It has become sadly common to read of relentless attacks on free speech in the Washington Post and other newspapers. The anti-free speech movement has been embraced by Democratic leaders including President Joe Biden, as well as academics who now argue that “China was right” on censorship. However, a Time magazine column by national correspondent Charlotte Alter was still shocking at how mainstream anti-free speech views have become. Alter denounces freedom of expression as a white man’s “obsession”.
What is most striking about the column is Alter’s apparent confusion as to why someone like Musk would even care about the free speech of others. She suggests that Musk is actually immoral to spend money restoring free speech rather than social welfare or justice issues.
She suggests that supporting free speech is a disgusting extravagance like buying Fabergé eggs.
“Why does Musk care so much about this? Why would a guy who’s pushed the boundaries of electric vehicle manufacturing and reached the limits of commercial spaceflight care about who gets to say what on Twitter?”
The answer, unsurprisingly, is about race and privilege. Alter cites Jason Goldman, who was one of the first to shape Twitter’s censorship policies before joining the Obama administration. Goldman said, “Free speech has become an obsession for predominantly white male members of the tech elite” who “would rather go back to how things were.”
Alter also quotes Stanford University communications professor Fred Turner, who explains that free speech is just a “dominant obsession among the most elite… [and] seems to be much more of an obsession among men.
In arguing for censorship, Alter makes heavy use of historical revisionism, claiming that
“’Free speech’ in the 21st century means something very different from what it had in the 18th century, when the Founders enshrined it in the Constitution. The right to say what you want without being imprisoned is not the same as the right to spread disinformation to millions of people on a corporate platform. This nuance seems to be lost on some techno-wizards who see any restriction as the enemy of innovation.
It is also lost for me.
Censorship has always been based on the idea that the underlying speech was false or harmful. Calling it “misinformation” doesn’t materially change the motivation or impact. What Alter calls a “Tech Bro obsession” was the Framers obsession.
Alter confuses free speech values with First Amendment justification. For years, anti-free speech figures have dismissed free speech objections to social media censorship by pointing out that the First Amendment only applies to government, not private companies. The distinction has always been a dishonest effort to evade the implications of speech controls, whether implemented by government or corporations.
The First Amendment has never been the exclusive definition of free speech. Freedom of expression is considered by many of us to be a human right; the first amendment only deals with one source to limit it. Freedom of expression can be undermined by private companies as well as government agencies. This threat is even greater when politicians openly use corporations to achieve indirectly what they cannot achieve directly.
Key free speech figures practiced what they preached in defiance of friend and foe alike. After playing a critical role in our independence, Thomas Paine has only angered Framers with his remarks, including John Adams, who called him “a villainous mass”.
Still, free speech was a defining value for editors (despite Adams’ later attacks on the right). It was seen as the very growth plate of democracy. As Benjamin Franklin said in a letter of July 9, 1722: “Without freedom of thought there can be no wisdom; and nothing like public freedom, without freedom of expression.
The same anti-free speech voices were heard at the time when citizens had to fear free speech. It was seen as a siren’s call for tyranny. Franklin said:
“In those wretched countries where a man cannot call his language his own, he can hardly call anything his own. Whoever wants to overthrow the freedom of a nation must begin by subjugating the freedom of speech; a terrible thing for treacherous publick.
Yet Alter assures readers that this is simply due to a lack of knowledge of Musk and a misunderstanding of why censorship is a natural and good thing:
“Tech titans often have a different understanding of speech than the rest of the world, as most were trained as engineers, not writers or readers, and a lack of education in humanities might make them less sensitive to the social and political nuances of discourse.”
As Time, The Washington Post, The New York Times and other media align themselves with the anti-free speech movement, it is more important than ever that citizens fight for this essential right. There is nothing nuanced either in this movement or in its implications for this country.