The First Amendment and its guarantee of free speech was adopted in 1791, just a short decade and a half after the Declaration of Independence and our nation’s birth. During those post-revolutionary days, pretty much the only entity large enough and powerful enough for “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” as the amendment addresses, was the government itself. So the amendment was directed specifically at “Congress.”
Modern America is a starkly changed and different place, and the canceling actions of late of media giants Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and others have made it clear: When it comes to the power to dangerously prohibit or restrict speech and the free exchange of ideas and viewpoints, the government is far from the only entity with the size and capability to be a threat.
“There’s another principle going on here. … That is censorship, the silencing and restriction of the exchange of information,” Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson, a First Amendment and press-freedom expert, said in phone interviews this week with the News Tribune Opinion page. “I frankly am very troubled by what Silicon Valley has done, and I’m troubled by the lack of indignation on the part of the news media about it. … It isn’t censorship by the government, but it’s still censorship. The effect is the same because of the power of these big tech-media entities. It’s arguably worse.”
As true in revolutionary times as now, “The debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide open; and it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” Anfinson also said, sounding every bit the journalism and communications instructor he has been for 15 years at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. “Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and others are grotesquely interfering with that principle. They’re ignoring it, and they’re desecrating the tradition of American free speech by doing so.”
The emergence of unchecked and all-powerful social-media corporations reminds the Minneapolis lawyer of Europe in 1450 after the invention of the Gutenberg press, the first commercial printing machine. Suddenly, people were able to share information widely and rapidly. It “utterly transformed society,” Anfinson said. New rules and laws were needed to safeguard against the abuses of this newfound power and to compel its responsible use.
Then, like now, the new rules and laws were slow to catch up with the technology. In these modern times, while newspapers and other traditional media adhere to journalistic ethics and norms like fairness and accuracy, social media remains a Wild West. Its refusal to monitor or take responsibility for its content is as irresponsible and dangerous as its more recent moves to muzzle those with whom it doesn’t agree by banning them altogether and to take offline platforms like Parler that cater to differing views.
“It’s a threat to the very dissemination of information,” Anfinson said. “What they did to Parler is one of the most scandalous desecrations of free-speech philosophy I have ever seen.”
The answer to distasteful speech has always been more speech: accurate and reliable information to counter the propaganda, lies, and misinformation used by those who are dishonest or who only hunger for power.
Americans can call on Congress and the social-media power players of today to begin a robust and respectful conversation and to hammer together and settle on rules and laws that help to ensure accountability, discourage irresponsible censorship, and protect free speech.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass said in 1860 that free speech is the “dread of tyrants.” That means protecting free speech is the counter to tyranny, whether the oppressor is the government, a powerful industry or corporation, or another entity threatening to stifle our free flow of ideas, information, and viewpoints. Free speech must be protected at all costs.
Beware those attempting to control the narrative
“HIstory taught the Founders that if you allow anybody any authority to select what people get to hear or see or read, society will go over the cliff, because truth will be suppressed and the people who always have a lust and hunger for power will be given greater power. They will control the narrative. That’s what we’re facing now. …
“I support carving out special laws and rules that apply to these gigantic social-media companies and imposing on them duties and obligations comparable to what are imposed on government by the First Amendment. ...
“Facebook, Twitter, and these other entities are, for most people, the main conduit of expression, including expression of a political matter. … Anybody who thinks that (Facebook CEO) Mark Zuckerberg or (Twitter CEO) Jack Dorsey or the weirdos who are sitting somewhere in a building in California (working) for Google’s content division, anyone who thinks that over a long period of time they’re going to make all good decisions, the right decisions, and protect the rest of us from bad thoughts is ignorant of history. What they will do is gradually acquire more and more power for themselves by controlling the narrative, as the autocrats of history have always done. They've always sought to control information. It doesn’t matter if the government is doing it or if a private powerful entity is doing it. The results are eventually going to be the same.”
— Minneapolis lawyer Mark Anfinson, a free speech and First Amendment expert, in telephone interviews this week with the News Tribune Opinion page.