi-functioning economy in communist Europe. I’ll take a bottle of the merlot, I’d say, counting out my change to make sure I could cover the sales tax. After a few minutes of rummaging around in the back, they’d reappear and say nope, we’re out of that. How about the cabernet, then? More time. Nope. The blend? Nope. OK, then maybe any of the whites? On and on it would go.

Something similarly cramped and frustrating is happening to free speech. Acceptable expression is being squeezed into smaller and smaller confines, even as we have the infinite horizons of cyberspace open before us. I guess it’s good news that it’s not the government per se that’s doing the policing (yet, at least). Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Patreon, and other private services have been bouncing more and more people off their platforms for real and imagined crimes. The legacy media seems to spend more time conducting struggle sessions than reporting these days. The New York Times canned their op-ed page editor for running a stupid column by a well-educated but stupid senator who himself wants to limit important aspects of online expression. The Philadelpia Inquirer pushed out its editor over a headline that offended people (“Buildings Matter, Too”).

As a good libertarian, I rush to add that of course these outlets have every right to block whomever they want and to fire every at-will employee in their midst. And demonetizing isn’t the same as banning. But you know what? It’s a bad sign when people get worried that anything they say (or have ever said) can and will be used against them, either in a court of law or, more likely, the court of public opinion. “Name ONE non-trash aspect about this country,” asks professional troll Saira Rao, who makes a good living charging “wealthy white women” $2,500 a pop to eat pasta and confess their privilege. I’ll go with a longstanding belief in a robust marketplace of ideas and, at least since the late 1950s, a willingness to beat down legal and social limits on acceptable speech and expression (thank you, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Barney Rosset, and so many others). When space for speech was limited and at a premium, we took it more seriously and fought for it to be accessible even or especially to the outliers of the world.

Yesterday’s false flap about Google “demonetizing” The Federalist falls into the broad and emerging genre of policing speech through any means necessary, where all it takes to grab headlines and cause a panic is to allege that a website’s comments section, moderated or not, is hosting a racist hootenany. So does the characterization of Facebook as a “hate-for-profit” operation whose primary purpose is serving up ads for white supremacists. A wide-ranging association of civil rights groups is calling on advertisers to boycott Facebook to “protest what they say is the company’s failure to make its platform a less-hostile place,” reports The Wall Street Journal. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg’s real sin is his recent conversion to something approaching free-speech values. Just a couple of years ago, the boy genius arrived in D.C. announcing that he wanted to be regulated by a drool brigade that clearly had no understanding of how Facebook or the internet worked. Last fall, having apparently discovered that Congress doesn’t respect the First Amendment, he announced the bold position that Facebook wouldn’t ban political speech and ads and wouldn’t censor politicians. That’s upsetting to people who want to control speech even as Facebook itself has its own limits. Earlier today, for instance, the platform took down a Donald Trump ad, with a Facebook spokesman saying it violated “our policy against organized hate” by including a red triangle in its imagery that some likened to Nazi designations of political dissidents (the president’s team avers that the triangle is “a symbol widely used by Antifa”).

In a widely discussed recent article for New York, Andrew Sullivan asked, “Is There Still Room for Debate?” Surveying various recent shouting matches, calls for “moral clarity” in journalism, and figurative beatdowns for wrongspeak, Sullivan defends pluralism and free expression as something more than a legal system:

Liberalism is not just a set of rules. There’s a spirit to it. A spirit that believes that there are whole spheres of human life that lie beyond ideology—friendship, art, love, sex, scholarship, family. A spirit that seeks not to impose orthodoxy but to open up the possibilities of the human mind and soul. A spirit that seeks moral clarity but understands that this is very hard, that life and history are complex, and it is this complexity that a truly liberal society seeks to understand if it wants to advance. It is a spirit that deals with an argument—and not a person—and that counters that argument with logic, not abuse. It’s a spirit that allows for various ideas to clash and evolve, and treats citizens as equal, regardless of their race, rather than insisting on equity for designated racial groups. It’s a spirit that delights sometimes in being wrong because it offers an opportunity to figure out what’s right. And it’s generous, humorous, and graceful in its love of argument and debate. It gives you space to think and reflect and deliberate.

The current online landscape, concludes Sullivan, is “the antithesis of all this—and its mercy-free, moblike qualities when combined with a moral panic are, quite frankly, terrifying.”

Yes, only the government can censor speech, if you use the strictest definition of censorship. But that’s a narrow, impoverished, and flatly wrong way to think about free expression. Governments have less power than ever to keep us from talking freely among ourselves, and traditional cultural, religious, and media gatekeepers exert less and less control too, thanks be to the internet and other forces. More different voices and perspectives are being heard than at any time in my lifetime, even as (or maybe because) different factions are trying to shut down speech and ideas they don’t like. Especially in a moment when Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Josh Hawley are all calling for major changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, we need to be on high alert for attempts by the government to suppress speech. But we also need to battle attempts by online platforms and interest groups and individuals to shut down speech and thought in less-legalistic ways. There is only ever as much room for debate as we insist on.

More than ever, we need to promote what Greg Lukianoff has called a “culture of free speech,” in which we all fight like hell for our visions of the good society to carry the day while recognizing the need and even the duty of protecting the expression of those with whom we disagree. With all its strictures and claustrophobia, curbside service is terrible enough when it comes to shopping for clothes and booze. It’s far, far worse if we lock down our minds as well.

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