Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images Over the last few years, left-of-center thinkers have penned a cavalcade of articles arguing against the traditional liberal view that free speech is an important principle worth defending for its own sake. While such articles vary in the particulars, they tend to argue that the view of free speech for its…
Over the last few years, left-of-center thinkers have penned a cavalcade of articles arguing against the traditional liberal view that free speech is an important principle worth defending for its own sake. While such articles vary in the particulars, they tend to argue that the view of free speech for its own sake is outdated, inadequate to the demands of the era, a boon to bigots who use it as a fig leaf for their pernicious online propaganda, or some combination of the three.
As I’ve argued previously, these takes tend to suffer from a certain thinness. Often they swap out the legitimately complicated questions posed by the real world for easier, simpler, and more straightforwardly moral ones. Or they gravely misunderstand the present American legal landscape and the limitations this landscape imposes upon would-be speech regulators. Or they simply don’t bother to address the obvious ways in which nobly intentioned acts of speech regulation can end up backfiring terribly and predictably.
“Free Speech Is Killing Us,” adapted from his upcoming bookAntisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation.Marantz is a very talented writer and reporter — I particularly enjoyed his profile of the far-right provocateur Mike Cernovich — but his column is a case study in what happens when one embraces the idea thatsomething must be doneto de-liberalize the present American speech landscape without thinking the issue through in a rigorous way. As Robby Soave put it, “If the argument is that free speech protections must be curbed in order to stave off an epidemic of violence, then the argument should be heartily rejected.” can be traumatized by the horrific stuff they see) — not anyone’s idea of a serious free-speech argument.
The broader problem here is that while Marantz argues that the need to do something is urgent, and nods to the fact that this could entail “trade-offs,” he fails to engage with just how obviously dissatisfying, if not deleterious, those trade-offs could be. This is characteristic of the broader subgenre: The reader is buffeted with examples of the harms speech can inflict, told that we need to prevent these harms by targeting the speech in question, but rarely presented with the full picture of what that would look like in practice — likely because any such “solution” would undoubtedly birth new problems, some of them rather thorny.
tricorn-hatted weirdos? Or, what happens when the precedent for limiting speech has been set and a politician positively inclined toward tricorn-hatted weirdos takes power? These sorts of takes tend to ignore the fact that Americans disagree wildly on which sorts of speech are most harmful; there seems to be an implicit assumption that progressives will always make the rules, which is certainly a questionable premise in light of, well, everything.
But perhaps the best example of what happens when you approach this subject from a crisis mentality, without fully grappling with these trade-offs, comes when Marantz writes, “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.” But if the government did establish such a platform, it would likely have very little ability to regulate its content — unlike Facebook and Twitter, ShareSpace.gov (or whatever)wouldhave to abide by the First Amendment, similar to how public colleges have far less ability to regulate students’ speech than private ones. So Marantz is suggesting the government set up a big, powerful social network — it would have to be big and powerful for it to be a true competitor to the giants that already exist — that would immediately provide a safe haven for actual Nazis who really could sue the government for being denied access to it. (Plus, if for some reason such a sitedidn’thave to abide by the First Amendment, the alternative is it would be controlled by Congress. Imagine what the years between Trump’s inauguration and the Democratic take-back of the House back would have looked like in a world in which the influential, conversation-driving ShareSpace.gov — equally capable of spewing rumor and suppressing critique — answered, at the end of the day, to Republican lawmakers.)
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Anti-Free-Speechers Aren’t Taking Own Arguments Seriously