A while back I predicted—though I'm not sure it was here—that, just as college students are questioning free speech, so the Left-wing media would also begin questioning it, eventually calling for an end to "hate speech" or "fake news." Today I'll treat you to another prediction, at the bottom, and the ask you for yours. Also, I'd like readers to weigh in on the issue of whether we should restrict America's First Amendment beyond the form it's been construed by the courts. Should we go to the European system in which some speech, including "hate speech" is banned and can be subject to criminal prosecution? But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Within the last two days I've seen two article in two Woke sites (the New Yorker and the New York Times) implicitly and explicitly calling for more bans on speech. Granted, some of the bans would be legal, like those at Facebook described in the New Yorker, and it would be hard to alter the legal interpretation of the First Amendment given today's conservative Supreme Court, but many of us free-speech absolutists find this media pushback a worrying trend.
Here's an article from last week's New York Times Magazine:
And one from the latest New Yorker, which I believe is free online:
Both articles refer to the kind of "hate speech" or "fake news" appearing on platforms like Facebook, and both suggest that perhaps the U.S. needs to modify what we think of as "free speech" to prevent these occurrences. Neither article, curiously, actually defines "hate speech," and that's perhaps because it's a notoriously slippery term. That in itself highlights the problem of censortship.
Here are a few statements suggesting that we need to rethink free speech in the U.S.
From the NYT:
It’s an article of faith in the United States that more speech is better and that the government should regulate it as little as possible. But increasingly, scholars of constitutional law, as well as social scientists, are beginning to question the way we have come to think about the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. They think our formulations are simplistic — and especially inadequate for our era. Censorship of external critics by the government remains a serious threat under authoritarian regimes. But in the United States and other democracies, there is a different kind of threat, which may be doing more damage to the discourse about politics, news and science. It encompasses the mass distortion of truth and overwhelming waves of speech from extremists that smear and distract.
. . . These scholars argue something that may seem unsettling to Americans: that perhaps our way of thinking about free speech is not the best way. At the very least, we should understand that it isn’t the only way. Other democracies, in Europe and elsewhere, have taken a different approach. Despite more regulations on speech, these countries remain democratic; in fact, they have created better conditions for their citizenry to sort what’s true from what’s not and to make informed decisions about what they want their societies to be. Here in the United States, meanwhile, we’re drowning in lies.
. . . In other words, good ideas do not necessarily triumph in the marketplace of ideas. “Free speech threatens democracy as much as it also provides for its flourishing,” the philosopher Jason Stanley and the linguist David Beaver argue in their forthcoming book, “The Politics of Language.”
And another system, that of many European countries:
The principle of free speech has a different shape and meaning in Europe. For the European Union, as well as democracies like Canada and New Zealand, free speech is not an absolute right from which all other freedoms flow. The European high courts have allowed states to punish incitements of racial hatred or denial of the Holocaust, for example. Germany and France have laws that are designed to prevent the widespread dissemination of hate speech and election-related disinformation.“Much of the recent authoritarian experience in Europe arose out of democracy itself,” explains Miguel Poiares Maduro, board chairman of the European Digital Media Observatory, a project on online disinformation at the European University Institute. “The Nazis and others were originally elected. In Europe, there is historically an understanding that democracy needs to protect itself from anti-democratic ideas. It’s because of the different democratic ethos of Europe that Europe has accepted more restrictions on speech.”
Finally, in the last paragraph:
As we hurtle toward the November election with a president who has trapped the country in a web of lies, with the sole purpose, it seems, of remaining in office, it’s time to ask whether the American way of protecting free speech is actually keeping us free.
As the title implies, the New Yorker article is about Facebook, and it's quite absorbing to read about the ever-changing standards of that platform and its double standard when leaders and politicians like Trump violate its "community standards" versus when regular folks do. (Leaders get to post "hate speech.") While the criticism of free speech is nowhere near as obvious as in the New York Times article, the fact that the magazine is quite concerned with how to restrict "hate speech", as well as "fake news", shows you that they think it's a serious problem. And both articles don't mount any extensive defenses of letting social media post whatever it wants; in other words, they are showing but one side of the free-speech debate.
To be fair, the NYT does suggest non-censorious ways of dealing with this problem, including fact-checking and labeling (as Facebook already does), the use of anti-trust laws, and so on. Too, it also faults the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United case saying that, for the purposes of political speech, corporations can be counted as individuals—a decision that I think was badly misguided and harmful.
Finally, the First Amendment applies only to speech in public or connected with the organs of government, not to corporations like Facebook. But I've argued that, as far as possible, platforms with that much reach and power should strive to abide by the First Amendment. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't favor monitoring and counterspeech, including labeling posts as misleading or false if there's fact-checking. That's just counter-speech, though it's counter-speech by the authorities.
The term "hate speech," too is slippery. If Holocaust Denial is hate speech, well, I don't favor criminalizing or censoring it. People need to hear the arguments against the Holocaust, for how can you counter them (many sound quite convincing!) until you know what they are? Further, allowing "hate speech", including stuff like praising Hitler, simply outs people who are bigots, letting you know where people stand. To ban such things implicitly assumes that Americans are stupid, and will be easily swayed by arguments that are false but sound good. And it drives the "hate" underground, but doesn't do a thing to eliminate it. Free speech is what's needed to get rid of bigotry, and was largely responsible for the decline of racism in America in the last 70 years.
And if you think that people can't be trusted to suss out the truth, or consider all ideas, then somebody has to appoint A DECIDER to work out what speech people can read and what speech they are too credible to be exposed to. Do you want Mark Zuckerberg to do that? Indeed, Facebook's standards for taking down posts, as the New Yorker shows, are so confused and contradictory that the company won't even make them public.
My prediction continues: in the next year we'll see an increasing number of articles in Left-wing or liberal media questioning the need for "free speech" in America.
And here's another prediction, which is mine. As Wokeness continues to seep into the fabric of America, we'll see increasing calls to get rid of qualifications that support the meritocracy of colleges and other institutions, because meritocracy is considered racist. This has already started, with colleges getting rid of requirements for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, even though those tests have palpable predictive power on how well students do in college (the University of California system is weeding out all standardized tests in the next few years). This erosion of meritocracy will continue, I predict, with calls to get rid of grades as well, perhaps replacing them with other criteria that don't involve directly comparing students against each other.
At any rate, here's my question. The NYT article implicitly argues that Europe is doing fine despite its hate speech laws (some of those, by the way, include blasphemy laws, specifying that it's a crime to make fun of religion), so why can't America be like Europe? Shouldn't it be illegal to deny the Holocaust or praise Hitler? Shouldn't it be illegal to say that we should ban Muslims from immigrating to America? Shouldn't it be illegal to say that the Jews are trying to take over the country? After all, is our democracy really better than France or Germany? According to the New York Times, we're "drowning in lies."
Weigh in below, and if you have any predictions like the two I've given, let us hear them.