Free speech and censorship

by Ed Sawicki - March 21, 2021

Free speech

“After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” Twitter, January 8, 2021

Picking a side in political debates is sometimes dead simple. Kids in cages are definitely bad. Raising the minimum wage is obvious. Many other issues are not simple. One difficult issue for me is free speech and the current trend to censor hate speech and speech meant to deceive.

Twitter permanently banning Trump on January 8, 2021—shortly after the attack on the Capitol that Trump encouraged—seemed the correct thing to do. I have little doubt Americans are safer after the ban than before—at least temporarily. Other social media bannings have occurred before and after. A good example is Steve Bannon calling for Doctor Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray to be beheaded.

It doesn't seem logical to suggest that Bannon's call for murder should qualify for protected speech. We know that this kind of speech incites violence. Abortion doctor George Tiller was murdered after Bill O'Reilley regularly complained about "Tiller the Killer" on his nightly Fox News show. Tucker Carlson promoted the Great Replacement Theory on his Fox News show, and a shooter in Buffalo, NY, responded by murdering ten people.

Recently, journalists and authors I respect, such as Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, and Thomas Frank, have cautioned us about this suppression of free speech. I don't automatically agree with them, but I'd be a fool not to consider their viewpoints seriously. The following is how I currently see the issue. I'm a computer systems engineer/analyst, so I use these skills to evaluate things.

In the medical field, such as the currently important field of virology, a healthy host may require vaccines to fight attacks against it. We don't say, “I won't get the vaccine because COVID-19 has rights too.” or deny that the vaccine is necessary in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Well, rational people don't.

From a systems engineering perspective, a properly-functioning system must have error-checking and recovery when the data is bad. We don't allow bad data to foul the system because of some notion that it too has rights. Our society may not be a machine, but we have the equivalent of an engineering document to describe its proper function - our Constitution and body of law.

However, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis had a different view:

“If there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” – Justice Louis D. Brandeis, 1927

The United States used to have a Fairness Doctrine that provided a method of handling the broadcast of information that could damage our society. It didn't suppress speech; it ensured that it was countered by other speech, just as Justice Brandeis suggested. It helped suppress the formation of large societal “bubbles” of misinformation. The Fairness Doctrine was destroyed by the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan and replaced with extreme political speech and bubbles. Nearly 40 years later, it wreaks havoc on our society.

Should we bring the Fairness Doctrine back?

Some say that we've changed since the Fairness Doctrine. We're no longer in the world of 20th Century broadcast media, where we're limited to a small number of content creators serving a vast audience. We have the Internet and social media, where we're all content creators. We can't possibly apply the Fairness Doctrine to 300 million people.

However, when you look at how social media is used, we don't really have a huge population of content creators. We have a huge population of people who copy the content produced by the few gods of their bubbles (Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, for example) to their fellow bubble citizenry (bubblezens?). So, I believe a modern-day Fairness Doctrine could still work and be better than righteous censorship.

Would either side of the political divide accept it after decades of entrenchment?

Would the political parties be willing to lose the wedge issues they rely on for fund-raising?