Abandoning free expression won't solve America's problems

Abandoning free expression won't solve America's problems
© Hill illustration

Much has been said in these chaotic days about various threats to American democracy. One particular threat to democracy, however, is largely ignored in the public outrage. That threat is the abandonment of the principle of free expression. Democracy doesn’t happen in places where voices are stifled and powerful levers are used to shut people up.

Tech giants now believe they have sufficient wisdom to approve or deny which messages can circulate on social media. A major publisher cancelled a book contract with a sitting senator over his comments regarding election certification. The new social media site, Parler, has been booted off of Google Play and the Apple App Store.

Consider the countries in the world that routinely stifle expression: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba and Iran come to mind. Any society that starts to legitimize suppression of voices and allows certain entities to express while smothering others is heading down a dangerous path.


It matters little which powerful entity is doing the stifling. Whether it is big government, establishment media, or tech giants presumptuously thinking they are smart enough to referee the public sphere, suppression is still suppression. Sadly, much of the pressure to restrict messaging is coming from on-line mobs or activist groups who have intimidated tech companies into compliance.

During times of crisis, it is difficult for civilized societies to detach themselves from the intensity and circumstances of the moment.

The last year has seen unrest in the nation’s streets, harsh political rhetoric and a bruising election season. When emotions run high, it is tempting to think a quick fix can be had by imposing silence on political foes.

The First Amendment prevents the government from imposing silence. Social media giants, however, believe they are entitled to act as ultimate censors. The problem is that these social media giants are actually political actors imposing their world views onto what were designed as public marketplaces. Absent the emotions of the now, most sensible Americans would disapprove of Twitter’s Jack Dorsey deciding which politicians’ messages get to circulate and which don’t.

Seventeenth century English intellectual John Milton wrote about the dangers of censorship. He contended censorship weakens the character of a society, and ultimately, just doesn’t work. American democracy is strong enough to withstand the onslaught of competing messages, regardless of their sources and content. In terms of workability, odds are that no Trump supporters are changing their minds about the election because Trump has been punted off Twitter.


Political speech is by nature raucous, fact-challenged and bare knuckled. The nation should not fear the rough and tumble. Political arguments have to be tested if they are ever going to be accepted through debate rather than force. Silencing people removes the test by rhetoric. American civilization hinges on deciding things through debate and public deliberation. When those rhetorical processes are limited or choked off, less desirable options for engagement enter the arena. Citizens who are made to think they have been excluded from the rhetorical sphere will not just go away.

Clearly, acts of violence, destruction of property and specific incitement to violence are not part of the free expression implementation on which democracy and civilization rest. But short of those out-of-bounds categories, which the courts referee, Americans have to be ready to tolerate political perspectives and messages that might be unpleasant, outrageous, or questionable.

All citizens have the right to express themselves in exchange for letting the other citizens also express. That provides the functional interdependence the nation’s founders posited.

It is time to remember the rallying cries of past years when activists noted that “Dissent is patriotic,” and “No one is free when others are oppressed.” As the nation works to address its cultural and political problems, there must be a realization that muzzling people won’t help. That will only complicate the healing process.

Anybody who opposes extremism will spark more of such by shutting out voices. Free expression is a principle that must be supported even in times of crisis… maybe that should be “especially” during times of crisis.

Jeffrey 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.