In 1971, President Richard Nixon sought a restraining order to prevent The New York Times and The Washington Post from printing more of the so-called “Pentagon Papers,” technically the Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, a classified history and assessment of American policy and operations in the Vietnam war. The Times and the Post fought the injunctions in court, the Times winning in New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971). The Times was all about the First Amendment and Freedom of the Press.

Well, that was then, and this is now:

Free Speech Is Killing Us

Noxious language online is causing real-world violence. What can we do about it?

By Andrew Marantz¹ | October 4, 2019 | 6:01 AM EDT

There has never been a bright line between word and deed. Yet for years, the founders of Facebook and Twitter and 4chan and Reddit — along with the consumers obsessed with these products, and the investors who stood to profit from them — tried to pretend that the noxious speech prevalent on those platforms wouldn’t metastasize into physical violence. In the early years of this decade, back when people associated social media with Barack Obama or the Arab Spring, Twitter executives referred to their company as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.” Sticks and stones and assault rifles could hurt us, but the internet was surely only a force for progress.

No one believes that anymore. Not after the social-media-fueled campaigns of Narendra Modi and Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump; not after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va.; not after the massacres in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a Walmart in a majority-Hispanic part of El Paso. The Christchurch shooter, like so many of his ilk, had spent years on social media trying to advance the cause of white power. But these posts, he eventually decided, were not enough; now it was “time to make a real life effort post.” He murdered 52 people.

That the editors of the Times considered this an important article is demonstrated by the title graphic, a bit more ornate than is typical:

Screencap of New York Times article heading. Illustration by Nicolas Ortega; Photograph from Getty Images

It was spread full sized across the screen, taking up both the width and depth of my fairly large-sized monitor. This was a can’t-not-notice display, something the editors use to grab your attention.

Mr Marantz, the author, continued:

Having spent the past few years embedding as a reporter with the trolls and bigots and propagandists who are experts at converting fanatical memes into national policy, I no longer have any doubt that the brutality that germinates on the internet can leap into the world of flesh and blood.

The question is where this leaves us. Noxious speech is causing tangible harm. Yet this fact implies a question so uncomfortable that many of us go to great lengths to avoid asking it. Namely, what should we — the government, private companies or individual citizens — be doing about it?

He has now made the argument of speech causing tangible harm, pretty much the opposite argument made by the Times in 1971, when the government claimed a “clear and present danger” in publishing the Pentagon Papers. Speech, at least the unregulated speech of “trolls and bigots and propagandists,” has caused direct harm, and, of course, he argued that free speech, in the form of “social-media-fueled campaigns,” helped elect right-wing leaders Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, and, of course, the evil Donald Trump. No wonder Mr Marantz is appalled!

The author’s bias is apparent in so many ways. The speech he decries is all from the right side of the political spectrum. Not a word was published against the speech of Antifa, which has led to violence from the far left in this country. There was no criticism of speech by those supporting the socialist regime in Nicaragua or advocating the same socialism which led to totalitarianism and as many as 100 million deaths in the old Soviet Union, in Communist China, in Pol Pot’s Cambodia and North Korea. No, he was concerned that a social media campaign helped elect Donald Trump!

Mr Marantz, while exercising his First Amendment rights, clearly does not like the unregulated speech of others:

After one of the 8chan-inspired massacres — I can’t even remember which one, if I’m being honest — I struck up a conversation with a stranger at a coffee shop. We talked about how bewildering it was to be alive at a time when viral ideas can slide so precipitously into terror. Then I wondered what steps should be taken. Immediately, our conversation ran aground. “No steps,” he said. “What exactly do you have in mind? Thought police?” He told me that he was a leftist, but he considered his opinion about free speech to be a matter of settled bipartisan consensus.

I imagined the same conversation, remixed slightly. What if, instead of talking about memes, we’d been talking about guns? What if I’d invoked the ubiquity of combat weapons in civilian life and the absence of background checks, and he’d responded with a shrug? Nothing to be done. Ever heard of the Second Amendment?

So, he believes that it is a problem, is out of character, for a self-identified “leftist” to support freedom of speech? We did learn about his feelings concerning our rights under the Second Amendment; is it any wonder that conservatives don’t trust leftists?

Using “free speech” as a cop-out is just as intellectually dishonest and just as morally bankrupt. For one thing, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private companies. Even the most creative reader of the Constitution will not find a provision guaranteeing Richard Spencer a Twitter account. But even if you see social media platforms as something more akin to a public utility, not all speech is protected under the First Amendment anyway. Libel, incitement of violence and child pornography are all forms of speech. Yet we censor all of them, and no one calls it the death knell of the Enlightenment.

No, actually. We punish the consequences of such speech, but we do not censor it. We do not have all speech going through government-controlled channels to nip such things in the bud before they ever hit people’s computer screens, but we can punish people for causing harm by speech. But perhaps that government-controlled channel is what he wants:

Congress could fund, for example, a national campaign to promote news literacy, or it could invest heavily in library programming. It could build a robust public media in the mold of the BBC. It could rethink Section 230 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act — the rule that essentially allows Facebook and YouTube to get away with (glorification of) murder. If Congress wanted to get really ambitious, it could fund a rival to compete with Facebook or Google, the way the Postal Service competes with FedEx and U.P.S.

Facebook and YouTube get away with the glorification of murder? Might as well mention Hollywood, and the body count racked up by Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s Terminator series, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies and, let’s be honest, every action-adventure movie ever made. Heck, even the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies were filled with death and destruction, albeit that it was mostly orcs and goblins who bit the dust therein.

But I digress. Mr Marantz apparently sees some great good in a government-controlled social media network, forgetting, perhaps, the old Russian saying, В Правде нет новостей, и в Известиях нет правды.² Government organs of information are controlled by the government, and if the BBC is mostly innocuous, it isn’t completely. Given how the British have criminalized certain speech, something happening in the United States as well, perhaps Mr Marantz might remember just who is President. Perhaps had such existed when Barack Obama was President, the government could have censored all of the information about Hillary Clinton and gotten her elected President, which would have made Mr Marantz happier, but Donald Trump is President now, and might be for the next 5¼ years. I’m guessing that he wouldn’t like an official social media channel controlled by conservatives.

Free speech is a bedrock value in this country. But it isn’t the only one. Like all values, it must be held in tension with others, such as equality, safety and robust democratic participation. Speech should be protected, all things being equal. But what about speech that’s designed to drive a woman out of her workplace or to bully a teenager into suicide or to drive a democracy toward totalitarianism? Navigating these trade-offs is thorny, as trade-offs among core principles always are. But that doesn’t mean we can avoid navigating them at all.

Those first two examples already have legal problems, in that they aren’t subject to prior censorship, but the speakers can be held liable for illegal actions.

The third, “drive a democracy toward totalitarianism?” That is what bothers Mr Marantz, given that he seems to believe that was what happened in 2016. I could argue that it is the policies enunciated by the various Democratic candidates, which include confiscation of some firearms, and restrictions on personal actions and vehicles with the “Green New Deal” proposals; why shouldn’t those be censored?

Mr Marantz suggested that it needn’t be the government, that private companies could “ban inflammatory accounts, take down graphic videos, even rewrite their terms of service.” That’s something they already do, far too much, with a decided tendency to censor conservatives much more than the left. Twitter bans “deadnaming” and “misgendering”, not allowing any discussion of whether the ‘transgendered’ really are the sex they claim to be rather than their biological sex — something The New York Times gave Parker Malloy space to claim actually promotes freedom of speech³ — and Mr Marantz himself noted, with some apparent glee, that two far-right speakers, Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, “have been permanently banned from all major (social media) platforms.”

The notion of banning “egregious actors” on the left?  That got no support, or even mention, by Mr Marantz.

Mr Marantz’s totalitarian impulses were evident in his concluding paragraph:

In one of our conversations, (John A. Powell, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley) compared harmful speech to carbon pollution: People are allowed to drive cars. But the government can regulate greenhouse emissions, the private sector can transition to renewable energy sources, civic groups can promote public transportation and cities can build sea walls to prepare for rising ocean levels. We could choose to reduce all of that to a simple dictate: Everyone should be allowed to drive a car, and that’s that. But doing so wouldn’t stop the waters from rising around us.

The philosophy of the left is the impulse to control, to control everybody. It’s supposedly all for our own good, of course, so we couldn’t possibly object to that.

The New York Times has a long and distinguished record of being champions for First Amendment protections and freedoms . . . for itself. For other people? Not so much. The editors of the Times appear to believe in the freedom of speech for those who rightthink, but for those who commit the thoughtcrime of wrongthink, well, they don’t really deserve to be able to speak, do they? After all, it’s harmful to our civil society!
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¹ – Andrew Marantz (@AndrewMarantz) is a staff writer for The New Yorker. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation.”
² – There is no news in Pravda, and no truth in Izvestia.
³ – Parker Malloy is a male claiming that he is female.
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