Category Archives: Free Speech

The Era Of Disinformation

I know I’ve shared this story before, but it seems more relevant than ever. After publication of my first book (What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?), I was interviewed on a South Carolina radio call-in show. It turned out to be the Rush Limbaugh station, so listeners weren’t exactly sympathetic.

A caller challenged the ACLU’s opposition to the then-rampant efforts to post the Ten Commandments on government buildings. He informed me that James Madison had said “We are giving the Bill of Rights to people who follow the Ten Commandments.” When I responded that Madison scholars had debunked that “quotation” (a fabrication that had been circulating in rightwing echo chambers), and that, by the way, it was contrary to everything we knew Madison had said, he yelled “Well, I choose to believe it!” and hung up.

That caller’s misinformation–and his ability to indulge his confirmation bias–have been amplified enormously by the propaganda mills that litter the Internet. The New York Times recently ran articles about one such outlet, and the details are enough to chill your bones.

It may not be a household name, but few publications have had the reach, and potentially the influence, in American politics as The Western Journal.

Even the right-wing publication’s audience of more than 36 million people, eclipsing many of the nation’s largest news organizations, doesn’t know much about the company, or who’s behind it.

Thirty-six million readers–prresumably, a lot like the caller who chose to believe what he wanted to believe.

The “good news”–sort of–is that the Silicon Valley is making an effort to lessen its reach.

The site has struggled to maintain its audience through Facebook’s and Google’s algorithmic changes aimed at reducing disinformation — actions the site’s leaders see as evidence of political bias.

This is the question for our “Information Age”–what is the difference between an effort to protect fact-based information and political bias ? And who should have the power to decide? As repulsive as this particular site appears to be, the line between legitimate information and “curated reality” is hard to define.

Here’s the lede for the Times investigative report on the site:

Each day, in an office outside Phoenix, a team of young writers and editors curates reality.

In the America presented on their news and opinion website, WesternJournal.com, tradition-minded patriots face ceaseless assault by anti-Christian bigots, diseased migrants and race hustlers concocting hate crimes. Danger and outrages loom. A Mexican politician threatens the “takeover”of several American states. Police officers are kicked out of an Arizona Starbucks. Kamala Harris, the Democratic presidential candidate, proposesa “$100 billion handout” for black families.

The report notes that the publication doesn’t bother with reporters. Nevertheless, it shapes the political beliefs of those 36 million readers– and in the last three years, its Facebook posts earned three-quarters of a billion shares, likes and comments, “almost as many as the combined tally of 10 leading American news organizations that together employ thousands of reporters and editors.”

The Western Journal rose on the forces that have remade — and warped — American politics, as activists, publishers and politicians harnessed social media’s power and reach to serve fine-tuned ideological content to an ever-agitated audience. Founded by the veteran conservative provocateur Floyd G. Brown, who began his career with the race-baiting “Willie Horton” ad during the 1988 presidential campaign, and run by his younger son, Patrick, The Western Journal uses misleading headlines and sensationalized stories to attract partisans, then profit from their anger.

But Silicon Valley’s efforts to crack down on clickbait and disinformation have pummeled traffic to The Western Journal and other partisan news sites. Some leading far-right figures have been kicked off social media platforms entirely, after violating rules against hate speech and incitement. Republican politicians and activists have alleged that the tech companies are unfairly censoring the right, threatening conservatives’ ability to sway public opinion and win elections.

In the U.S., only government can “censor” in violation of the First Amendment. But tech platforms have vast power to determine what Americans see, whether the exercise of that power is legally considered censorship or not, and they will increasingly determine what Americans see and read.

Most of my students get their news from social media. To say that the outcome (not to mention the sincerity) of Silicon Valley’s efforts to clean up cyberspace will determine what kind of world we inhabit isn’t hyperbole.

 

Civility And The First Amendment

How many times have we heard someone defend a racist, belittling or otherwise nasty tweet or Facebook post by claiming that critics were attacking his or her  “First Amendment rights”?

The First Amendment may protect that person’s right to spew vitriol against government censorship, but it also protects the speaker’s critics–including, for that matter, decisions to fire the speaker from a private-sector position. Beyond that widespread misunderstanding of just what it is that Freedom of Speech protects, however, is a lack of appreciation of the important role of civility in America’s marketplace of ideas.

I recently participated in a “civility training” for Women4Change Indiana, and dug out a brief introduction to the topic that I had delivered a couple of years ago. Given how very un-civil American discourse has become, I thought it might be timely to share.

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Twenty-five years ago, when I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU,  I mounted a campaign to promote civility and a more civil discourse. Several members let me know that they were upset, because they were convinced that an emphasis on civility somehow undermined, or was evidence of less than robust support for, Free Speech.

That misunderstanding is evidently shared by the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, the creators of racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic websites, and participants in proliferating Facebook confrontations and Twitter wars. They defend vitriol as “Free Speech;” and disparage and dismiss civility as “political correctness.”

They couldn’t be more wrong.

This nation’s Founders understood that all ideas, no matter how noxious, should be available for discussion.They didn’t protect speech because they underestimated the danger bad ideas could pose; they knew how powerful –and dangerous–words and ideas could be. They protected free expression because they understood that giving government the authority to decide which ideas are acceptable—to decide what sort of speech should be permitted– was far more dangerous.

But that’s where civility comes in. If free speech is to achieve its purpose—if it is meant to facilitate a process in which citizens consider and vet all ideas, consider all perspectives—we need to listen to each other. Insults, labeling, dismissing, racial “dog whistles”—all those hallmarks of incivility—make it impossible to have the kinds of genuine conversations and productive disagreements that the First Amendment is intended to foster.

Screaming invective across political or religious divides actually undermines the purpose of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions. Is such speech protected? Absolutely. Is it useful? Absolutely not.

There are multiple reasons for the recent rise in incivility, but the anonymity and distance afforded by the internet and social media is clearly an important contributor. As many of you know, I have a daily blog, and I’ve found it necessary to impose standards of conduct for commenters. Civil disagreements are encouraged; ad hominem attacks, personal nastiness and unrepentant bigotry are not welcome and will not be tolerated– not just because they are unpleasant and hurtful, but because people engaging in those behaviors derail the substantive and instructive disagreements that people with different perspectives need to explore if we are going to live and work together.

Responding to a Facebook argument or Twitter blast with an insult may make you feel better, but it doesn’t advance the conversation, and it certainly doesn’t count as participation in the marketplace of ideas.

“No Brainer” Trump…

Several media outlets have reported on Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of a measure to outlaw flag burning. Congresscritters repeatedly introduce these bills, despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled years ago that flag burning is protected under the First Amendment.

Ed Brayton commented on Trump’s history with the issue.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump said that anyone who burns an American flag — you know, all four of them in the entire country over the last few decades– should be stripped of their citizenship and be put in jail. Now two Republicans have proposed yet another bill to make flag burning illegal and he’s endorsing it on — where else — Twitter:

All in for Senator Steve Daines as he proposes an Amendment for a strong BAN on burning our American Flag. A no brainer!

Coincidentally, No Brainer is the Secret Service’s code name for him.

You would think that an administration’s Press Secretary would try to intercede to protect freedom of expression, since all media–even rightwing outlets–rely on First Amendment protections to do their jobs. But of course, this is the Trump Administration, which has hired spectacularly dishonest specimens to fill that post. (My favorite description of departing Sarah Huckabee Sanders was penned by Bret Stephens of the New York Times, who wrote that Sanders “combined the sincerity of Elmer Gantry with the moral outlook of Raskolnikov.”)

Since no one currently serving in this administration seems to “get it,” let me see if I can explain the way free speech jurisprudence works in language that thinking people  (a category that rather clearly excludes the current occupant of the White House) can understand.

The Free Speech clause of the First Amendment protects the exchange of ideas against government censorship. All ideas. Even awful ideas. Ideas that piss people off. Government doesn’t get to decide which ideas get transmitted, period. (Your mother, on the other hand, can censor you. So can your boss. The Bill of Rights only restrains government.)

Government can prohibit actions for a whole host of reasons, but it cannot pick and choose among messages. If there is an ordinance banning outdoor burning in dry weather, for example, or laws criminalizing the theft of a flag belonging to someone else, people violating those laws can be punished, because those measures don’t implicate an exchange of ideas. They are what lawyers call “content neutral.”

The rules are different for actions we call “symbolic speech.” These are actions that are clearly intended to communicate ideas. A silent march by Neo-Nazis–or any group of activists– doesn’t require verbal expression to send its message. We get it.

Flag burning offends us precisely because it sends an unmistakable message of disrespect for the country.

Brayton illuminated another common misunderstanding of what the First Amendment  does and does not protect, in a post about a Tennessee police officer who had advocated killing gay people.

Grayson Fritts, the Tennessee sheriff’s deputy/pastor who gave a sermon calling for LGBT people to be put to death, has been given a buyout and allowed to resign rather than be fired. And his boss says that’s because firing him would violate his First Amendment rights. I’m virtually a free speech absolutist, and I can say without hesitation that he is totally wrong….

If he was just a preacher who said that, I’d excoriate him for it but still support his constitutional right to say it. But as a government employee whose job is to administer justice fairly and equally, it’s a clear violation of his oath of office to think that some of the people he is charged with protecting and serving should be murdered by the state because he doesn’t approve of them. There is no free speech issue there.

A zoning administrator handing out religious tracts on the job is violating the terms of her employment, and a President trying to stifle views with which he disagrees is violating the terms of his. Free speech jurisprudence doesn’t protect them.

When elected officials–from the President on down–are abysmally ignorant of the constitution they swear to uphold, we’re in a world of hurt.

Free Speech For The “Right” Ideas

Pun in the title intended.

Michelle Goldberg recently focused her column in the New York Times on yet another inexcusable decision of the Trump Administration. (I know, there are several every day…)

The Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, was supposed to be on a speaking tour of the United States this week, with stops at N.Y.U.’s Washington campus and at Harvard. He was going to attend his daughter’s wedding in Texas. I had plans to interview him for “The Argument,” the debate podcast that I co-host, about B.D.S., the controversial campaign to make Israel pay an economic and cultural price for its treatment of the Palestinians.

Yet when Barghouti, a permanent resident of Israel, showed up for his flight from Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport last week, he was informed that the United States was denying him entry. When I spoke to him on Sunday, he still didn’t know exactly why the country where he went to college and lived for many years wasn’t letting him in, but he assumed it was because of his political views. If that’s the case, Barghouti said, it was the first time someone has been barred from America for B.D.S. advocacy.

I believe it was Alexander Meiklejohn who said a nation afraid of ideas is unfit for self-government. He was right.

The efforts of right-wingers to shut down B.D.S. by passing laws that obviously violate the First Amendment’s Free Speech guarantee are especially ironic given their hysteria over the supposed censorship of rightwing speech on the nation’s campuses. (But then, self-awareness has never been a characteristic of the Right.)

Several states have evidently passed laws penalizing, B.D.S. activities, and the Senate recently passed a bill supporting those measures.

According to the American Association of University Professors, some public universities in states with such laws require speakers and other contractors to “sign a statement pledging that they do not now, nor will they in the future, endorse B.D.S.” It’s hard to think of comparable speech restrictions on any other subject.

What makes this effort particularly offensive is that the B.D.S. movement neither engages in nor promotes violence. As Goldberg notes, Its leaders have made a genuine effort to separate anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism–in fact, the Palestinian B.D.S. National Committee demanded that a Moroccan group stop using the term “B.D.S.” in its name because it featured anti-Semitic cartoons on its Facebook page.

An administration unwilling to sanction Saudi Arabia for multiple murders, including the murder of a Washington Post journalist, is willing to penalize people who are advocating a nonviolent economic boycott.

Goldberg’s column goes on to consider why Israel’s defenders consider the B.D.S. movement so threatening, and that part of her column is enlightening but ultimately beside the point. It doesn’t matter whether you applaud or detest B.D.S. If it doesn’t have the right to advocate for its beliefs, neither do those who disagree with those beliefs. Rights–unlike privileges– are indivisible, as a federal court recently affirmed when it struck down the Texas version of these efforts.

Free speech, as Justice Holmes memorably wrote, requires freedom for the idea we hate.

Can ideas be dangerous? Of course. And the nation’s Founders knew that. They also knew that allowing the government to decide which ideas can be communicated and which cannot would be far more dangerous.

 

 

Assange And The First Amendment: It’s Complicated

Let’s quickly review the relevant rules.

As most Americans know, the First Amendment protects free speech and freedom of the press. That freedom is not absolute: you cannot falsely cry fire in a crowded theater, nor blithely libel someone you don’t like, nor spill trade secrets in contravention of an agreement not to do so. Members of the press who report damaging, untrue information about public figures with “willful disregard” for its accuracy can be held accountable.

In most cases, the persons harmed by such improper behaviors can sue only after the fact. Our legal system has a strong bias against prior restraint–against enjoining publication in the first place. (That bias goes back to the era when England required publishers to obtain government permission before printing anything.) But even that strong presumption against prior restraint can be overcome in extraordinary circumstances–someone proposing to identify American spies abroad, or to disclose upcoming troop movements in wartime could certainly be kept from doing so.

It is probably impossible to overstate the importance of journalism to democracy–as one masthead puts it, democracy dies in darkness. Autocrats routinely take control of the media. That’s why Trump’s constant attacks on the press are so worrisome–and so unAmerican. Those attacks are probably one reason that the arrest of Julian Assange has raised such an outcry.

How does this apply to what we know thus far about Wikileaks and Julian Assange?

Assange’s Wikileaks published illegally procured classified information. Under First Amendment law as I understand it, his publication of that information is protected.

Engaging in criminal activity to acquire the information, however, is not. And that is what the government–so far–is alleging.

Typically, a whistleblower or other source of illegally obtained material is the one breaking the law; a journalist is not a lawbreaker simply because he or she received it. Here, it is alleged that Assange materially assisted Chelsea Manning in the hacking through which they acquired the information. If the government has persuasive evidence that Assange played an active role in the hacking, his conviction for that behavior would not implicate press freedom.

If there is no probative evidence that Assange broke the law in obtaining the information, or if the government expands its charges to include publication, analysis of the situation changes.  Journalists who have expressed First Amendment concerns are also worried about a “slippery slope”–especially since Assange is such an easily detested and unsympathetic figure, his case could conceivably set an unfortunate precedent. So long as the government prosecutes him only for illegal hacking, however, I think the First Amendment is safe.

This episode comes at a time when the First Amendment is under pressure from the craziness on the Internet, from conspiracy theories promulgated by provocateurs like Alex Jones, and from propaganda mills like Fox News. It’s really tempting to argue that some speech, some “news,” falls within the category of falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. Efforts to ensure that news sources are truthful and fair, however, present us with the same dilemma that faced the nation’s Founders: who gets to decide?

Is freedom of expression dangerous? Yes. The First Amendment enables hate radio, protects propaganda and the spread of deliberate misinformation, and makes it difficult for even conscientious citizens to separate truth from fiction. But the Founders concluded that the alternative– giving government the authority to decide what information we see– would be even more dangerous.

Unless some genius can devise a way to keep information honest without empowering government censorship, slimy characters like Julian Assange will cynically market their activities as First Amendment expression. Chalk it up to the cost of protecting liberty.