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Fascism, Book Banning, and Non-Violent Direct Action

photograph of book burning in flames

Throughout the summer, armed Idaho citizens showed up at library board meetings at a small library in Bonners Ferry to demand that a list of 400 books be taken off of the shelves. The books in question were not, in fact, books that this particular library carried. In response to the ongoing threats against the library, its insurance company declined to continue to cover them, citing increased risk of violence or harm that might take place in the building. The director of the library, Kimber Glidden, resigned her position in response to the situation, citing personal threats and angry armed protestors showing up at her private home demanding that she remove the “pornography” from the shelves of her library.

This behavior is far from limited to the state of Idaho. In Oklahoma, Summer Boismier, an English teacher at Norman High School was put on leave because she told her students about UnBanned — a program out of the Brooklyn Country Library which allows people from anywhere in the country to access e-book versions of books that have been banned. The program was designed to fight back against censorship and to advocate for the “rights of teens nationwide to read what they like, discover themselves, and form their own opinions.” Boismier was put on leave after a parent protested that she had violated state law HB1775 which, among other things, prohibits the teaching of books or other material that might make one race feel that they are worse than another race. Despite the egalitarian sounding language, the legislation was passed in part to defend a conception of a mythic past and to prevent students from reading about the ways in which the United States’ history of racism continues to have significant consequences to this day. Boismier resigned in protest.

Many states have passed laws banning books with certain content, and that content often involves race, feminism, sexual orientation, and gender identity. And prosecutors in states like Wyoming have considered bringing criminal charges against librarians who continue to carry books that their legislatures have outlawed.

Laws like these capitalize on in-group/out-group dynamics and xenophobia, often putting marginalized groups at further risk of violence, anxiety, depression, and suicide.

In heated board meetings across the country, there appear to be at least two sides to this issue. First, there are the parents and community members who are opposed to censorship or who believe that noise over “pornographic” literature targeting children in libraries is tilting at windmills; in other words, the content the protestors are concerned about simply doesn’t exist. On the other side of the debate, there are parents who are concerned that their children are being exposed to material that is developmentally inappropriate and might actually significantly harm them.

Granting that some of these books contain material that genuinely concerns parents, it simply doesn’t follow that the material to which they object really is bad for the children involved.

The fact that a person is a parent does not make that person an expert on what is best for developing minds and parents do not own the minds of their children.

For instance, one of the most commonly challenged books in the country is The Hate U Give, which is, in part, a book about a teenage girl’s response to the racially motivated killing of her friend by a police officer. Some want this book banned because they don’t want their children internalizing anti-police sentiment. However, reading this kind of a book might increase a child’s critical thinking skills when it comes to how they perceive authority, while also contributing to compassion for historically marginalized groups.

Consider also perhaps the most controversial books — books that have some sexual content.

These books may not be appropriate for children under a certain age, but reading stories in which teenagers are going through common teenage struggles and experiences has the potential to help young readers understand that their thoughts and experiences are totally normal and even healthy.

Parents who want this content banned might be wrong about what is best for their children. Some of these parents might instead be trying to control their children. In any case, the fact that some parents don’t want their children to have access to a particular book does not mean that all young people should be prohibited from reading the books in question. Some parents don’t believe in censorship and trust their children to be discerning and reflective when they read.

That said, the apparent two-sidedness of this debate may well be illusory. After all, there is a simple way to determine whether the library carries books with the kind of content that parents are concerned about — simply check the database. The librarians in question claim that the books about which these parents are complaining are not books that the library carries. What’s more, these “debates” – though sometimes well-intentioned – are more troubling than they may initially appear. More and more people across the country appear to be succumbing to the kind of conspiratorial thinking that tills fertile ground for fascism. These are trends that are reminiscent of moral panics over comic books in the 50s and 60s and video games in the 80s and 90s.

Perhaps the most pressing question confronting our culture today is not whether libraries should continue to carry pornographic or racist materials (since they don’t) but, instead, what we should do about the looming threat of fascism.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote about her concern that fascist demagogues, who behave as if facts themselves are up for debate, destroy the social fabric of reason on which we all rely. This creates communities of “people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction…and the distinction between true and false…no longer exist.” Novelists have explored these themes countless times, and the restriction of reading material is a common theme in dystopian novels. In particular, readers see these themes explored in 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and The Handmaid’s Tale. In 1984, Orwell describes a “Ministry of Truth” that is responsible for changing history books so that they say all and only what the authoritarian regime wants them to say. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradberry describes an authoritarian regime that disallows reading altogether. In The Handmaid’s Tale, reading is permitted, but only by the powerful, and in this case the only powerful community members are men.

All of these dystopian tales emphasize the importance of language, writing, reading, and freedom of expression both for healthy societies and for healthy individuals.

Ironically, all three of these books are frequently found on banned or challenged books lists.

Rising aggression on the part of those who call for the banning of books has motivated some to respond in purposeful but peaceful ways. In Idaho, for instance, a small group of a couple of dozen concerned citizens – composed of both liberals and conservatives – met in a grove of apple trees to hold a read-in in support of public libraries and against censorship.

These approaches respond to violence with non-violence, an activist approach favored by Martin Luther King Jr. That said, King was also explicit about the fact that the movement he facilitated was a movement of non-violent direct action, which meant more than simply showing up and being peaceful. The strategies King employed involved disrupting society, but non-violently. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, for instance, involved refusing to contribute to the economy of the city by paying for bus fare until it gave up its policy of forcing Black riders to give up their seats to white passengers and to sit at the back of the bus. The non-violent protests in Birmingham in 1963 were intended to affect the profits of merchants in the area so that there would be palpable motivation to end segregation. Non-violent direct action was never intended to be “polite” in the sense that it didn’t provide reasons for frustration. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King says

My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

So, while there is certainly nothing wrong with reading a book under an apple tree, if people want to roll back the wave of censorship and anti-intellectualism – both trends that are part and parcel with fascism – action that is more than “polite” but less than violent may be warranted.

Some University of Chicago Students Prove Lukewarm on Free Speech

photograph of University of Chicago ivy-covered Gothic buildings

The University of Chicago is known as a bastion for, and important intellectual proponent of, free speech and academic freedom. Its “Chicago Statement,” released in 2015 and since adopted by over eighty academic institutions across the country, is considered the gold standard for university free speech policy statements. Yet a recent incident involving its student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, shows that a university’s commitment to free speech is only as robust as that of its members — including its students.

On January 26, 2022, the University of Chicago chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP UChicago) posted a call to boycott “Sh*tty Zionist Classes” on its Instagram page. Although the boycott included within its ambit any class at Chicago “on Israel or those taught by Israeli fellows,” it was apparently aimed at three particular classes, whose course descriptions the post reproduced along with critical annotations. “By attending these classes,” the post argued, “you are participating in a propaganda campaign that creates complicity in the continuation of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”

Almost a month later, the Maroon published an op-ed entitled “We Must Condemn the SJP’s Online Anti-Semitism.” Notably, its subheading inaccurately described SJP UChicago’s boycott as aimed at “Jewish-taught and -related classes.” The op-ed itself argued that based on the lunisolar Hebrew calendar, SJP UChicago had posted its boycott demand on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which the authors claimed “was done to isolate and alienate the Jewish population at UChicago and to interfere with a day of mourning.” It also claimed that “the targeting of classes taught specifically by Israeli fellows is xenophobic” and that because all of the courses singled out in the post were housed within the university’s Center for Jewish Studies, the post “furthers the trope that Jewish courses and professors work to contribute to propaganda for Israel.” Finally, it denounced SJP UChicago’s attempt to persuade students to avoid or drop certain classes as a violation of the university’s discrimination and harassment policies, since Israeli faculty were “directly discriminated against,” Jewish students were “indirectly” discriminated against, and the harassment policy “states that any organization that uses social media . . . in order to interfere with the education of students is harassment [sic].”

The op-ed’s first two arguments are fine as far as they go: substantively they’re thin gruel, but they’re firmly in line with the Chicago Statement’s view that the best antidote to “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed” speech is more speech. By contrast, the argument that the SJP UChicago boycott announcement violates the university’s discrimination and harassment policies was a blatant attempt by the authors to pressure the university into sanctioning other students for political speech under the flimsy pretext of “harassment” and “discrimination.” This is clearly contrary to the letter and spirit of the Statement, which states that

it is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments [about which ideas are offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed] themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.

As a threshold matter, it’s unclear whether student choices concerning what classes to take, or speech directed at influencing such choices, fall within the scope of UChicago’s discrimination policy. Even if they do, SJP UChicago’s boycott demand was clearly based on the ideological content of the courses or the instructors’ institutional affiliations, not their national origins or religion. Assuming arguendo that the boycott announcement constituted or encouraged discrimination based on instructor national origin or faith, it could not constitute harassment unless, in addition to being based on a proscribed factor such as national origin, it unreasonably interfered with a person’s work performance or educational program participation or created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Finally, because it plausibly occurred in “an academic context,” to qualify as harassment it also had to be directed at specific persons, constitute abuse, and serve no bona fide academic purpose. Clearly, SJP UChicago’s boycott announcement ticks none of these boxes.

If the op-ed itself didn’t excel in free speech terms, what happened next was no better and suggested that SJP UChicago and some editors at the Maroon would probably benefit from reading the Statement again.

On April 2 the editors of Viewpoints, the Maroon’s opinions page, decided to retract the op-ed, citing “factual inaccuracies.” In a long and rambling explanatory note, the editors said that these inaccuracies “flattened dialogue and perpetuated hate toward [SJP UChicago], Palestine Palestinian students, and those on campus who support the Palestinian liberation struggle,” and apologized to SJP UChicago and “all others affected by this decision.” However, the editors identified only four inaccuracies: the characterization of the boycott as targeting “Jewish-taught and -related classes,” which did not even appear in the op-ed itself but in its subheading; another description of the boycott as targeting classes “taught by Israeli professors,” rather than Israeli fellows affiliated with the Israel Institute; the claim that the post was deliberately published on Holocaust Remembrance Day; and the claim that SJP UChicago members had approached students on the quad about boycotting the classes. At key points, the editors appeared to rely upon information provided by SJP UChicago, rather than any independent reporting, to correct the op-ed’s claims. Notably, the retraction note included something like a disclaimer from the editor-in-chief and managing editor of the Maroon pointedly stating that “the following apology does not constitute an institutional perspective and represents only the views of the current Viewpoints Head Editors.”

Thus, apparently under pressure from SJP UChicago and its allies, the Viewpoints editors retracted the op-ed under a thin pretext of concern for four factual inaccuracies. One of these inaccuracies was not even the responsibility of the op-ed’s authors, while others were only inaccurate by the lights of SJP UChicago’s own account of events. Moreover, the Viewpoints editors had other, less dramatic options available to them to address what factual inaccuracies existed, such as publishing corrections or inviting a rebuttal from an SJP UChicago member.

Even if the factual inaccuracies were more significant, however, the crucial question the retraction raises is the extent to which a newspaper is responsible for the factual inaccuracies that appear in the opinion pieces it chooses to run.

On its face, it would seem that since the purpose of an opinions page is to provide a forum for community voices rather than news coverage, ensuring the factual accuracy of the former is a lesser priority. It is true that some factual inaccuracies may be so glaring that they either undermine an op-ed’s main claims or arguments or they amount to pernicious disinformation. In these cases, factual inaccuracies may sap an opinion piece of its value in fostering debate and discussion because they render the piece, in some important sense, irrelevant. That does not seem to be the case here.

In addition, the Viewpoints editors trotted out the specter of the “harm” caused by the op-ed to justify its retraction. The implication, it seems, is that speech must be harmless to be publishable. Some defenders of free speech tend to downplay the harm caused by it, arguing that belief in speech’s harmfulness is based on “cognitive distortions.” However, as I have argued before, the best argument for tolerating offensive, wrong-headed, hateful, or immoral speech is not that it is harmless. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court did not hold that journalists are immune from suit for negligent defamation of public officials because the latter are psychologically maladjusted snowflakes whose reputations are not really harmed by defamatory falsehoods broadcast about them by major news outlets. Instead, its rationale was that the costs of allowing journalists to be sued for negligent defamation — and in particular, the so-called “chilling effects” on politically important speech — substantially outweigh the benefits. By the same token, newspapers like the Maroon should publish potentially harmful speech at least partly because accepting the editorial principle that speech is publishable only if it cannot inflict any degree of harm upon any person at any time would have a devastating effect on a newspaper’s ability to serve as a forum for lively, relevant, and politically engaged debate and discussion.

If, as the original op-ed amply demonstrates, some are already tempted to use institutional discrimination and harassment policies to silence others’ speech, consider what a gift it would be to these censors manqué if everyone accepted that narrow principle of publishable speech.

The University of Chicago has much to be proud of in its record of defending free speech against the rising tide of illiberalism on both the right and left. But as Hannah Arendt reminded us, in every generation, civilization is invaded by barbarians — we call them “children.” Among the most important duties of the university in a liberal society is to inculcate in each new class of undergraduates the disposition to critically evaluate deeply offensive speech without invoking some institutional lever to censor the speaker. Apparently, in this respect even UChicago can stand to do better.

October’s Harvest: Threats to Academic Freedom

photograph of narrow wood bridge surrounded by woods leading to open water

With the month of October barely underway, we have already seen two incidents at elite institutions of higher education that underscore the continuing threats to academic freedom from both the right and left. A Twitter mob convinced MIT to disinvite a distinguished professor of geophysics from speaking at the school due to his views about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies. And at Yale, a prominent history professor stepped down from leadership of a prestigious program when right-wing donors insisted on selecting members of a “board of visitors” that would advise on the appointments of program instructors.

After publicly announcing earlier this year that Professor Dorian Abbot, a geophysical scientist at the University of Chicago, would be delivering the prestigious John Carlson Lecture, MIT rescinded his invitation and cancelled the event. The reason? Abbot is a harsh critic of DEI policies, which encourage representation and participation of diverse groups of people in higher education, including through preferential hiring of faculty and evaluation of student applicants. In a recent Newsweek column, Abbot wrote that DEI “violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment” and “undermines the public’s trust in universities and their graduates.” Abbot proposed an alternative framework he called Merit, Fairness, and Equality whereby “university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.” Apparently, graduate students and faculty at both MIT and Chicago were so affronted by Abbot’s words that they organized a disinvitation campaign, which ultimately convinced the chair of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science to de-platform Abbot.

For MIT’s part, the school says that it merely disinvited Abbot from giving the Carlson Lecture, a public outreach talk aimed, in part, at engaging local high school students. The university says it invited Abbot to campus to address fellow climate scientists about his research instead. Apparently, Abbot’s views about DEI make his climate science research unfit for consumption by the general public, but not by his fellow academics.

There are a number of troubling aspects to this episode. First, Abbot’s views about DEI are decidedly mainstream. According to a recent Gallup poll, 74% of U.S. adults oppose preferential hiring or promotion of Blacks. The Republican Party’s platform includes this line: “Merit and hard work should determine advancement in our society, so we reject unfair preferences, quotas, and set-asides as forms of discrimination.” If the nation’s institutions of higher education are to remain effective as providers of civic education, forums for political debate, and incubators of novel policy ideas, the views of most Americans and one of the two major political parties cannot be made verboten. Note carefully that in saying Abbot’s views are mainstream, I am not saying they are right. Rather, I am claiming that if universities want to make a significant epistemic contribution to the larger society, they cannot seal themselves off from views that have wide currency in the general public.

Second, having determined that Abbot’s scholarship would make a valuable contribution to MIT and the local community — something which they have a plenary right to do — faculty and administrators should not have allowed objections to his political views to outweigh or override that initial determination. When the free exchange of ideas is obstructed by political actors — be they government officials or political activists — academic life suffers. The political views of a vocal minority are no justification for suppressing scholarly exchange. Those who object to Abbot’s ideas have every right to strenuously protest them, but not to try to exclude him from an academic community that has already validated his worth as a scholar.

Finally, rescinding the invitation will undoubtedly embolden activists who seek to harness the power of social media to silence speakers whose views they deem harmful or offensive. It would have been better if Abbot had not been invited at all, if the alternative was to truckle to the heckler’s veto.

That’s the view from the left. But recent events amply demonstrate that academia has something to fear from the political right, as well. The Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University takes a select group of two dozen students and immerses them in classic texts of history and statecraft while also introducing them to a raft of high-profile guest instructors. The program was until recently led by historian Beverly Gage, and is underwritten by large donations from Nicholas Brady, a former U.S. Treasury secretary under presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush, and Charles Johnson, a mutual fund billionaire and leading Republican donor. A week after the 2020 presidential election, a professor who teaches in the program published an opinion article titled “How to Protect America From the Next Donald Trump.” According to Gage, this led Brady and Johnson to demand the creation of a five-member “board of visitors” that would advise on the appointments of instructors, pursuant to a 2006 donor agreement that had until then not been followed. Worse, the donors insisted that they could choose the board. Again according to Gage, Yale president Peter Salovey and Pericles Lewis, vice president for global strategy and vice provost for academic initiatives, ultimately caved to these demands. This caused Gage to resign, effective at the end of the year.

The day after The New York Times reported the story, Salovey released a letter to the faculty affirming Yale’s commitment to academic freedom and promising that he will give “new and careful consideration to how we can reinforce” that commitment. No word yet about plans for the board of visitors.

It is a foundational principle of academic freedom that scholars should be insulated from, to quote Fritz Machlup, those “fears and anxieties that may inhibit them from freely studying and investigating whatever they are interested in, and from freely discussing, teaching or publishing whatever opinions they have reached.” One source of such fears and anxieties is left-wing Twitter mobs; another is powerful donors who seek to steer teaching and research in a particular direction, often for ideological reasons. Freedom from political interference entails that faculty ought to be free to choose, in the absence of outside interference or pressure, both who gets to do teaching and research in the academic community and what they can research and teach. A board of visitors of the kind envisioned by Brady and Johnson, with members appointed by them and whose “advice” would be backed by the threat of pulling the fiscal plug on the program, is anathema to these principles.

Despite these stories, there is reason for optimism. As Matthew Yglesias pointed out, some surveys seem to indicate broad, and indeed increasing, American support for free speech, particularly among college graduates. This suggests that threats to free speech mostly stem from vocal or powerful minorities. But such compact, determined groups can wreak havoc. For example, the cause of prohibition was never supported by the majority of Americans, but the Anti-Saloon League and the voters it galvanized nevertheless managed to amend the Constitution to forbid the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” As the weather turns cold, faculty and administrators at our institutions of higher education must commit to thwarting a profounder chill.

Trump v. Facebook, and the Future of Free Speech

photograph of trump speech playing on phone with Trump's Twitter page displayed in the background

On July 7th, former President Donald Trump announced his intention to sue Facebook, Twitter, and Google for banning him from posting on their platforms. Facebook initially banned Donald Trump following the January 6th insurrection and Twitter and Google soon followed suit. Trump’s ban poses not only legal questions concerning the First Amendment, but also moral questions concerning whether or not social media companies owe a duty to guarantee free speech.

Does Trump have any moral standing when it comes to his ban from Facebook, Twitter, and Google? How can we balance the value of free expression with the rights of social media companies to regulate their platforms?

After the events of January 6th, Trump was immediately banned from social media platforms. In its initial ban, the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, offered a brief justification: “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are too great.” Following Trump’s exit from office, Facebook decided to extend Trump’s ban to two years. Twitter opted for a permanent ban, and YouTube has banned him indefinitely.

Though this came as a shock to many, some argued that Trump’s ban should have come much sooner. Throughout his presidency, Trump regularly used social media to communicate with his base, at times spreading false information. While some found this communication style unpresidential, it arguably brought the Office of the President closer to the American public than ever before. Trump’s use of Twitter engaged citizens who might not have otherwise engaged with politics and even reached many who did not follow him. Though there is value in allowing the president to authentically communicate with the American people, Trump’s use of the social media space has been declared unethical by many; he consistently used these communiques to spread falsehoods, issue personal attacks, campaign, and fund-raise.

But regardless of the merits of Trump’s lawsuit, it raises important questions regarding the role that social media platforms play in modern society. The First Amendment, and its protections regarding free speech, only apply to federal government regulation of speech (and to state regulation of speech, as incorporated by the 14th Amendment). This protection has generally not extended to private businesses or individuals who are not directly funded or affiliated with the government. General forums, however, such as the internet, have been considered a “free speech zone.” While located on the internet, social media companies have not been granted a similar “free speech zone” status. The Supreme Court has acknowledged that the “vast democratic forums of the Internet” serve an important function in the exchange of views, but it has refused to extend the responsibility to protect free speech beyond state actors, or those performing traditional and exclusive government functions. The definition of state actors is nebulous, but the Supreme Court has drawn hard lines, recently holding that private entities which provide publicly accessible forums are not inherently performing state actions. Recognizing the limits of the First Amendment, Trump has attempted to bridge the gap between private and state action in his complaint, arguing that Facebook, Twitter, and Google censored his speech due to “coercive pressure from the government” and therefore their “activities amount to state action.”

Though this argument may be somewhat of a stretch legally, it is worth considering whether or not social media platforms play an important enough role in our lives to consider them responsible for providing an unregulated forum for speech. Social media has become such a persistent and necessary feature of our lives that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has argued that they should be considered “common carriers” and subject to heightened regulation in a similar manner to planes, telephones, and other public accommodations. And perhaps Justice Thomas has a point. About 70% of Americans hold an active social media account and more than half of Americans rely upon social media for news. With an increasing percentage of society not only using social media, but relying upon it, perhaps social media companies would be better treated as providers of public accommodations rather than private corporations with the right to act as gatekeepers to their services.

Despite American’s growing dependence on social media, some have argued that viewing social media as a public service is ill-advised. In an article in the National Review, Jessica Melugin argues that there is not a strong legal nor practical basis for considering social media entities as common carriers. First, Melugin argues that exclusion is central to the business model of social media companies, who generate their revenue from choosing which advertisements to feature to generate revenue. Second, forcing social media companies to allow any and all speech to be published on their platforms may be more akin to compelling speech rather than preventing its suppression. Lastly, social media companies, unlike other common carriers, face consistent market competition. Though Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter appear to have taken over for now, companies such as Snapchat and TikTok represent growing and consistent competition.

Another consideration which weighs against applying First Amendment duties to social media companies is the widespread danger of propaganda and misinformation made possible by their algorithmic approach to boosting content. Any person can post information, whether true or false, which has the potential to reach millions of people. Though an increasing amount of Americans rely on social media for news, studies have found that those who do so tend to be less informed and more exposed to conspiracies. Extremists have also found a safe-haven on social media platforms to connect and plan terrorist acts. With these considerations in mind, allowing social media companies to limit the content on their platforms may be justified in combating the harmful tendencies of an ill-informed and conspiracy-laden public and perhaps even in preventing violent attacks.

Despite the pertinent moral questions posed by Trump’s lawsuit, he is likely to lose. Legal experts have argued that Trump’s suit “has almost no chance of success.” However, the legal standing of Trump’s claims do not necessarily dictate their morality, which is equally worthy of consideration. Though Trump’s lawsuit may fail, the role that social media companies play in the regulation of speech and information will only continue to grow.

Revenge Porn, Public Interest, and Free Speech

image of camera lens blended with an image of an eye

After resigning from office in 2019, former California Representative Katie Hill has been dragged back in the news. Hill’s lawsuits against the Daily Mail and RedState for publishing nonconsensual pornography were recently dismissed, and, to add insult to injury, she was ordered to pay more than $200,000 in defendants’ legal fees. Not only was Hill denied the possibility of being made whole, but was also forced to pay for the “privilege of them publishing nude photos … obtained from an abuser.”

How did we get here? Why is Katie Hill continuing to foot the bill for being made the target of “revenge porn”? How could the distribution of others’ private sexual images without their consent ever be protected by the First Amendment? Shouldn’t respect for individual privacy trump others’ interest in publicizing such intimate information?

In 2019, news broke that Hill and her then-husband had been involved in an improper relationship with a junior employee. Texts surfaced suggesting one of Hill’s campaign workers was not only engaged in a sexual relationship, but that she might also have been abused. It was further alleged that Hill was romantically involved with a congressional aide. RedState and the Daily Mail added fuel to the fire by publishing a number of suggestive and salacious photos. With rumors of a media trove containing hundreds of additional pictures and texts and a congressional probe just beginning, Hill resigned.

These revelations were no small thing; they suggested more than a mere lapse in judgment. The asymmetric power relation between the would-be congresswoman and a subordinate demonstrated a failure of responsibility and constituted an abuse of power. These charges must be taken seriously.

But the question of whether Hill’s relationship with a campaign staffer was improper (it was) should be kept separate from the question of whether the Daily Mail and RedState were acting in the public interest by choosing to publish nonconsensual pornography.

Judge Yolanda Orozco, who dismissed Hill’s case, claimed that the media outlets’ circulation of those nude photographs served a compelling public interest in questioning Hill’s “character, judgment and qualifications for her congressional position.” The electorate, she argued, deserved to bear witness to their representative’s apparent vices, and these news organizations were merely serving a democratic function in satisfying that need. The photos “allegedly depicted [Hill] with a campaign staffer whom she was alleged to have had a sexual affair with and appeared to show [Hill] using a then-illegal drug and displaying a tattoo that was controversial because it resembled a white supremacy symbol.” These, Orozco insists, are important details that the public has a right to know, or, at least, that news organizations have an overriding interest in disseminating.

This reasoning, however, appears to provide an incredibly broad read of what qualifies as a “matter of public concern.” Indeed, it seems to offer a blank check to any gossip or tabloid journalism that people might be able to put to good (political) use. (Consider, for example, the recently leaked video of New York City Council candidate Zack Weiner.) This justification does more than simply make the relaying of private information an important social good. Instead, Orozco’s position suggests that it is people’s feelings about the information, not the legal relevance of the information itself, which should determine the permissibility of sharing revenge porn. Whatever distaste or revulsion an image might provoke is enough to warrant overturning an individual’s right to legal protection against this kind of invasion of privacy, harassment, and sexual violence.

Further, according to Judge Orozco’s ruling, supplying a written description of the photos’ content instead of posting the photos themselves would fail to adequately capture or sufficiently communicate the level of depravity exhibited by the actual image. Instead, “the public should be permitted to determine the importance or relevance … for itself.” Again, this suggests that the ambiguity attending any likeness (inevitably lacking context) is just as important as (if not more important than) the cold, hard facts. A picture is worth a thousand words, and it’s meaning should lie with the beholder.

Note, however, that the photos’ publication is defended on the grounds that they provide evidence of Hill lacking moral fiber, not proof of the allegations leveled against her. The photograph which includes a staffer depicts a previous relationship that occurred during the campaign — a consensual relationship that was surely unethical, but not illegal, and to which Hill admitted — while the public value of the other photos centers on Hill holding a bong and sporting a questionable tattoo.

The publication of these photos, then, does little else but invite the viewer to pass judgment according to arbitrary standards of decency and decorum that amounts to nothing more than moralizing and slut-shaming. (Consider, for example, commentators’ judgments that the photos are revealing, “bespeaking a kind of hedonism that at least some voters may view as a character defect.”)

But our recognition of this unique kind of harm is precisely why revenge porn laws exist in the first place. Their purpose is to restrict the freedom of bad actors in recording and distributing salacious materials against their victims’ will. The publicizing of nonconsensual pornography weaponizes information by bringing public opinion down on the head of victims and branding them with an unerasable social stigma. Given the limitations to genuine redress, the law must have sufficient teeth to act as a deterrent capable of discouraging other would-be attackers. The law operates with the understanding that there is no putting the genie back in the bottle once a leak occurs.

The language of “revenge porn” is often criticized for focusing our attention on the perpetrator’s mindset as opposed to the damage done to victims. Surely, we shouldn’t concentrate our efforts on divining whether spite was the overwhelming motivation behind a perpetrator choosing to distribute illicit images. What matters is the unique kind of sexual violence that is being threatened. But, in this particular case, the context might prove important. First, the photos were taken without Hill’s knowledge (or consent) and distributed by a jilted and “abusive” ex-husband in the midst of a messy divorce. But the leak’s publication also looks to be the work of a concerted effort by Hill’s political opponents. As Quinta Jurecic of Lawfare notes, this may be the first known instance where a “politically aligned publication has published an explicit photo of an opposition politician for apparent political gain.” In fact, Politico reported that the person responsible for posting the photos used the same platform to publicly advocate for the Republican running for Hill’s vacated seat.

Despite these troubling circumstances, commentators have suggested that Hill simply “needs to take the L and move on.” Anyone who chooses to thrust herself into the public eye sacrifices the right to keep any detail of her private life hidden from view. Everything she does becomes a public concern. Ultimately, ours is a society that prioritizes the community’s right to know over individuals’ right not to disclose, privileges one’s freedom to do rather than others’ right to impede, and chafes much more at government overreach than at the paparazzi’s prying eyes. Still, it seems backwards to conclude those occupying the spotlight are less in need of this protection rather than more.

Should Speech Have Consequences?

image of speech bubbles surrounding iphone outline

Particularly in left-leaning circles, it has become fashionable to say that those who are targeted for various kinds of sanctions for their objectionable speech — unfriending, blocking, doxing, university investigations, terminations, threats of bodily harm or death, and so forth — are merely suffering the justifiable consequences of speaking in ways that harm or offend others. This was the line taken by many commentators concerning the recent controversy at the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). There, an editor of the journal said in a podcast that “many people like myself are offended by the implication that we are somehow racist.” The outcry that followed led to the resignation of the journal’s editor-in-chief. Speech, indeed, has consequences.

We might put the principle as follows: “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from the consequences.” While this principle seems sound, in this column I want to explore some of its implications. It turns out, I think, that we have many reasons not to sanction others for their speech, however offensive or harmful it may be.

The first question we should ask about social sanctions against speech is whether we ought to think of them as forward- or backward-looking. In other words: are they justified because they are deserved by the speaker (backward-looking) or are they justified because of the beneficial effects of sanctioning (forward-looking)? Here are some familiar reasons why we ought to think of them as forward-looking.

First and foremost, any system of sanctions requires a principle of proportionality: a principle that tells us which punishment “fits” a given crime. Does a racist slur deserve a cold shoulder or a death threat? Beyond simply invoking our moral intuitions, it seems that reason has little to say about what a particular transgression deserves. By contrast, forward-looking considerations give us some rational metric by which to judge the severity of the punishment based at least in part on the nature of the “crime” and the nature of the “criminal.” We don’t punish shoplifters with death, for example, because this would give them the perverse incentive to do worse things than shoplifting, and because shoplifters are more likely to be reformed by relatively light punishments than by onerous ones.

Second, there are well-known puzzles about whether people are morally responsible in the desert-implying sense. We can bypass all of these problems by justifying sanctions not on the basis of desert, but on the basis of the effects of the sanctions.

Why, then, sanction speech? Most obviously, sanctioning speech is a form of deterrence: say this, and you will suffer bad consequences. In this way, the amount of bad speech is reduced. Relatedly, sanctioning is a way of encouraging or promoting the adoption of certain views. If the assertion that p is sanctioned, this will encourage the adoption of the belief that not p. Secondly, sanctioning speech has a signaling function: it means that certain kinds of speech are not to be tolerated, and it tells those who are offended or harmed by the speech that their suffering matters. Finally, it may have a reforming effect: the sanctioned person might, by suffering consequences for his speech, come to understand why that speech is not to be tolerated.

These are the benefits of sanctioning speech. What are the drawbacks? Sanctioning speech undoubtedly has a chilling effect. After all, we listed its chilling effect as one of its benefits! If we could all agree on a narrow category of speech that is sanction-worthy, perhaps this effect would be entirely beneficial. But it turns out, I think, that when society adopts the norm that allows sanctioning any offensive or harmful speech, this empowers people to sanction every kind of speech they don’t like. And in a pluralistic society, there is no agreement about what kind of speech is acceptable. This inevitably leads to instances of benign speech, like one’s expression of political preferences, being sanctioned. This might be why, according to a recent poll, 62% of Americans say they are afraid to express some political beliefs. It is noteworthy that this feeling crosses party lines. But democracies require speech in order to function properly; democratic deliberation is possible only when people are able not only to have opinions, but to voice them to their fellow citizens. The cost of allowing the widespread sanctioning of speech, then, is weaker democratic deliberation.

Nor does sanctioning eliminate the views it aims at effacing from public discussion. Rather, the effect of sanctioning, particularly if harsh, is often to cause those who hold the views to double down on them and to look for ways to have those views affirmed by others. Far from deterring these views, then, burdensome sanctioning may in many cases encourage their secret proliferation.

Sanctioning is also not a very effective tool for educating others or getting them to adopt certain views. In the JAMA case, it seems doubtful that anyone who does not already believe in the existence of systemic racism in medicine will adopt that belief simply because someone has been sanctioned for denying it. Sanctions are not arguments; they are in fact the opposite.

In addition to the costs of sanctioning speech, we ought to consider the benefits of tolerating speech. Expression is itself a good for the speaker, insofar as it is the exercise of their autonomy. So, tolerating speech contributes to the well-being of speakers. And as J.S. Mill pointed out, in most matters we are in a state of at least partial ignorance, so tolerating the free play of ideas can help us get closer to the truth. Furthermore, even in those areas where we are not ignorant, the free play of ideas can get us closer to knowledge of the truth by sharpening our reasons for holding our beliefs.

It is often said that toleration of offensive and harmful speech protects the powerful. Like all generally applicable principles, this is true: the universal prohibition on murder protects Elon Musk. But like that prohibition, the toleration of free speech can also protect the weak. The peaceful protests against police violence that were the hallmark of 2020 were possible only in a country where a content neutral principle of free speech is respected not only by government but by the vast majority of citizens, even those vehemently opposed to the aims of Black Lives Matter. Conversely, speech codes and other restrictions have often been used to oppress minority groups. A speech code at the University of Michigan that was struck down by a federal court in 1989 was used to punish one student for stating that Jewish people use the Holocaust to justify Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians. Another speech code complaint was lodged against a student who said that “he had heard that minorities had a difficult time in the course and that he had heard they were not treated fairly.”

One of the strengths of consequentialism is that it teaches us that everything in life is a trade-off or a balancing act among competing values. Sometimes, surely, there will be strong reasons to sanction a particular speech-act or -acts. For example, speech that is sufficiently frequent and malicious can create a hostile environment. In many cases, however, people are currently being strongly sanctioned for stray remarks or for offensive speech from a long time ago. As in the JAMA case, they are also being sanctioned for departing from the political orthodoxy of their community by, for example, questioning the existence of systemic racism. In these sorts of cases, the benefits of sanctioning are slight, and the drawbacks great. Sanctioning will create an environment in which people feel scrutinized for every indiscretion, and as a result, they will self-censor. Self-censorship is an intrinsic harm, and is also detrimental to the search for truth and the communication of political views, both essential in a functioning democracy. Finally, sanctioning will alienate the sanctioned; far from educating them or getting them and others to change their views, it will cause a defensive reaction that leaves their objectionable views intact, and perhaps more popular due to the perception that they are being suppressed.

Toleration of offensive or harmful speech comes with costs. So does sanctioning such speech. The question is whether, on the whole, the benefits of sanctioning outweigh the costs. In many contemporary cases, I would argue that the answer is no.

The Double-Edged Sword of “Free Speech”

photograph of mic on graduation stage before empty chairs

On June 2nd, The Christian Post reported the story of Savannah Lefler, a high school valedictorian in Michigan whose “Christianized” honors night speech was facing censorship by school officials; after a legal nonprofit urged administrators to reconsider, Lefler was informed that she will be allowed to deliver her prepared remarks as desired. According to First Liberty, a law firm dedicated “to defending religious liberty for all Americans” who wrote in Lefler’s defense, “Too often, we have seen well-meaning school officials thinking they are complying with the Establishment Clause mistakenly go too far and censor the private speech of students, violating students’ rights under the Free Speech Clause.” (First Liberty has also defended other high school graduates from Pennsylvania and Michigan in similar cases.)

One day later, on June 3rd, The Christian Post reported the story of Paxton Smith, a high school valedictorian in Texas who delivered a graduation speech criticizing the so-called “heartbeat bill” recently signed by Governor Greg Abbott; rather than delivering the pre-approved remarks she had written and submitted, Smith spoke for roughly three minutes against Senate Bill 8 that, among other restrictions, bans abortions performed after six weeks of fetal development. According to Smith in her surprise, unapproved commentary, “I cannot give up this platform to promote complacency and peace, when there is a war on my body and a war on my rights.”

Rather than discuss the details of religious freedom or the debate about legal abortion in this article, I’m interested in thinking about what happened on June 4th — or, more accurately, what didn’t happen. As I comb through the recent archives of several large-scale news media organizations, many of them are only reporting about one of these two high school graduates with controversial speeches.

On one hand, as of this writing, sites like Fox News and Christianity Daily are promoting Lefler’s story, including excerpts from First Liberty’s letter to the school; in one of several articles it ran on the subject, Fox News also includes multiple excerpts of the religious language from Lefler’s draft and ends with additional comments from First Liberty on Lefler’s constitutional right to free speech. (In a similar — though inverted — fashion, NewsMax and the National Review have published pieces criticizing Smith while remaining silent about Lefler.)

On the other hand, sites like CNN and The New York Times are promoting Smith’s story, including by linking to the viral video of her graduation speech; the headline for the June 4th article from CBS News reads “Dallas high school valedictorian scraps speech, makes impassioned plea for abortion rights” and ends with a statement from Smith’s school district that reads, “The content of each student speaker’s message is the private, voluntary expression of the individual student and does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position or expression of the District or its employees.” (As far as I could tell, no large-scale news outlets who have remained silent about Smith have also published opinion pieces critical of Lefler.)

It might well be true that no single news source could hope to comprehensively report on every newsworthy event, so it might be unfair to imply that Fox News or CNN is doing something wrong by only reporting on one of these stories. It might also be true that one (or both) of these stories is not actually “newsworthy” (in a broadly agreeable sense) — certainly there are differences between what Lefler and Smith did, and we might not want to oversimplify those distinctions for the sake of an easy comparison.

But it seems like defenders of “free speech” (as a blunt principle) are required to support both Lefler and Smith for exercising their right to express their private beliefs in a public forum.

John Stuart Mill is perhaps one of the most famous defenders of an inherent value in free speech; in his 1859 essay On Liberty, Mill argues that opinions are a kind of public good and the absolutely free exchange of differing opinions is the best way to promote ideal outcomes for the epistemic community. No one can hope to know all that there is to know on the complex topics relevant to social life, so we must rely on each other to raise alternate perspectives for our consideration; as he says, “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.” In short, because he also thought that false opinions would naturally give way to true ones, the more opinions we have on the table, the more likely Mill thought it would be that we would discover the truth.

Furthermore, because he found value in the process of inquiry itself, Mill saw absolutely free speech as an opportunity for the development of individual virtue; as he explains:

“No one can be a great thinker who does not recognise, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.”

Akin to common refrains today about “doing your own research” and “thinking for yourself,” Mill believed that free speech was a necessary precondition for an optimal environment to promote intellectual activity (and, by extension, epistemic virtue).

So, suppose that Moe has a social media account and shares on it a story from Fox News about Savannah Lefler’s speech nearly being censored; if Moe believes that this is simply a matter of Lefler’s freedoms being threatened, and he also believes that justice was indeed upheld in Lefler’s case, then he should (upon pain of inconsistency) also be proud of Paxton Smith exercising those same freedoms in her speech. Similarly, if Calvin believes that Smith was doing something honorable by speaking freely (despite going off-script), then he might also be required to view Lefler in a similar light.

If, however, Moe or Calvin only feel like one of these two high school valedictorians was actually doing something praiseworthy, then it must be for reasons other than the value of free speech. This is, of course, as unproblematic as it is likely (indeed, Moe might well approve of public religious speech or not approve of outspoken abortion defenses while Calvin believes the opposite on both counts). In a society where people enjoy the freedom to hold and express such different opinions, neither Moe nor Calvin is clearly doing anything inappropriate by disagreeing on these matters.

But it does seem inappropriate (or, at the very least, confusing) to wave the concept of “free speech” around as a defense of ideas that others might criticize. As Mill stresses, Lefler and Smith being free to express their ideas does not automatically make those ideas correct — indeed, their free expression (on Mill’s view) is one of the best ways to recognize which one (if either) is actually false.

For clarity’s sake, it would be better for Moe, Calvin, and everyone to just say what they truly support and what positions they believe to be correct, rather than hiding behind the double-edged sword of “free speech.”

Is Fake News Dangerously Overblown?

photograph of smartphone displaying 'Fake News' story

“Censorship laws are blunt instruments, not sharp scalpels. Once enacted, they are easily misapplied to merely unpopular or only marginally dangerous speech.”

—Alan Dershowitz, Finding, Framing, and Hanging Jefferson: A Lost Letter, a Remarkable Discovery, and Freedom of Speech in an Age of Terrorism

Fake news, false or misleading information presented as though it’s true, has been blamed for distorting national politics in the United States and undercutting the faith that citizens place in elites and institutions — so much so that Google has recently stepped in to provide a tool to help users avoid being hoodwinked. It looks plausible, at first glance, that fake news is a widespread problem; if people can be fooled into thinking misleading or false information is genuine news, their attitudes and beliefs about politics and policy can be influenced for the worse. In a functioning democracy, we need citizens, and especially voters, to be well-informed — we cannot have that if fake news is commonplace.

A recent study found political polarization — left, right, or center — to be the primary psychological motivation behind people sharing fake news. It seems we aren’t driven by ignorance, but vitriol for one’s political opponents. It isn’t a matter of folks being fooled by political fictions because they lack knowledge of the salient subject matter, say, but rather that people are most inclined to share fake news when it targets political adversaries whom they hate. And this aligns with what we already know about the increasing polarization in American politics: that it’s becoming increasingly difficulty for people in different political parties, notably Republicans and Democrats, to agree on issues that used to be a matter of bipartisan consensus (e.g., a progressive tax structure).

In the face of the (alleged) increasing threat from fake news, some have argued we need stronger intervention on the part of tech companies that is just shy of censorship — that is, fake news is parasitic on free speech, and can perhaps only be controlled by a concerted legal effort, along with help from big technology companies like Facebook and Google.

But perhaps the claim that fake news is widespread is dangerously overblown. How? The sharing of fake news is less common than we are often led to believe. A study from last year found that

“[although] fake news can be made to be cognitively appealing, and congruent with anyone’s political stance, it is only shared by a small minority of social media users, and by specialized media outlets. We suggest that so few sources share fake news because sharing fake news hurts one’s reputation … and that it does so in a way that cannot be easily mended by sharing real news: not only did trust in sources that had provided one fake news story against a background of real news dropped, but this drop was larger than the increase in trust yielded by sharing one real news story against a background of fake news stories.”

There are strong reputation incentives against sharing fake news — people don’t want to look bad to others. (Of course, the researchers also acknowledge the same incentives don’t apply to anonymous individuals who share fake news.) Humans are a cooperative species that rely on help from others for survival — and so it matters how others view us. People wouldn’t want to cooperate with someone with a bad reputation, thus most people will track how they are seen by others. We want to know those we cooperate with have a good reputation; we want them to be sufficiently trustworthy and reliable since we rely on each other for basic goods. As other researchers explain,

“[Humans] depend for their survival and welfare on frequent and varied cooperation with others. In the short run, it would often be advantageous to cheat, that is, to take the benefits of cooperation without paying the costs. Cheating however may seriously compromise one’s reputation and one’s chances of being able to benefit from future cooperation. In the long run, cooperators who can be relied upon to act in a mutually beneficial manner are likely to do better.”

Of course, people sometimes do things which aren’t in their best interests — taking a hit to one’s reputation is no different. The point though is that people have strong incentives to avoid sharing fake news when their reputations are at stake. So we have at least some evidence that fake news is overblown; people aren’t as likely to share fake news, for reputational reasons, than it may appear given the amount of attention the phenomenon of fake news has garnered in the public square. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there isn’t a lot of fake news in circulation on places like, say, social media — there could be substantial fake news shared, but only by a few actors. Moreover, the term ‘fake news’ is often used in a sloppy, arbitrary way — not everything called ‘fake news’ is fake news. (Former President Trump, for example, would often call a story ‘fake news’ if it made him look bad, even if the story was accurate.)

Overstating the problem fake news represents is also troubling as it encourages people to police others’ speech in problematic ways. Actively discouraging people from sharing ‘fake news’ (or worse, silencing them) can be a dangerous road to traverse. The worry is that just as former President Trump did to journalists and critics, folks will weaponize the label ‘fake news’ and use it against their political enemies. While targeting those who supposedly share fake news may prevent misinformation, often it will be used to suppress folks who have unorthodox or unpopular views. As the journalist Chris Hedges observed,

“In late April and early May the World Socialist Web Site, which identifies itself as a Trotskyite group that focuses on the crimes of capitalism, the plight of the working class and imperialism, began to see a steep decline in readership. The decline persisted into June. Search traffic to the World Socialist Web Site has been reduced by 75 percent overall. And the site is not alone. … The reductions coincided with the introduction of algorithms imposed by Google to fight ‘fake news.’ Google said the algorithms are designed to elevate ‘more authoritative content’ and marginalize ‘blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information.’ It soon became apparent, however, that in the name of combating ‘fake news,’ Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are censoring left-wing, progressive and anti-war sites.”

Perhaps the phenomenon of fake news really is as bad as some people say — though the evidence suggests that isn’t the case. In any event, we shouldn’t conclude from this that fake news isn’t a problem at all; we may need some form of policing that, while respecting freedom of expression, can empower voters and citizens with tools to allow them to avoid, or at least identify, fake news. But we can acknowledge both the need for fake news oversight and the need to significantly curtail that power.

QAnon and Two Johns

photograph of 'Q Army" sign displayed at political rally

In recent years, threats posed to and by free speech on the internet have grown larger and more concerning. Such problems as authoritarian regimes smothering dissent and misinformation campaigns targeting elections and public health have enjoyed quite a share of the limelight. Social media platforms have sought (and struggled) to address such challenges. Recently, a new insidious threat posed by free speech has emerged: far-right conspiracy theories. The insurrection of January 6th unveiled the danger of speech promoting such beliefs, namely ones the QAnon theory embraces. The insurrection demonstrated that speech promoting the anti-government extremist theory can not only engender violence but existentially threaten the United States. Such speech so threatens harm by manipulating individuals into believing in the necessity of violence to combat the schemes of a secretive, satanic elite. In the days following the insurrection, social media platforms rushed to combat this threat. Twitter alone removed more than 70,000 QAnon-focused accounts from its platform.

This bold but wise move was met with resistance, however. Right-wing media commentators were quick to decry this and similar policies as totalitarian censorship. Legal experts retorted that, as private entities, social media companies can restrict speech on their platform as they please. This is because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from legal restrictions on free speech, not the rules of private organizations. Such legal experts may be perfectly correct, and unequivocally siding with them might seem to offer a temptingly quick way to dismiss fanatic right-wing commentators. Nevertheless, caring only about government restrictions on speech seems perilous: such a stance neglects the great importance of social restrictions on speech.

The weight of social restrictions on speech (and behavior, more generally) is very real. Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred to such social restrictions as moral laws. He even seemed to regard this class of laws as more fundamental than the constitutional, civil, and criminal classes. Moral laws are inscribed in the very “hearts of the citizens” and include “morals, customs, and especially opinion.” Violations of these laws are typically penalized with either criticism or ostracism (or both). The emergence of “cancel culture” provides conspicuous examples (for better or worse) of this structure in action, from Gina Carano to John Schnatter. First, an individual (typically, a public figure) violates a moral law (frequently, customary prohibitions on racist speech). Then, the individual receives a punishment (often, in the form of damage to reputation and career). The prohibitions on QAnon-focused Twitter accounts are a form of ostracism: those promoting QAnon beliefs have been expelled from the Twitter community for transgressing moral laws, namely peace (by promoting violence) and honesty (by promoting misinformation). As Twitter has become an integral forum for political discourse (politicians, like former President Trump, heavily rely on the platform to both court popular support and bash their rivals), this Twitter expulsion amounts to marginalization within, or partial expulsion from, general public discourse. Upon considering this, the real restrictiveness of such prohibitions on speech should now be evident.

Once the real strength of social restrictions on speech is acknowledged, a certain tension becomes apparent: that between our liberties concerning speech and our liberties in regard to property. To elaborate, there appears to be a tension between Twitter users and Twitter shareholders (particularly, the right to set and enforce private restrictions on the speech shared over the platform they own). Efforts to balance the two can perhaps be aided by the wisdom of two great Johns: John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Their writings offer some thought-provoking perspectives on the grounds and scope of each of the parties’ freedoms.

John Locke believed that rights are derived from nature. He thought they were contained in what he called the Law of Nature: “no one ought to harm another in [their] Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.” Certainly, this general rule implies the rights to free speech and property. Moreover, it follows that those particular rights extend only so far as they accord with that rule. Locke’s theory can thus affirm both natural rights and natural limits to them. Stated in Lockean terms, then, the now-removed QAnon accounts apparently promoted speech which transgressed natural limits on the right to free speech (by promoting violence).

Unlike Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau held that rights are derived from social agreement, not nature. He held that this social agreement takes the form of continuous negotiation by all members of the “body politic:” manifold “individual wills” are boiled into an all-binding “general will.” In this perspective, the rights to free speech and property extend only so far as social agreement allows. Rousseau’s theory can thus recognize the value of including diverse individuals in social discourse while also recognizing the validity of socially-established regulations on that discourse. Understood in this perspective, Twitter expelled the QAnon accounts for violating regulations on social discourse (namely, by supporting violence and thus threatening the process of discourse itself).

Locke’s and Rousseau’s perspectives can provide a useful guide to assessing the issues related to free speech and the internet. Each perspective offers a framework which seems reasonable and yet is opposed to the other. Considering both, then, should allow for multi-sided and nuanced discussion. Employing these two frameworks (and other conceivable ones), as well as considering the opinions of more recent thinkers, can potentially enrich public discourse surrounding free speech and the internet.

Zoom, Academic Freedom, and the No Endorsement Principle

photograph of empty auditorium hall

It was bound to be controversial: an American university sponsoring an event featuring Leila Khaled, a leader of the U.S.-designated terrorist group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who participated in two hijackings in the early 1970’s. But San Francisco State University’s September webinar has gained notoriety for something else: it was the first time that the commercial technology company Zoom censored an academic event. It would not be the last.

In November, faculty at the University of Hawaii and New York University organized webinars again featuring Khaled, ironically to protest the censoring of her September event. But Zoom deleted the links to these events as well.

Zoom has said that the webinars violated the company’s terms of service, which prohibit “engaging in or promoting acts on behalf of a terrorist organization or violent extremist groups.” However, it appears that the real explanation for Zoom’s actions is fear of possible legal exposure. Prior to the September event, the Jewish rights group Lawfare Project sent a letter to Zoom claiming that giving a platform to Khaled would violate a U.S. law prohibiting the provision of material support for terrorist groups. San Francisco State gave assurances to Zoom that she was not being compensated for her talk or was in any way representing the PFLP, but a 2009 Supreme Court decision appears to support Lawfare’s broad interpretation of the law. In any case, the Khaled incidents highlight the perils of higher education’s coronavirus-induced dependence upon private companies like Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube.

The response to Zoom’s actions from academia has been unequivocal denunciation on academic freedom grounds. San Francisco State’s president, Lynn Mahoney, released a statement affirming “the right of faculty to conduct their scholarship and teaching free of censorship.” The American Association of University Professors sent a letter to NYU’s president calling on him to make a statement “denouncing this action as a violation of academic freedom.” And John K. Wilson wrote on Academe magazine’s blog that “for those on the left who demand that tech companies censor speech they think are wrong or offensive, this is a chilling reminder that censorship is a dangerous weapon that can be turned against progressives.”

How do Zoom’s actions violate academic freedom? Fritz Machlup wrote that,

“Academic freedom consists in the absence of, or protection from, such restraints or pressures…as are designed to create in minds of academic scholars…fears and anxieties that may inhibit them from freely studying and investigating whatever they are interested in, and from freely discussing, teaching or publishing whatever opinions they have reached.”

On this view, academic freedom is not the same as free speech: instead of being the freedom to say anything you like, it is the freedom to determine what speech is valuable or acceptable to be taught or discussed in an academic context. By shutting down the Khaled events, the argument goes, Zoom violated academic freedom by usurping the role of faculty in determining what content is acceptable or valuable in that context.

While there is surely good reason for Zoom to respect the value of academic freedom, it is also understandable that it would prioritize avoiding legal exposure. As Steven Lubet writes, “as [a] publicly traded compan[y], with fiduciary duties to shareholders, [Zoom was]…playing it safe in a volatile and unprecedented situation.” Businesses will inevitably be little inclined to take to the ramparts to defend academic freedom, particularly as compared to institutions of higher education explicitly committed to that value and held accountable by their faculty for failing to uphold it. The relative reluctance of technology companies to defend academic freedom is one important reason why in-person instruction must remain the standard for higher education, at least post-COVID.

A less remarked upon but equally important principle underlying the objections to Zoom’s actions is that giving speakers an academic platform is not tantamount to endorsing or promoting their views. Call this the “no-endorsement” principle. It is this idea that underwrites the moral and, perhaps, legal justifiability of inviting former terrorists and other controversial figures to speak on campus. It was explicitly denied in a letter signed by over eighty-six Pro-Israel and Jewish organizations protesting SFSU’s September event. The letter rhetorically asks, “what if an invitation to speak to a class—in fact an entire event—is an endorsement of a point of view and a political cause?” As Wilson noted, if that’s true, then freedom of expression on campus will be destroyed: “if every speaker on a college campus is the endorsement of a point of view by the administration, then only positions endorsed by the administration are allowed.”

Quite recently, the philosopher Neil Levy has added some intellectual heft to the denial of the “no-endorsement” principle. Levy writes that “an invitation to speak at a university campus…is evidence that the speaker is credible; that she has an opinion deserving of a respectful hearing.” Levy argues that in some cases, this evidence can be misleading, and that “when we have good reason to think that the position advocated by a potential speaker is wrong, we have an epistemic reason in favor of no-platforming.” Levy makes a good point: inviting a speaker on campus means something — it sends a message that the university views the speaker as worth listening to. But Levy seems to conflate being worth listening to and being credible. Even views that are deeply wrong can be worth listening to for a variety of reasons. For example, they might contain a part of the truth while being mostly wrong; they might be highly relevant because they are espoused by important figures or groups or a large proportion of citizens; and they might be epistemically useful in presenting a compelling if wrongheaded challenge to true views. For these reasons, the class of views that are worth listening to is surely much larger than the class of true views. Thus, it is not necessarily misleading to invite onto campus a speaker whose views one knows to be wrong.

The use of Zoom and similar technology in higher education contexts is unlikely to completely cease following the post-COVID return of some semblance of normalcy. But the Khaled incidents should make us think carefully about using communications technology provided by private companies to deliver education. In addition, the notion that giving a person a platform is not tantamount to endorsing their views must be defended against those who wish to limit academic discourse to those views held to be acceptable by university administrators.

How to Spot an Anti-Semitic Trope, and What to Do About It

photograph of Chicago Tribune building

On July 22, 2020, the Chicago Tribune’s lead columnist, John Kass, published a piece entitled “Something grows in the big cities run by Democrats: an overwhelming sense of lawlessness.” In it he claimed that the billionaire George Soros, who is Jewish, is responsible for clandestinely remaking the justice system by spending “millions of dollars to help elect social justice warriors as prosecutors.” The column provoked an enormous backlash, with the executive board of the Tribune reporters’ union, the Chicago Tribune Guild, issuing a letter decrying the column as an “odious, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.” Kass was subsequently demoted from his perch on page 2 of the newspaper, which he has occupied for 23 years. Nevertheless, he defiantly penned a response in which he declared himself a victim of “cancel culture.”

This ugly episode raises a host of interesting philosophical issues, chief among which are the following: how can we know what counts as an anti-Semitic trope? And what should be done with those who peddle them? I will consider these questions in turn.

Modern anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory with roots in the Tsarist forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This document purported to be the minutes of a late-19th-century meeting of Jewish leaders, the titular “Elders,” in which they conspire to conquer the world through such means as control of the economy and the press, and subversion of the morals of the non-Jewish world. Thus, the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory posits a clandestine Jewish scheme to take control of society’s institutions, such as the stock market, the legal system, the education system, and so on, with the ultimate aim of Jewish world rule.

What, then, is an anti-Semitic trope? I suggest that one important kind of anti-Semitic trope is a narrative, or fragment of a narrative, about attempts by powerful Jewish figures to control, subvert, or alter important social institutions, and in particular economic institutions. That narrative can take many, sometimes contradictory forms; for example, the Nazis accused Jews of both predatory capitalism and Bolshevism. Thus, when Kass writes that Soros “remakes the justice system in urban America, flying under the radar,” there is an unmistakable suggestion of the kind of secret effort to alter and control institutions that is characteristic of anti-Semitic thinking in general.

Suppose there is a group of powerful persons, most of whom happen to be Jewish, that actually does seek to control or subvert some important institution. An example might be pro-Israel groups’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy, a phenomenon controversially documented by Alan Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Would the rough account laid out in the last paragraph make any criticism of these groups’ efforts an anti-Semitic trope? The worry implicit in this question is that labeling such criticisms as “anti-Semitic” would prevent legitimate criticisms of the “Israel lobby” from being made.

Before explaining my response to this worry, it is worth noting other ways of responding to it. We might try to distinguish legitimate criticisms from anti-Semitic tropes by insisting that the latter must be a false narrative — i.e., they must fail to refer to any actual conspiracy or nefarious effort. On this view, an anti-Semitic trope is, as such, a kind of slander. However, this would still leave justified, but false, criticisms vulnerable to being labelled anti-Semitic tropes. Suppose Mearsheimer and Walt were wrong about the existence of an “Israel lobby.” Many would still want to deny that their book traffics in anti-Semitic tropes. On the other hand, suppose that they are correct. One can still imagine an actual anti-Semite condemning the Israel lobby using anti-Semitic tropes.

Perhaps instead we should draw a distinction between conspiracies that are composed of Jews and Jewish conspiracies. A Jewish conspiracy is an effort to subvert or control some important institution on behalf of the Jews, or in the perceived interests of the Jews as a group. Only statements that are meant to refer to a Jewish conspiracy in this sense are trafficking in the kind of anti-Semitic trope defined above. This seems like a promising distinction, but it suggests that in order to know whether some statement expresses this anti-Semitic trope, we need to know what the speaker means by it. Did Kass mean to posit some Jewish conspiracy, or just a conspiracy by someone who happens to be Jewish?

Every utterance has both a literal and a use-meaning (philosophers refer to these as an utterance’s “locution” and “illocution,” respectively). The literal meaning is the statement’s “propositional content”; it is what the speaker says. The use-meaning is the intention of the speaker in making the utterance; it is what a speaker means. For example, if someone says “I stand for the national anthem,” the literal meaning of the utterance is that they stand when the national anthem plays. However, the speaker may intend to convey that she is patriotic.

We can use this distinction and the distinction between a Jewish conspiracy and a conspiracy by Jews to develop an account of a certain kind of anti-Semitic trope. On this account, a statement expresses this kind of anti-Semitic trope only if it purports to refer to some conspiracy or effort by Jewish persons to control or subvert some institution, and the speaker means to refer to a Jewish conspiracy or effort, and not just a conspiracy or effort by Jews. Anti-Semitic tropes, then, are in this case the products of both the literal and the use-meaning of statements.

Furthermore, I propose that the ethical status of utterances that fulfill the content requirement for being an anti-Semitic trope is critically dependent upon their use-meaning. A person can non-culpably utter a statement with the same content as an anti-Semitic trope if she did not intend to suggest a Jewish conspiracy and could not reasonably have foreseen that it was anti-Semitic, or if she took adequate, good-faith measures to make it understood that she was not intending to suggest a Jewish conspiracy. As with other kinds of wrongdoing, culpability increases with the degree to which the literal anti-Semitism of the utterance was known to or intended by the speaker. Nevertheless, a harsher, “strict liability” regime for utterances with the same content as anti-Semitic tropes would unduly restrict political discourse, such as criticism of Jewish donors to progressive causes.

That said, Kass deserves the criticism he has received. On the one hand, the fact that conservatives have argued that Kass did not use anti-Semitic tropes on the grounds that he did not intend to posit a Jewish conspiracy supports my contention that anti-Semitic tropes are products of both literal and use-meaning. On the other hand, one could reasonably believe that Kass did intend to posit a Jewish conspiracy. Kass must be aware that conspiracy theories specifically revolving around George Soros are circulated widely by open anti-Semites, and he seems to place undeserved emphasis on the contribution of this particular wealthy Jewish businessman to progressive political causes in a political system in which multimillion-dollar campaign contributions are not at all infrequent.

Given these facts, the best we can say for Kass is that he was negligent in his use of language with the same content as anti-Semitic tropes: he should have known that claiming George Soros is responsible for clandestine funding of progressive causes dovetails with anti-Semitic propaganda, and he should have done something to allay concerns that he intended to suggest a Jewish conspiracy. Moreover, although I believe that those who decry “cancel culture” have legitimate concerns, Kass’s claim that he is a victim of it is a good example of powerful people crying “censorship!” when they encounter criticism. If strong criticism is deserved, a person in a free society must bear its costs.

Under Discussion: Weeds Grow in Light and Open Air, Too

photograph of plants growing between sidewalk cracks

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter.

The quickly (in)famous open letter published in Harper’s Magazine forecasts a dire future for free thought and speech. Like a portentous specter, the letter’s signatories point with their veiled hand to a tombstone: “HERE LIES LIBERAL SOCIETY. CANCELED.” But they assure their readers, whom they assume have asked the miser’s question, that if the course be departed from, the end will change.

What are we doing wrong, and what should we be doing instead? We should not, say the signatories of the Harper’s letter (henceforth, simply “Harpers”), “silence or wish … away” bad ideas. Instead we are told, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion.” This mantra, simple and appealing as it might be, immediately runs into problems. First there is a question about what they mean by “bad” ideas — or “good” ones. The second problem is that even if we’ve identified a substantive and independent notion of good and bad for ideas, there’s not much reason to believe that exposure, argument, and persuasion elevate the good and sweep away the bad.

What is a good idea? The letter itself pitches democratic inclusiveness and participation as the central pillar of a liberal society, as set against illiberal intolerance and silencing. We could reasonably conclude that the Harpers would rank as good ideas those that are conducive to and constitutive of inclusiveness and participation. Bad ideas would then be those that hamper or are inconsistent with inclusiveness and participation. Cancel culture — the presumed target of the Harper letter — is presented as a paradigmatic bad idea. The phenomenon of cancellation is painted as authoritarian: there is an official “party” line, and those who either criticize it or fail to provide it a full-throated endorsement suffer professional and social consequences.

Is there anything more to being a good or bad idea than this? Likely, the signatories collectively hold some constellation of views that claim, at bottom, being true is what makes an idea good. This is the traditional justification of free speech within classical liberalism: let everyone express their ideas, and the true ones will eventually win out. Does it matter that the concept of truth is itself not agreed upon? Accounts of what truth is — if indeed it is anything at all — vary significantly. Certain kinds of relativism about truth make the claims of the letter’s signatories simply incommensurable with their opponents’ claims. What is true-for-Harpers may be false-for-cancellers, without any whiff of contradiction. It is open to the Harpers, however, to include theories of truth in their claim: the true theory of truth will also reveal itself through open debate.

The Harpers’ hope isn’t, however, pinned on the outcome of some theoretical debate about the nature of truth and goodness of ideas. We can concede whatever view of truth and good ideas they prefer. There remains the empirical matter of whether exposure, argument, and persuasion is the best way to sort good ideas from bad ones. There are two resounding “No” answers we can offer: a historical one and an empirical one.

Assuming that the United States, Western civilization, or whatever was at least at one time a paradise of free speech — or at least closer to it than the Harpers opine we are now — it’s at the least puzzling why we are so plagued by bad ideas. We can look around the US today and see ravenous resistance to what seems like the simplest of good ideas: stay home as much as possible and wear a mask in public to help suppress the COVID-19 pandemic. This proposition has received as much open debate as seems possible. Ludicrous conspiracy theories, evidence-based medical advice, and all things in between have circulated at every level of society. However in the US, at least, the bad idea that wearing a mask is a sign of sheepish obedience to authority is far from dead. Similar debate swirled around wearing seatbelts in the 1950s and 1960s. Seatbelts, which had been around since the 1930s, were not mandated by law in the US until 1968.

The persistence of racist, misogynist, and nationalist ideology also contributes to a historical case against the effectiveness of exposure, argument, and persuasion. Activists for the rights of sexually and racially marginalized people continue to make many of the same arguments today that they did more than 100 years ago. Voter suppression, economic exclusion, de facto segregation, and general discrimination are alive and well. Some argue, as Ezra Klein does in his recent book Why We Are Polarized, that ideological inflexibility is worse now than it has been at almost any time is US history. Given these phenomena, the Harpers’ insistence that we should retreat from the precipice of authoritarianism represented by cancel culture to what came before it amounts to saying, “Let us abandon evil ways and return to dark, old ones.”

This historical argument may be met with the rejoinder that sufficiently unfettered free speech has never really been practiced. The forces of identity politics and government overreach have never been sufficiently banished for us to witness the full glory of liberalism. (The defense of free market economic policy, to which the Harpers’ concept of free speech is related, is voiced in similar terms.) If we were to adopt a thoroughgoing liberalism, stopping both popular identity-motivated sniping and government censorship, progress would steadily occur. The truth would set us free.

But now comes the empirical argument to rain on our parade. People are generally bad at thinking. Once we come to believe something, whether for good or bad reasons, we do not tend to change our views in the face of even strong contrary evidence. This is especially true of beliefs that we incorporate into our sense of who we are as a person. When we are presented with evidence against a belief that we take to define who we are, we react defensively rather than dispassionately. In a rock-paper-scissors game among the three classical modes of persuasionlogos, ethos, and pathos — argument based on truth and facts is wet tissue paper to the sharp scissors and blunt rock of appeals to authority, character, and emotion.

Humans are not omniscient, dispassionate, or otherwise unburdened by cognitive, social, and moral particularity. Any dominant ideas of society, including the Harpers’ view of how free speech should work, exert not merely passive inertia against change but also active resistance to usurpation. Ironically, despite bemoaning “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty,” the Harpers letter does just that. It says our only alternatives are authoritarian intolerance of difference, or suffering “caustic counter speech” of all varieties. The letter’s title evinces a concern for justice, but doesn’t spare a single word for how injustice can be carried out under the protection of free speech. We do not need, and should not want, social or political thought police; but we can avoid this while still encouraging thoughtfulness and accountability for speech.

Under Discussion: Five Arguments Against the Harper’s Letter

photograph of computer screen displaying Harper's Letter

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter.

On July 7, 2020, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter warning that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted” by a set of “moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” The letter obliquely refers to several incidents in which, in the eyes of the letter writers, individuals have been subjected to disproportionate or inappropriate social sanction for perceived transgressions against left-wing norms of thought and speech. “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class….” Signed by some 150 prominent educators, intellectuals, writers, and artists, the letter provoked a swift backlash by the left-leaning press. That reaction has crystallized around a set of arguments against the letter’s position that I propose to assess in this column.

The first argument, best articulated by The New Republic’s Otisa Nwanevu, is that the moral (and legal) right of free association gives private organizations, including newspapers and private colleges or universities, the right to decide what ideas they are and aren’t interested in promoting and what people they believe will or will not be an asset to them. Hence, no individual has the right to use such an organization as a platform for expressing their ideas, and these organizations, in turn, have no duty to be maximally permissive of ideas with which they disagree. The argument is surely correct that, for example, Tom Cotton had no right to be published in The New York Times, and The New York Times had no duty to publish him. Yet the wrongs that worry the signatories of the Harper’s letter are not, it seems, grounded in these alleged rights or duties. Instead, they are at least in part grounded in the conception of certain types of organization as aiming at certain morally worthy ends. For example, it can be plausibly argued that the role of private colleges and universities, just as much as public ones, is to generate knowledge and serve as forums for debate about pressing political issues. But these commitments seem to ground an obligation to promote debate and discussion. And while this obligation does not require giving a platform to any particular individual or group, it does require giving a platform to some individuals or groups that represent relevant, if ideologically heterodox views. Similarly, in cases of wrongful termination, the idea is not that the organization had a duty to provide a platform for any idea, no matter how offensive; rather, it is that termination of individuals who are not guilty of the offenses of which they are accused is wrongful.

The second argument is that the signatories overplay the importance of a handful of relatively isolated controversies, even if the latter do, in fact, involve wrongdoing on the part of left-wing activists or Twitter mobs. It is undeniable that most critical discussions of progressive identity politics focus on a handful of anecdotes, perhaps mainly because there is no central database of incidents from which to draw. However, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) does compile large databases of free speech-related incidents and policies on college campuses, including disinvitations, free-speech codes, and so on. Whether these databases, together with the anecdotes, amount to a troubling cultural trend is for the reader to decide.

The third argument, which is even more dismissive than the second, is that the consequences faced by victims of so-called “cancellation” are relatively minor, particularly given the signatories’ elite status; moreover, they are usually deserved. As Jessica Valenti put it in a Medium.com article, the signatories “want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence and paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them.” The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis agrees, writing that “facing widespread criticism on Twitter, undergoing an internal workplace review, or having one’s book panned does not, in fact, erode one’s constitutional rights or endanger a liberal society.” However, the anecdotes that seem to prompt worries about left-wing censoriousness feature consequences to individuals that go far beyond mere criticism, as the stories of wrongful termination referenced above attest. These individuals are usually not members of the cultural elite. Moreover, undergoing an internal workplace review, which is the outcome of so many of these cases, is very different from facing public criticism; it represents a potential threat to one’s livelihood. To have one’s livelihood threatened because of one’s personal speech is bound to have a chilling effect. Finally, there is a distinction between legitimate criticism of one’s ideas and attacks on one’s reputation or threats to one’s safety, tactics often wielded by social media users on both the left and right. These are serious and often disproportionate forms of social sanction, even when directed at powerful members of society.

The fourth argument is that there are much more pressing threats to free speech upon which the writers of the Harper’s letter ought to have focused their attention, such as violence against journalists, economic threats to journalism and academia, and so on. Logically speaking, this is not really an argument against concern about threats to free speech from the left. To see this, consider the argument that charity X ought to focus more attention on tropical disease Y rather than tropical disease Z, since the former kills five times the number of people. This is not an argument against addressing tropical disease Z, but an argument for proportioning attention and resources appropriately. Furthermore, it does not seem fair to claim that the letter itself does not acknowledge the threat from the right, or that those behind it have ignored that threat. At a number of points the letter alludes to the right-wing threat to free speech, although clearly the issue it squarely addresses is the threat from the left. Thomas Chatterton Williams, who spearheaded the letter, recently called President Trump the “Canceler in Chief”; and Yascha Mounk, a prominent signatory, has written that the primary threat posed to liberal democracy is from the populist right.

The final argument is similar to the last: it is that there are much more pressing political issues than the threat to free speech from the left. As Tom Scocca of Slate puts it, referring to Tom Cotton’s op-ed, “[i]n the world of the Harper’s letter, the threat that mattered was the one to the careers of veteran editors—not the threat that had bullets and bayonets behind it…” Again, this is not an argument against concern about the threat to free speech from the left, and it seems uncharitable to claim that simply because the letter concerns this issue, it is therefore the only issue that matters to its signatories.

The fourth and fifth arguments can also be interpreted as attacks upon the signatories’ motives. Giorgis writes that “it’s telling that the censoriousness they identify as a national plague isn’t the racism that keeps Black journalists from reporting on political issues, or the transphobia that threatens colleagues’ lives.” On Giorgis’s view, what this tells us is that the signatories don’t care, or at least don’t care enough, about the issues she identifies. But arguments about the motives of one’s interlocutor have no bearing on the merits of their position: if they don’t care about these issues that may make them morally bad people, but it does not mean that there is no threat to free speech from the left. In any case, it again seems uncharitable to conclude that they don’t care about some other issues simply because they’ve chosen to focus a certain amount of attention upon this one.

To conclude, my view is that among the arguments in the popular press against the Harper’s letter, the most difficult to answer is that worries about the threat to free speech from the left are overblown. It is simply difficult to tell when a series of incidents becomes a trend, and how concerned we should be about that trend. Beyond this, the arguments miss the mark for the most part. Of course, this does not mean that the letter’s claims are valid, and I have not defended them in this column.

Parler and the Problems of a “Free Speech” Social Network

Image of many blank speech bubbles forming a cloud

Twitter is something of a mess. It has been criticized by individuals from both ends of the political spectrum for either not doing enough to stem the tide of misinformation and hateful content, or of doing too much, and restricting what some see as their right to free expression. Recently, some of those who have chastised the platform for restricting free speech have called for a move to a different social media platform, one where opinions – particularly conservative opinions – could be expressed without fear of censorship. A Twitter-alternative that has seen substantial growth recently is called Parler: calling itself the “Free Speech Social Network,” its userbase gained almost half a million users in a single week, partially because of a backlash to Twitter’s recent fact-checking of a Tweet made by Donald Trump. Although the CEO of Parler stated that he wanted the platform to be a space in which anyone on the political spectrum could participate in discussions without fear of censorship, there is no question that it has become dominated by those on the political right.

It is perhaps easy to understand the appeal of such a platform: if one is worried about censorship, or if one wants to engage with those who have divergent political opinions, one might think that a forum in which there are fewer restrictions on what can be expressed would be beneficial for productive debate. After all, some have expressed concern about online censorship, specifically in terms of what is seen as an overreactive “cancel culture,” in which individuals are punished (some say disproportionately) for expressing their opinions. For example consider the following from a recent article in Harper’s Magazine, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”:

“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

So, what better way to defeat bad ideas than to provide a platform in which they can be brought out into the open, carefully considered, and argued away? Isn’t a “Free Speech Social Network” a good idea?

Not really. An assumption for the argument in favor of a platform that allows uncensored expressions of opinions is that while it may see an increase in the number of hateful or uninformed views, the benefits of having those ideas in the open to analyze and argue against will outweigh the costs. Indeed, the hope is that a lack of censorship or fact-checking will make debate more productive, and that by allowing the expression of “bad ideas” we can, in fact, “defeat” them. In reality, the platform is awash with dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories, and while contrarian views are occasionally presented, there is little in the way of productive debate to be found.

Here’s an example. With over 400 thousand followers on Parler, libertarian politician Ron Paul’s videos from the “Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity” receive thousands of positive votes and comments. Many of these videos have recently expressed skepticism about the dangers of coronavirus: specifically, they call into question the efficacy of tests for the virus, claiming that reports of numbers of cases have been inflated or fabricated, and argue that being made to wear facemasks is a violation of personal liberties. These views fall squarely into the camp of “bad ideas.” One might hope, though, that the community would respond with good reasons and rational debate.

Instead, we get a slew of even worse misinformation. For example, here is a representative sample of some recent comments on Paul’s video titled “Should We Trust The Covid Tests?”:

“My friends husband is world renown doctor. He is getting calls from doctors all over USA and World that tell him CV-19 Numbers are being forged.”

“Nurse all over are saying they are testing the same persons over and over and just building up the numbers not counting them as the same case, but seperate cases. Am against shut down period.”

“No. Plain and simple. COVID tests are increasingly being proven to be lies. Unless you believe the worthless MSM liberal sheep lie pushers.”

The kinds of comments are prevalent, and, as can be seen, are not defeating bad ideas, but rather reinforcing them.

Herein lies the problem: productive debate will not just magically happen once we unleash all the bad ideas into a forum. While some may be examined and defeated, others will receive support and become stronger for having been given the room to grow. Without putting any kind of restriction on the expression of misleading and false information we then risk emboldening those looking to spread politically-motivated misinformation and conspiracy theories. The result is that these bad ideas become more difficult to defeat, not easier.

If one is concerned that potential censorship on social media networks like Twitter will stifle debate, what Parler has shown so far is that a “free speech” social network is good for little other than expressing views that one would be banned for expressing elsewhere. Contrary to Parler’s stated motivations and the concerns expressed in the Harper’s letter, mere exposure is not a panacea for the problem of the bad ideas being expressed on the internet.

Censoring “Gratuitous” Violence

black-and-white photograph of protestor taking photo of "White Silence is Violence" sign with phone

The video of George Floyd dying after nine long minutes by suffocation at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer is gruesome, sickening, and has prompted countless people to action. The officers responsible for his death have been arrested and charged. In response to protests, numerous state and local governments are instituting police reforms. Black people have been killed by police before. But given that this particular video of unambiguous violence perpetrated by police has been circulated so widely, is so appalling, and instigated such a fierce response, this example stands out.

From this fact, a rough argument may be sketched. Sharing videos of horrifying violence prompts positive social change, so let’s share more videos of horrifying violence. If such a video is helping to stop police violence, why not share other violent videos to help stop gang violence, war violence, and terrorist violence? In fact, why not share videos showing the effects of structural violence, videos of suicides due to social isolation and industrial accidents due to lack of regulation? Scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, one might see a video of a cute baby taking her first steps, then a video of a terrorist execution, then a video of a bunch of newborn puppies, and a video of a young man sticking a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. Even if you think it is good that the Floyd video was widely shared, you probably don’t support turning your morning scroll through social media into such a traumatic experience. To understand this apparent contradiction in instinct, let us consider how violent content is treated on social media today and the arguments for and against censoring it on these platforms and in general.

First, we need to consider what “violent content” is and how it is understood by social media companies. While there may be an intuitive sense that violent content only includes uses of force for the purpose of causing harm, social media companies take a more expansive view. Twitter, for example, includes under the category of “graphic violence,” accidents and any “serious physical harm.” But, these companies also tend to distinguish between what Twitter calls “graphic violence” and “gratuitous gore,” as though there is some amount of violence or gore that is not in some way “gratuitous” to our experience of the world.

While graphic violence may include “bodily fluids including blood, feces, semen,” and is only hidden behind a “sensitive media” label and blur, “gratuitous” gore, which includes dismemberment, mutilation, burned human remains, and exposed internal organs and bones, is banned completely. But what exactly is the meaningful difference between these two categories? For example, a decapitation would certainly count as gratuitous gore and would be extremely off-putting. But, the video of Floyd being killed is merely graphic violence, even though it can easily be just as off-putting, if not more so. In fact, while a decapitation may be quick and relatively painless, Floyd died slowly of suffocation. Why is one “gratuitous” and not the other? Why is one censored and not the other?

From the start, companies can have two kinds of motivations for doing anything: moral ones and amoral ones. Either they do something because it is right or thoughts of right and wrong simply don’t factor into their decision. Twitter presents a moral argument for their censorship. They say that “We prohibit gratuitous gore content because research has shown that repeated exposure to violent content online may negatively impact an individual’s wellbeing.” Twitter does not make clear what they mean by well-being but if they mean an immediate sensation of feeling good or ill, their argument is trivially true. Only a sadist really enjoys the suffering of others and has their immediate well-being improved by viewing it.

And there might be a legitimate basis for Twitter’s claim. There is some evidence that regular viewing of violence can be desensitizing, though “regular viewing” here means in excess of two hours every day and none of the science is settled. But, there is also an obvious profit motive for Twitter’s censorship—if you associate negative feelings with your use of Twitter, you are unlikely to use it as frequently, and fewer users means less ad revenue. Regardless of the morality of this censorship, Twitter is motivated to censor for the sake of profits. So then, what are the moral reasons that could support this sort of censorship?

To answer this question, let’s first consider the odd bunch of people who do seek out violent content, taboo gratuitous gore in particular, to watch. One particularly popular community of these people was the Reddit group r/watchpeople die, which had over 400,000 members before it was banned. At that size, it is difficult to chalk the membership of that group up to just sadists, sociopaths, and other such extraordinarily deviant people. In fact, the moderators and power users of this subreddit were pretty much normal people, some married, plenty having friends. They didn’t fit the stereotype of obsessive death and gore watchers.

In fact, Rule #3 of the subreddit (as shown in this Wayback Machine archive of the subreddit’s homepage on September 20, 2018, shortly before its quarantine) included this expectation, bolded by the mods to highlight it: “Be respectful of the dead! This is important. Human beings have lost their lives. This subject matter is not to be taken lightly.” The subreddit also described itself as “a community for documenting and observing the disturbing reality of death” and as “not intended to be a shock or gore subreddit.” Finally, they referenced two famous philosophical ideas: “Memento mori,” the Latin Stoic maxim to always remember one’s inevitable death, and “Maranasati,” a similar idea in Buddhism. Gratuitous gore is often referred to online as “gore porn” as the basis for viewing it is thought to come from a similar place as the animalistic urge to view other kinds of pornography. However, in light of the seemingly principled basis for this community, it is tough to say that all viewing of gratuitous gore is pornographic.

Sue Tait, a lecturer in the field of mass communications at the University of Canterbury, elaborates on this idea in her article, “Pornographies of Violence? Internet Spectatorship on Body Horror.” She considers four different ways people in these sorts of communities interact with gratuitous gore. She refers to these as four kinds of gazes viewers have:

“I identify a range of spectatorship positions [viewers] take up, including: an amoral gaze, whereby the suffering subject becomes a source of stimulation and pleasure; a vulnerable gaze, where viewers experience harm from graphic imagery; an entitled gaze, where viewers frame their looking through anti-censorship discourses; and a responsive gaze, whereby looking is a precedent to action.”

To contextualize these gazes, let’s consider some examples from before. The amoral gaze would be the one taken up by the sadists. The vulnerable gaze is the one Twitter worries about its viewers having-they worry people will associate the “hurt” they feel at viewing gratuitous gore with the site itself and stop using it. The r/watchpeopledie community’s focus on “documenting and observing the disturbing reality of death” would be an example of the entitled gaze. And last but not least, the responsive gaze would be the one taken up by those who were prompted to action by the video of Floyd’s death and any one who would be prompted to similar action by similar, but gorier, content, like many on r/watchpeopledie were.

With the idea of these different kinds of gazes in mind, we can now construct a variety of arguments for and against the censorship of violent content.

According to virtue ethics, we might support censorship of gratuitous gore if it seems that regular exposure to gratuitous gore encourages vices in viewers. For example, if conclusive research comes out showing that exposure to violent media causes people to be more aggressive, cruel, or unempathetic, that would be a reason to support censoring gratuitous gore, the most extreme form of violent media. (In particular, we might worry about how this media influences the character of children whose morals are viewed as being particularly malleable.) This would be particularly true if a community encouraged people to take up an amoral gaze.

On the other hand, we might oppose the censorship of gratuitous gore if it seems that same exposure promotes virtue, rather than vice, in the viewers. If viewers take up a responsive gaze, rather than an amoral one, people may be encouraged to be more compassionate. As Stalin is reported to have said, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” Seeing the “disturbing reality of death,” over and over again, be it by hunger or by violence, might prevent people from losing touch with the horror of various kinds of violence and actually work to take action as they did with police violence after seeing the video of Floyd’s murder.

Immanuel Kant, the father of deontology — morals based on duties — made a creative argument against the abuse of animals that could be used to justify the censorship of gratuitous gore. While Kant did not believe animals had rights, or even any kind of consciousness, he still opposed sadistic animal abuse saying, “If any acts of animals are analogous to human acts and spring from the same principles, we have duties towards the animals because thus we cultivate the corresponding duties towards human beings.” In short, we shouldn’t abuse animals pointlessly lest we become able to do the same to people. In the same way, if repeated exposure to gratuitous gore hampers the cultivation of our duties toward people (as would be the case upon taking up the amoral gaze), such as not to murder them, then censorship of gratuitous gore would be justified.

But, deontology can also be used to oppose the censorship of gratuitous gore. Those who take up an entitled gaze might argue that we have a duty to uphold free speech or that we even have a duty to “document” deaths, for various purposes. People might also have a duty to bear witness to the reality of death for some further end as according to the maxim “Memento mori.”

Finally, we can give consequentialist arguments for and against censorship. If, on the whole, the viewing of gratuitous gore leads to more people doing harm to each other, then it should be censored. If not, if, according to the responsive gaze, people’s viewing leads to great social change, then it absolutely should not be censored.

This argument is especially powerful in an affluent nation like the United States. If you are an American, and if you are just a little lucky, you will have to see only a few people die, you will only attend a handful of funerals, and those funerals you do attend will recognize the deaths of people who we think were more or less supposed to die, that is, the elderly. But, Americans are an exception and though we can hide from death for most of our lives, the world is not a happy place where only those who have lived long lives, or who get unlucky with serious diseases like cancer, have to die. All sorts of horrible causes of death, from childbirth, infectious disease, war, and industrial accidents, are still very common in the Global South. You can find a particularly horrifying intersection of all of these in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where resource conflict has led to widespread poverty, civil war, and unsafe mining operations. But, some combination of these horrors can be found in most areas of the world.

We are terribly desensitized to all these horrors as these deaths are reduced to mere numbers. Few Americans have seen the effects of poverty, war, and sickness in these far away places. And, as they say “out of sight, out of mind.” If only a small portion of people take up the responsive gaze and stand up against these atrocities, and actually manage to remedy some of them, that would be an enormous consequentialist benefit that outweighs all the temporary harm it does to the “well-being” of comfortably, relatively wealthy (on the world scale), American viewers.

Overall, a violent video is not moral or immoral in isolation. Rather, the viewing of violent videos may be moral or immoral depending on the context. The morality of censoring gratuitous gore and other violent content may also depend on human nature. If most people, most of the time take on an amoral gaze or vulnerable gaze when viewing violent media, then by most accounts, censorship is justified. But, if people are basically good, then they might mostly take on the responsive gaze and untold benefits would result from ending the censorship of violent content. While it very well may be that some or all violent content deserves censorship, we ought to examine our reasons for censoring it. We ought to consider whether that censorship has a true moral basis or whether viewing violence is just uncomfortable, forcing us to reflect on the horrors of the world in a way from which we are usually, blissfully, isolated.

Regulating Companies to Free People’s Speech

photograph of ipad with Trump's twitter profile sitting atop various blurred newspaper front pages feating him

US President Donald Trump has signed an executive order instructing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to review legislation that shields social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, from liability for content posted by their users. This move appears to be a retaliatory gesture against Twitter for linking fact-checking sites to President Trump’s tweets opining the vulnerability to fraud of mail-in ballots for upcoming elections. This is the second time President Trump has drafted an executive order to review this kind of legislation. The first time was in August 2019. But this isn’t simply (another) Trump temper tantrum. Rather it is the latest push in a concerted and bipartisan effort to bring so-called “Big Tech” companies to heel. These efforts in general face a long road of legal and philosophical challenges, and Trump’s effort in particular is likely doomed to failure.

The relevant legislation is the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and more specifically the “Good Samaritan” clause of Section 230 therein. This clause states that no “provider or user” of an “interactive computer service” can be sued for civil harm because of “good faith efforts”  to restrict access to “objectionable” material posted by other users of their service. Other portions of Section 230 give providers and users of interactive computer services immunity against being sued for any civil harm caused by content posted by other users. Essentially, companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google are given broad discretion to handle the content posted on their sites as they see fit.

Conservative and Republicans complain that Big Tech companies harbor anti-conservative political bias, which they enforce through their platforms’ outsized influence on the dissemination of news and opinion. Texas’ Senator Ted Cruz has argued that Facebook has censored and suppressed conservative expression on its platform. President Trump’s frequent screeds against CNN, The Washington Post, and Twitter echo the same sentiment. In 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was grilled by Republican lawmakers about alleged anti-conservative bias in his company’s handling of search results. Missouri’s Senator Josh Hawley in 2019 introduced a bill to amend Section 230 to remove its broad protections from liability. Hawley’s bill was specifically geared toward addressing alleged anti-conservative bias and offered reinstatement of Section 230’s protection only to companies who submitted themselves to an audit showing that they pursued “politically neutral” practices.

Liberal and Democratic concerns focus largely on the spread of harmful misinformation and disinformation by foreign actors aimed at influencing US elections. But there are two points of bipartisan agreement. The first concerns the scope and magnitude of Big Tech’s influence on the public exchange of information. Agreement here manifests itself in the what criteria lawmakers have put forward as triggering expanded liability, namely size. Senator Josh Hawley’s 2019 bill targeted companies with, “30 million monthly active users in the US, more than 300 million active monthly users worldwide, or more than $500 million in global annual revenue.” The other is point of agreement concerns posted content related to human trafficking for sex work. Legislation amending the Telecommunications Act of 1996 pursuant to curtailing human trafficking was passed with bipartisan support in 2017.

All of this bears on the right to freedom of speech, interpretation of which is a perpetually contentious issue. Conservatives complaining about censorship and suppression allege that their freedom of speech is being infringed by the actions of Big Tech. However a recent judicial decision made short work of one such complaint. The US Court of Appeals dismissed a suit claiming that Twitter, Facebook, Apple, and Google had conspired to suppress conservative speech. In their ruling the judges noted that the First Amendment only protects free speech from interference by government action. This illustrates an important point about the nature of rights that is often missed.

Rights can be thought of as comprising three elements: a right-holder, an obligation, and an obliged party. With the right to freedom of speech the right-holder is any legal person (which includes corporations), the obligation is to refrain from suppression/censorship, and the obligated party is the US government. Constitutional rights tend to follow this pattern. Other rights oblige parties other than just the government. A family can sue someone for killing their mother, or the state may sue on the murder victim’s behalf, because a right to life is both understood to exist at common law and is also enshrined by legislation in statutes against homicide. Here the right holder is any individual person, the obligation is to refrain from killing the right-holder, and the obligated party is every other individual person. (Incidentally, both of these are examples of negative rights: rights which entitle the bearers to protection from specific harmful treatment. There are also positive rights, which entitle the bears to the provision of specific goods, services, or treatment.)

As a matter of principle there is no general legal basis for complaints against Big Tech for suppressing or censoring expression. They are not government actors and so are not obviously bound by the right to free speech as expressed in the first amendment. The US Court of Appeals decision mentioned above says as much. Further these companies are themselves legal persons with respect to political speech under US law. This was one the bases of the US Supreme Courts’ (in)famous Citizens United decision. Because corporations are people too, their political speech is protected. Twitter flagging President Trump’s posts with fact-checking tags is just them exercising their speech in competition with President Trump’s speech. This is the much vaunted “marketplace of ideas” of which conservatives are usually enamored.

As a matter of law Trump’s draft executive order is largely toothless because the text of Section 230’s Good Samaritan clause allows Big Tech companies to take “good faith” actions to “restrict access to … material” even when “such material is constitutionally protected.” Despite the opinion of legislators, there is not even a whiff of a political neutrality requirement. While such a requirement used to exist, it ceased being enforced in 1987 and was fully obliterated in 2011. The decision to cease enforcing this requirement was made by US President Ronald Reagan’s FCC Commissioner, Mark Fowler, because it was seen as violating first amendment protections.

Infringement by the government on freedom of speech is held in court to strict scrutiny. Part of the strict scrutiny standard is that the infringement promotes a “compelling government interest.” If the government exercises its authority over private individuals or groups under the auspices of protecting freedom of speech, what standards will the government ask be met? The entire point of rights like the freedom of speech is to permit persons acting in a private capacity to determine things for themselves. As many critics and advocacy groups have pointed out, allowing the government to set these standards is harmful to free speech rather than protective of it. Legislators appear to remember this only as it suits their political needs.

Coronavirus Briefings: Virtue in Ignorance?

photograph of Trump answering questions at press briefing with Vice President Pence and Dr. Fauci one either side

Last week, KUOW, an NPR Member station in Seattle, said that it would no longer air the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings live. On Wednesday, CNN and MSNBC both cut away from the president’s briefing when Trump kicked off the report by talking about a new counter-narcotics operation and progress on the border wall. CNN’s John King called Trump’s manipulation of Americans’ fear-driven attention “shameless” and “political.” But these networks’ actions have also been criticized for political bias in refusing to relay the news of the day. The decision to cease coverage of the president’s special briefings represents another chapter in the ongoing debate about how the media should cover Trump, and, more generally, where news agencies’ obligation to the public lies.

As of the time of this writing, over 200,000 people have signed a petition asking media outlets to stop covering the president’s coronavirus briefings live. Many of those individuals are no doubt motivated by party identification, but there are a number of moral reasons that are being offered as justification. Chief among these are appeals to decency and presidential decorum. Many have objected to the way that Trump has transformed (or perhaps weaponized) these fireside chats into political rallies. National emergency briefings aren’t the time for partisan politics, and they certainly aren’t the time for campaigning. These daily television spots are not legitimate policy briefings genuinely attempting to inform the public, but spectacles put on for political purposes. Flanked by muzzled science experts and a carousel of business leaders, Trump projects power while lacking substance. He bad-mouths reporters, fields planted questions, and is self-congratulatory when his guests aren’t too busy singing his praises. Critics argue that such displays are beneath the dignity of the office.

Second, there is a very real fear concerning the amount of misinformation that Trump has been circulating when talking off the cuff. That kind of ad libbing is deadly. While we are confronted by a disease that threatens to kill as many as 240,000 of us (just in the US), our current leader can’t be bothered to get his facts straight or fall in line with the recommendations of experts. At the very least, news outlets have an obligation not to give a platform to epistemic trespassers or snake oil salesmen. All the after-the-fact commentary and correction in the world can’t undo the damage being done on live TV as Trump undermines and contradicts public health experts.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that everything the president does or says is, in a fundamental way, noteworthy. As Jack Shafer of Poltico writes,

“He speaks and economic markets move. He speaks and political markets shudder. Even when he holds his tongue—a rare occurrence for our current president, I’ll admit—the world shifts. Like it or not, his lies move markets, too.”

As such, we must consider whether these daily briefings represent important news items even if the content may be actively causing harm. Even the president’s most vocal critics can see the benefit of having a daily public record of the president’s words for the sake of transparency and accountability.

Further, these daily briefings also serve as a window into the brain and soul of our commander-and-chief. Rarely are our political leaders called upon day after day to give live updates on an ongoing emergency and to do so in a way that is suitable for consumption by the general public. What the president says, how he decides to frame it, and how he comports himself while doing it, all convey important information that transcends what fits on the page or can be communicated by an amended account. In these productions, believers hear hope and self-assurance; and critics hear braggadocio and incoherence. Even if it’s true that there is nothing more on offer than spin and self-promotion, aren’t even those performances worth relaying to the public?

The answer to that question may all come down to our pessimism regarding the public’s  competence. Those in favor of stopping coverage are inclined to play the role of guardian. As Shafer argues,

“[Their] greatest fear isn’t that Trump will lie or that Trump’s lies will somehow deceive them. What they worry about the most is that the average viewer will be sucked in by Trump’s lies. This paternalistic mindset holds that the same individual who can be trusted to vote in elections can’t be trusted on his own to listen to long, unbroken statements from the president. He must be guided and protected by volunteer censors.”

But we can’t have it both ways; a truly informed voter can’t be spoon-fed. It may be that those who are willing to tune in should decide for themselves the value of the information being shared.

Finding a middle ground in this disagreement on the media’s role in relaying the president’s message is not easy (nor is it a new problem). National Public Radio, for example, has made the decision to stop airing the briefings live. Instead it offers commentary and analysis, while including a link to the full briefing should its users care to see it. In defense of this move, Elizabeth Jensen, public editor for NPR, explains the newsroom’s mission to “serve the public and democracy,” writing,

“I take that to mean that it should provide facts to help listeners make decisions in their lives, not spin, particularly at a time when public health is at stake. That means having its reporters listen to the briefing and immediately share important updates in the newscasts and newsmagazines, without giving a platform for falsehoods, or speculative comments on as-yet-untested treatments or campaign rally-style rants.”

Perhaps this is a suitable compromise between the values of transparency and journalistic integrity. Or perhaps this again privileges opinion over facts and editorializing over reporting, or objectionably puts “knowers” in a position to protect the rest of us.

Other White House correspondents have proposed alternative solutions: “I don’t think trying to keep him from people because he lies is necessarily the right answer. Cover him aggressively, but let people see what he’s saying.” To that end, “networks could adapt, and carry them live, but fact-check in real time.” Whether such a strategy is feasible or effective remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, it may be that, regardless of the stance news outlets take, their consumers will always simply hear what they want to hear.

Owning a Monopoly on Knowledge Production

photograph of Monopoly game board

With Elizabeth Warren’s call to break up companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, there has been increasing attention to the role that large corporations play on the internet. The matter of limited competition within different markets has become an important area of focus, however much of the debate tends to focus on the economic and legal factors involved (such as whether there should be greater antitrust enforcement). However, the philosophical and moral issues have not received as much attention. If a select few corporations are responsible for the kinds of information we get to see, they are capable of exerting a significant influence on our epistemic standards, practices, and conclusions. This also makes the issue a moral one.

Last year Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes surprised many with his call for Facebook to be broken up. Referencing America’s history of breaking up monopolies such as Standard Oil and AT&T, Hughes charged that Facebook dominates social networking and faces no market-based accountability. Earlier, Elizabeth Warren had also called for large companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon to be broken apart, claiming that they have bulldozed competition and are using private information for profit. Much of the focus on the issue has been on the mergers of companies like Facebook and Instagram or Google and Nest. The argument holds that these mergers are anti-competitive and are creating economics problems. According to lawyer and professor Tim Wu, “If you took a hard look at the acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram, the argument that the effect of those acquisitions have been anticompetitive would be easy to prove for a number of reasons.” For one, he cites the significant effect that such mergers have had on innovation.

Still, others have argued that breaking up such companies would be a bad idea. They will note that a concept like social networking is not clearly defined, and thus it is difficult to say that a company like Facebook constitutes a monopoly in its market. Also, unlike Standard Oil, companies like Facebook or Instagram are not essential services for the economy which undermines potential legal justifications for breaking these companies up. Most of these corporations also offer their services for free which means that the typical concerns about monopolies and anticompetitive practices regarding prices and rising costs of services do not apply. Those who argue this tend to suggest that the problem lies with the capitalist system or that there is a lack of proper regulation of these industries.

Most of the proponents and opponents focus on the legal and economic factors involved. However, there are epistemic factors at stake as well. Social epistemologists study matters relating to questions like “how do groups come to know things?” or “how can communities of inquirers affect what individuals come to accept as knowledge?” In recent years, philosophers like Kevin Zollman have provided accounts of how individual knowers are affected by communication within their network of fellow knowers. Some of these studies have demonstrated that different communication structures within an epistemic network in terms of the beliefs, evidence, and testimonies that are shared can affect what conclusions an epistemic community will settle on. The way that evidence, beliefs, and testimony of other knowers within the network is shared will affect what other people in the network believe is rational.

Once we factor the ways that a handful of corporations are able to influence the communication of information in epistemic communities on the internet, a real concern emerges. Google and Facebook are responsible for roughly 70% of referral traffic on the internet. For different categories of articles the number changes. Facebook is responsible for referring 87% of “lifestyle” content. Google is responsible for 84% of referrals of job postings. Facebook and Google together are responsible for 79% of referral traffic regarding the world economy. Internet searching is a common way of getting knowledge and information and Google controls almost 90% of this field.

What this means is that a few companies are responsible for the communication of the incredibly large amounts of information, beliefs, and testimony that is shared by knowers all over the world. If we think about a global epistemic community or even smaller sub-communities learning and eventually knowing things through referral of services like Google or Facebook, this means that few large corporations are capable of affecting what we are capable of knowing and will call knowledge. As Hughes noted in his criticism of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg can alone decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feed, what messages get delivered, and what constitutes violent and incendiary speech. What this means is that if a person comes to adopt many or most of their beliefs because of what they are exposed to on Facebook, then Zuckerberg alone can significantly determine what that person can know.

A specific example of this kind of dominance is YouTube. When it comes to the online video hosting platform marketplace, YouTube holds a significantly larger share than competitors like Vimeo or Dailymotion. Content creators know this all too well YouTube’s policies on content and monetization have led many on the platform to lament the lack of competition. YouTube creators are often confused by why certain videos get demonetized, what is and is not acceptable content, and what standards should be followed. In recent weeks demonetization of history focused channels has been particularly interesting. For example, a channel devoted to the history of the First World War had over 200 videos demonetized. Many of these channels have had to begin censoring themselves based on what they think is not allowed. So, history channels have started censoring words that would be totally acceptable on network television.

The problem isn’t merely one of monetization either. If a video is demonetized, it will no longer be promoted and recommended by YouTube’s algorithm. Thus, if you wish to learn something about history on YouTube, Google is going to play a large role in terms of who gets to learn what. This can affect the ways that people evaluate information on these (sometimes controversial) topics and thus what epistemic communities will call knowledge. Some of these content creators have begun looking for alternatives to YouTube because of these issues, however it remains to be seen whether they will offer a real source of competition. In the meantime, however, much of the information that gets referred to us comes from a select few companies. These voices have significant influence (intentionally or not) over what we as an epistemic community come to know or believe.

This makes the issue of competition an epistemic issue, but it also inherently is a moral one. This is because as a global society we are capable of regulating in one way or another the ways in which corporations are capable of impacting our lives. This raises an important moral question: is it morally acceptable for a select few companies to determine what constitutes knowledge? Having information being referred by corporations provides the opportunity for some to benefit over others, and we as a global society will have to determine whether we are okay with the significant influence they wield.

Forbidden Knowledge in Scientific Research

cloeup photograph of lock on gate with iron chain

It is no secret that science has the potential to have a profound effect on society. This is often why scientific results can be so ethically controversial. For instance, researchers have recently warned of the ethical problems associated with scientists growing lumps of human brain in the laboratory. The blobs of brain tissue grown from stem cells developed spontaneous brain waves like those found in premature babies. The hope is that the study offers the potential to better understand neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s, but it also raises a host of ethical worries concerning the possibility this brain tissue could reach sentience. In other news, this week a publication in the journal JAMA Pediatrics ignited controversy by reporting a supposed link between fluoride exposure and IQ scores in young children. In addition to several experts questioning the results of the study itself, there is also concern about the potential effect this could have on the debate over the use of fluoride in the water supply; anti-fluoride activists have already jumped on the study to defend their cause. Scientific findings have an enormous potential to dramatically affect our lives. This raises an ethical issue: should there be certain topics, owing to their ethical concerns, that should be off-limits for scientific study?

This question is studied in both science and philosophy, and is sometimes referred to as the problem of forbidden knowledge. The problem can include issues of experimental methods and whether they follow proper ethical protocols (certain knowledge may be forbidden if it uses human experimentation), but it can also include the impact that the discovery or dissemination of certain kinds of knowledge could have on society. For example, a recent study found that girls and boys are equally as good at mathematics and that children’s brains function similarly regardless of gender. However, there have been several studies going back decades which tried to explain differences between mathematical abilities in boys and girls in terms of biological differences. Such studies have the possibility of re-enforcing gender roles and potentially justifying them as biologically determined. This has the potential to spill over into social interactions. For instance, Helen Longino notes that such findings could lead to lower priorities being made to encourage women to enter math and science.

So, such studies have the potential to impact society which is an ethical concern, but is this reason enough make them forbidden? Not necessarily. The bigger problem involves how adequate these findings are, the concern that they could be incorrect, and what society is to do about that until correct findings are published. For example, in the case of math testing, it is not that difficult to find significant correlations between variables, but the limits of this correlation and the study’s potential to identify causal factors are often lost on the public. There are also methodical problems; some standardized tests rely on male-centric questions that can skew results, different kinds of tests and different strategies for preparing for them can also misshape our findings. So even if correlations are found, where there are not major flaws in the assumptions of the study, they may not be very generalizable. In the meantime, such findings, even if they are corrected over time, can create stereotypes in the public that are hard to get rid of.

Because of these concerns, some philosophers argue that either certain kinds of questions be banned from study, or that studies should avoid trying to explain differences in abilities and outcomes according to race or sex. For instance, Janet Kourany argues that scientists have moral responsibilities to the public and they should thus conduct themselves according to egalitarian standards. If a scientist wants to investigate the differences between racial and gender groups, they should seek to explain these in ways without assuming that the difference is biologically determined.

In one of her examples, she discusses studying differences between incidents of domestic violence in white and black communities. A scientist should highlight similarities of domestic violence within white and black communities and seek to explain dissimilarities in terms of social issues like racism or poverty. With a stance like this, research into racial differences explaining differences in rates of domestic violence would thus constitute forbidden knowledge. Only if these alternative egalitarian explanations empirically fail can a scientist then choose to explore race as a possible explanation of differences between communities. By doing so, it avoids perpetuating a possibly empirically flawed account that suggests that blacks might be more violent than other ethnic groups.

She points out that the alternative risks keeping stereotypes alive even while scientists slowly prove them wrong. Just as in the case of studying mathematical differences, the slow settlement of opinion within the scientific community leaves society free to entertain stereotypes as “scientifically plausible” and adopt potentially harmful policies in the meantime. In his research on the matter Philip Kitcher notes that we are susceptible to instances of cognitive asymmetry where it takes far less empirical evidence to maintain stereotypical beliefs than it takes to get rid of them. This is why studying the truth of such stereotypes can be so problematic.

These types of cases seem to offer significant support to labeling particular lines of scientific inquiry forbidden. But the issue is more complicated. First, telling scientists what they should and should not study raises concerns over freedom of speech and freedom of research. We already acknowledge limits on research on the basis of ethical concerns, but this represents a different kind of restriction. One might claim that so long as science is publicly funded, there are reasonable democratically justified limits of research, but the precise boundaries of this restriction will prove difficult to identify.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, such a policy has the potential to exacerbate the problem. According to Kitcher,

“In a world where (for example) research into race differences in I.Q. is banned, the residues of belief in the inferiority of the members of certain races are reinforced by the idea that official ideology has stepped in to conceal an uncomfortable truth. Prejudice can be buttressed as those who opposed the ban proclaim themselves to be the gallant heirs of Galileo.”

In other words, one reaction to such bans on forbidden knowledge, so long as our own cognitive asymmetries are unknown to us, will be to fight back that this is an undue limitation on free speech for the sake of politics. In the meantime, those who push for such research can become martyrs and censoring them may only serve to draw more attention to the cause.

This obviously presents us with an ethical dilemma. Given that there are scientific research projects that could have a potentially harmful effect on society, whether the science involved is adequate or not, is it wise to ban such projects as forbidden knowledge? There are reasons to say yes, but implementing such bans may cause more harm or drive more public attention to such issues. Even banning research on the development of brain tissue from stem cells may be wise, but it may also cause such research to move to another country with more relaxed ethical standards, meaning that potential harms could be much worse. These issues surrounding how science and society relate are likely only going to be solved with greater public education and open discussion about what ethical responsibilities we think scientists should have.

The Free-Speech Defense and a Defense of Free Speech

Image of two human stick-figures arguing

Of the things about which people across the political spectrum deeply care, morally and politically, freedom of speech is very highly valued – even if there are disagreements about exactly what it licenses you to say and what, if any, caveats should be placed upon it. In recent years free speech has emerged as a hot topic for conservatives – often taking the form of pushback against ‘political correctness.’ The view that ‘liberal’ or ‘left-wing elites’ are trying to silence those who do not gel with a progressive social agenda is a particular flashpoint. 

Yet, in these quarters, one detects a pattern which suggests that the principle itself is not quite what is at stake: those calling for freedom of speech or decrying its endangerment are often simply defending a desire (viewed by them as a right) to say certain things against others for whom those things are offensive or harmful (for examples see my “Separating the Freedom of Religion from the Right to Discriminate” or Kenneth Boyd’s “Online Discourse and the Demand for Civility” also on this site). In many such scenarios there is a legitimate question over whether certain brands of archconservative really are staunch supporters of the principle of free speech ‘all the way down,’ or whether there is a tendency to use the concept as a way of crying foul when someone calls out the noxious content of their views.       

Something like this seems to be the case in a political stoush that has erupted in Australia over the inaugural Australian Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC to be held in Sydney this week. The conference is backed by the powerful American Conservative Union (ACU), and speakers include Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, former Australian prime minister, climate change denier and staunch opponent of marriage equality Tony Abbott, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, Raheem Kassam, editor-in-chief of Breitbart and an especially noxious misogynistic loudmouth, One Nation politician Mark Latham

The caliber of speakers and the conference agenda has many people worried about the echo-chamber of right-wing ideology, as well as the growing influence of American-style firebrand conservatism on Australia. The ACU’s executive director Dan Schneider and ACU chairman Matt Schlapp have joined forces with the Australian right-wing think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the conservative campaign group Advance Australia – two of the event’s major sponsors.

High-profile opposition Labor senator Kristina Keneally criticized the conference, labeling it as a “talkfest of hate,” and called on the government to deny a visa to Raheem Kassam, citing Kassam’s suggestion that Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s mouth and legs should be taped shut “so she can’t reproduce.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended several of his government’s MP’s speaking at the event on the grounds of “the principles of freedom of thought, speech, expression and association.” Daniel Wild, the IPA’s director of research and a speaker at the event, called Keneally’s criticisms “yet another example of how Labor wants to stifle free speech, open discussion and dialogue in Australia. This is a threat to democracy.” Donald Trump Jr. weighed in tweeting: “one of the major political parties in Australia is trying to silence Raheen Kassam because of his conservative views. The insanity needs to stop!”

Free speech is, according to all these defenses, under attack. Luckily, the conference agenda will have this important topic covered. The conference organizer Andrew Cooper said that “It will include a lot of discussion on free speech, and what I would call the authoritarian left’s opposition to it.” 

Freedom of speech is a core tenet of old school political liberalism. The best-known formulation of the argument for freedom of speech is still to be found in John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty, published in 1859. Mill may be regarded as the father of political liberalism and the book is still one of its central texts. 

A central concern for Mill was the limitation of the coercive power of the state on the freedom of the individual. Mill’s argument for the freedom of thought and discussion is given in chapter 2 of On Liberty, and in it he aims to show that there should be no attempt “to control the expression of opinion.” He argues that truth or falsity of an opinion cannot be a deciding factor in whether that opinion is disseminated, because such a judgment cannot always be made in advance – and if such a judgment cannot always be made with certainty, then it should never be made at all – just in case the judgment turns out to be wrong. In other words, it is better to let some falsehoods roam free than to imprison a truth. 

Mill also thinks that exposure to all views, however erroneous or harebrained, will actually help people’s capacity to discern between truth and falsehood: whether an opinion is true or false, its being aired will, in either case, be useful for discovering and maintaining the truth — and as such should be welcome. To assume that because one thinks a view is false it should be suppressed, Mill argues, is to assume infallibility of one’s beliefs. Yet, he thinks, all of our beliefs must remain open to revision in possible light of further observation. As such, discussion must remain free – even on issues that we think are established with certainty. Mill argues that people are rarely in the position to see the “whole truth” for themselves, and the only way for it to emerge is by “the reconciling and combining of opposites.”

The point, for Mill, is that a liberal democratic society cannot afford to compromise on the principle of absolute freedom of speech because every which way lies the possible suppression of truth, inflated assumptions about one’s own possession of it, and the possibility of the fallibility of one’s views. 

But also, fundamental to Mill’s view is that the truth, or the ‘right’ opinions will ultimately win out; and that prevails upon a particular view of the public’s engagement with political life, commitment to rational and critical thinking, and capacity to detect and then ostracize false opinions. 

Mill’s liberalism puts a lot of faith in individuals as the best judges of whether a viewpoint is truthful and whether it deserves attention and assent. That Mill puts such faith in individuals is one of his philosophy’s merits, and also one of its pitfalls. It is arguable that recent political events in Australia, the USA, and Britain (not to mention many other countries) suggest this expectation may be too optimistic. It is also possible to point to other reasons for such developments which Mill may not have accounted for, such as dangerous forms of populism and demagoguery. 

Nevertheless, support for Mill’s argument for freedom of speech remains solid, and one of its consequences, or costs, is certainly the airing of opinions and views we may not agree with or may not like. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison makes a defense of the CPAC conference almost worthy of Mill in arguing that the way to defeat “unacceptable views is through debate.” 

Two further points are worth noting, as some evocations of freedom of speech as a defense for the airing of certain views don’t quite fit the picture of free speech Mill envisaged. 

First, Mill argues that offensive, incendiary or harmful opinions are not likely to fulfill the role of helping to bring truth to light, and thus do not deserve an equal hearing and do not constitute the kind of ‘debate’ that Morrison apparently wants to defend. 

The second point is that defending the principle of free speech is one thing, and it is generally a good thing, but it does not justify the content expressed. To defend offensive views through reference to the principle of free speech is disingenuous. A leader does not have to hide behind freedom of speech – but is perfectly free to defend the right while also disavowing the message.

Banned Books: Why the Restricted Section Is Where Learning Happens

photograph of caution tape around library book shelves

The books included on high school reading lists have not been discussed nearly as widely as the books not included on those very lists. For years teachers and parents have debated which texts students should be able to read, and what parameters should be utilized to determine whether a text is appropriate for a certain age group. However, this debate has moved far beyond whether books are appropriate and has begun to explore how this form of censorship affects students. An article published in The New York Times discusses the banned books of 2016 and how their banned status reveals important facets of the current American psyche. In fact, the author states that the most prominent themes associated with the banned books of 2016 related to gender, LGBTQIA+ issues, and religious diversity, all of which were themes heavily discussed during the election year.

James LaRue, the director of the Office for International Freedom, illustrates his experience receiving reports from concerned parents who worry about the appropriateness of certain texts in their children’s school libraries. However, LaRue does not agree with this method of parenting and states, “They are completely attached to the skull of the child and it goes all the way up through high school, just trying to preserve enough innocence, even though one year later they will be old enough to marry or serve in the military.” This point is echoed by author Mario Tamaki who expresses that deeming books as inappropriate marginalizes groups of individuals and can adversely hurt students who relate to their characters. He states, “We worry about what it means to define certain content, such as LGBTQ content, as being inappropriate for young readers, which implicitly defines readers who do relate to this content, who share these experiences, as not normal, when really they are part of the diversity of young people’s lives.”

Both of these individuals relay their concern for the influence of banning books on young readers and this point is reiterated by Common Sense Media a non-profit organization which seeks to provide education to families concerning the promotion of safe media for children. Despite their specialization in appropriate media for children they encourage parents with the article, “Why Your Kid Should Read Banned Books,” which outlines how the most highly regarded pieces of literature were at some point banned in mainstream society. However, their banned status says nothing of the important messages held between those pages. They make the statement, “At Common Sense Media, we think reading banned books offers families a chance to celebrate reading and promote open access to ideas, both which are key to raising a lifelong reader.” This organization’s support for encouraging  a conversation regarding censorship and the importance of standing up for principles of freedom and choice is a critical facet of this continued debate.

On the other side of this debate are concerns of not only violence, language, and substance abuse, but questions about how explicit stories of suicide and self harm may influence young readers who are depressed or suicidal themselves. This concern was heightened due to literature such as the popular young adult book Thirteen Reasons Why, which revolves around a teenage girl’s suicide. Author Jay Asher has been outspoken regarding why censorship of his book specifically is harmful to teenagers. In an interview he describes knowing that his book would be controversial: “I knew it was going to be pulled from libraries and contested at schools. But the thing about my book is that a lot of people stumble upon it, but when it’s not on shelves, people can’t do that. Libraries, to me, are safe spaces, and if young readers can’t explore the themes in my book there, where can they?” Asher acknowledges that it is nearly impossible to create a book which will be appropriate for all readers. He outlines his experience talking to a student who was overwhelmed by the contents of the story. The student decided to refrain from finishing the remainder of the book until she felt completely comfortable, effectively self-censoring.

These attitudes towards censorship reveal troubling social implications when considering which books are chosen for exemption from libraries, as an article published in The Atlantic describes. There is a clear separation themes of violence and fantasy in comparison to the highly-censored themes referencing race or sexuality, which reveals a larger issue of the struggles of minority authors getting children’s books published. According to The Atlantic, “this means the industry serves those who benefit from the status quo, which is why most scholars see children’s literature as a conservative force in American society.” The author reinforces the ideas discussed by adults concerned about the limited access to a broad range of ideas in children’s literature, and concludes by stating,“This shared sensibility is grounded in respect for young readers, which doesn’t mean providing them with unfettered access to everything on the library shelves. Instead it means that librarians, teachers, and parents curate children’s choices with the goals of inspiring rather than obscuring new ideas.”

The Dangers and Ethics of Social Media Censorship

"Alex Jones" by Sean P. Anderson licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Alex Jones was removed from Youtube and other major social networks for repeatedly violating the site’s community guidelines. Among other things, Youtube’s community guidelines prohibit nudity or sexual content, harmful or dangerous content, violent or graphic content, and most relevant to this situation, hateful content and harassment. While the site describes its products as “platforms for free expression,” it also states in the same policy section that it does not permit hate speech. How both can be true simultaneously is not entirely clear to me.

Continue reading “The Dangers and Ethics of Social Media Censorship”