Fear of free expression damages American civilization
Americans apparently don’t appreciate or understand the concept of free expression as is provided in the First Amendment. It is all the worse when government leaders fail to recognize what the concept is all about. The constitutional Framers would be appalled to think a sitting United States Senator could so thoroughly misconstrue the notion of free speech, as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) did recently.
Cardin told a Senate committee that a person is “not protected under the First Amendment” if that person were to “espouse hate.” Legal experts such as Jonathan Turley of the George Washington University law school were quick to correct Cardin, but the mindset of the wayward senator betrays a confusion that is quite dangerous.
Obviously, civilized people understand the dangers of hate in a culture. More dangerous, however, is when the powerful in government get to define “hate” from their preferred perspectives and then seek to punish the contrarians as “haters.” Defining hate, while maybe not impossible, is a pretty abstract challenge and could well be altered from year to year, depending on which powerful definer is in place. In Venezuela, “hate” is defined as any criticism of President Maduro’s strongman regime.
The polarized environment in which Americans live will continue unless citizens can agree that a society valuing free expression is better than one in which voices are stifled.
Free speech is nothing to fear, but requires recognition that people are going to disagree and offend each other. That recognition is difficult when fear enters the marketplace of ideas. Fear is dominating America’s public discourse today.
The left fears Elon Musk making Twitter more of a public forum. The right fears the New York Times’ outsized say in setting the nation’s news agenda. The Justice Department apparently fears parents speaking up at school board meetings. Universities are afraid that students or employees might “microagress” each other.
Too many Americans have an irrational fear of hate speech, misinformation, ad hominem attacks, and pretty much any other disruptive communication. The problem, however, is that what constitutes hate speech or misinformation is a particularly personal interpretation. Misinformation to a right-leaning person can be anything reported on MSNBC. Anything argued by Fox’s Tucker Carlson can seem hateful to those on the left.
Misinformation is waved as the bloody shirt by the powerful who want to assert more control over the public sphere. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in a nationally televised interview recently called for greater regulation of misinformation, including lawsuits to punish social media companies. The Senator’s concern is pretty clearly focused on Musk’s efforts to make Twitter more of a true marketplace. The Senator was less concerned about misinformation on social media when it dealt with closing schools over COVID, the effectiveness of vaccines, Jussie Smollett, or allegations of Russian collusion.
Inappropriate messages do cause discomfort, as America’s constitutional Framers well knew, but they also knew that efforts by the powerful to regulate the rhetorical marketplace would be ineffective and likely lead to more chaos.
Surprisingly, that rough and tumble — sometimes tumultuous — free expression environment is actually beneficial to a functioning and free society. Alternative paths that shut people up don’t really end political or societal discussions; they instead force the oppressed into angry corners. Those with silenced voices then seek other, more disruptive avenues to make themselves recognized, possibly including violent actions.
Ultimately, to really work, censorship by the powerful must necessarily be enforced with legal or physical cudgels. And it is the weak and powerless voices that suffer most when censorship takes root, as was evidenced in China last fall when protesters took to the streets. A high-powered U.S. corporation, Apple, appears to have shamelessly supported the authoritarian government, limiting technical avenues for protest organizers in an iPhone “update” that applied only to phones in mainland China.
Too many people today are afraid of what happens when free speech prevails. They should actually be afraid of what happens when censorship prevails.
The avoidance of spirited debate is essentially a way to avoid the truth.
Free debate allows for rational people not only to discover truth, but also to discard error. Avenues exist with which to counter misinformation and nasty posts on social media, and those avenues rely on the collective good judgement and civility of a culture. If that judgement and civility among citizens disappears, authoritarianism will fill the void.
The powerful always have the access and resources to get their messages out. Average citizens don’t have such megaphones. Human dignity demands that average citizens have their say, even when those comments are disruptive or misinformed. The rhetorical truth-pursuing landscape can manage these upheavals better than authoritarian message management.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.
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