Donald Trump

Can Free Speech Flourish in the Age of Trump? Nick Gillespie, Flemming Rose at Cato, 12/6

The publisher of the "Mohammed cartoons" and editor of talk about threats to expression in politics, culture, and social media.


Todd Krainin, Reason

Note: If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, please come to this event about "free speech in the age of Trump" at the Cato Institute featuring me and Flemming Rose, publisher of the "Mohammad cartoons," on Tuesday, December 6 at 6 P.M. Scroll down for more details and RSVP information.

President-elect Donald Trump was pretty damn awful on the campaign trail when it came to free-speech issues. He said he wanted to "open up" libel laws so he would have an easier time going after newspapers that he claimed wrote "wrong" things about him. In a particularly disturbing 24-hour period last December, both he and Hillary Clinton not only called for Internet censorship as a means of combating radical Islam, they specifically gave the stink-eye to anyone talking about constitutional rights.

"You are going to hear all the familiar complaints: 'Freedom of speech,'" said Clinton. "Somebody will say, 'Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.' These are foolish people," said Donald Trump. More recently, of course, Trump has inveighed against flag burners, saying they should not only be put in jail for a year but stripped of their citizenship. Although his supporters routinely claim he doesn't mean what he says (don't take him literals, lulz!), he's about to become the goddamn president of the United States and words—like ideas and eating dessert every night—have consequences. So I share Robby Soave's concern that Trump, who introduced his presidential campaign by invoking the stultifying effects of political correctness, might well be worse on a range of free-speech issues than campus leftoids. (True to form of many people who invoke the horrors of PC, Trump then immediately proceeded to call Mexicans rapists, drug-and-disease carriers, etc.)

The irony of all this is that Trump has benefited mightily from the much-and-unfairly maligned Citizens United decision, which involved advertising a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton and dates back to a previous election cycle. That decision and others related to it have loosened the amount of government control over specifically political speech, weakening the ability of the political establishment to direct the flow of money and messages. Social media (can we just start calling it media already?) and othr technological innovations have helped blowhards everywhere to speak often and effectively. Trump's willingeness to literally and figuratively shut down speech and expression with which he disagrees is of a piece with a lot of his thinking: He's for whatever works for him but he's not necessarily willing to extend the same rules or policies to other people. Or, perhaps worse, he doesn't think in terms of broad principles and general rules. Like an aristocrat at a king's court, he likes a world in which special deals are constantly being made and remade based on proximity to power, money, and so on. From his first foray into Manhattan real estate, which involved a massive and historic tax-abatement from the city of New York to his unabashed love of eminent-domain abuse for the benefit of private developers, that's how he rolls.

Let's assume Trump is true to his campaign blurts when it comes to speech. Fact is, as president he can't really do much about libel laws, even as he can roll an always-already pliant press, and he's so clueless about the Internet that he suggested tapping Bill Gates, head of a company that struggled to shift into online space, as the man for the job of locking down cyberspace. Even if he tries to suppress speech and expression he doesn't like, the real question is whether he or anyone else will be effective. My short answer? There are many serious and important threats to free speech in America but by and large they emanate not from politics or policy per se but from cultural attitudes and social mores. In any society, individuals consciously and unconsciously subscribe to norms that limit acceptable behavior. Actual free expression, especially in the cultural sphere, is relatively recent—it didn't really come online until the 1960s. With the advent of the World Wide Web as a mass medium in the 1990s (and the successful challenge to the bipartisan Communications Decency Act, which would have essentially regulated the internet as broadcast television), we have been taking free speech for granted. Everywhere around us, there are challenges, including political correctness, internet-outrage mobs, federal prosecutors working to chill speech, and, well, politicians such as Donald Trump. These threats will always ultimately give way to free-er speech, thanks to technology and backlash, but why should we have to wait for a pendulum swing in a free society? The biggest threat to free speech, I think, is attitudinal. As Greg Lukianoff of FIRE has argued, we're no longer simply defending specific acts of free speech but the idea of free speech as a foundational value to a good society:

"Freedom of speech is really a sophisticated concept," says Lukianoff. "We are so used to it in America that we sometimes forget just how sophisticated it is. Meanwhile if you have a K-12 environment or a parental environment when people are explaining that free speech is just the argument the bully, the bigot, and the robber baron make—that is morally persuasive. And if no one has ever explained to you otherwise, of course you are going to think that free speech is the mean person's argument."

Next Tuesday evening (December 12), I'll join Flemming Rose, who literally put his life on the line by publishing editorial cartoons depicting Mohammad in a Danish newspaper, and the Cato Institute's Kat Murti to discuss "Free Speech in the Age of Trump." The event is free and open to the public (and will be livestreamed as well). I'll recount Reason's brush with federal subpoenas for commenter information (a classic chilling action) in the wake of a post I wrote about Ross Ulbricht's sentencing for operating Silk Road. But I'll be talking more about the need to revive interest in the Enlightenment and classical-liberal belief that free expression is not simply a byproduct of progress, equality before the law, innovation, human flourishing, and prosperity, but it's very foundation.

Details on the Cato event after the jump.

Today through Tuesday, December 6, Reason is running its annual webathon. We're asking readers of this site to make tax-deductible donations in dollars and Bitcoin to Reason Foundation, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit that publishes our award-winning journalism in video, audio, and print form. Different giving levels come with different levels of swag, which you can read about here.

#CatoDigital — Free Speech in the Age of Trump Featuring Flemming Rose, Recipient, The 2016 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty; adjunct scholar, Cato Institute; and author of The Tyranny of Silence; Nick Gillespie, Editor-in-Chief, Reason.comand Reason TV (@nickgillespie); moderated by Kat Murti, Senior Digital Outreach Manager, Cato Institute (@KatMurti).

The freedom of speech and the freedom of the press are at the core of a free society, yet we're increasingly discovering that, while in theory, almost everyone believes in freedom of speech, in practice, few are committed to the policies that truly safeguard it.

On the campaign trail, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump called for "closing down" parts of the Internet as an anti-ISIS measure. Trump further claimed that freedom of the press was detrimental to the fight against terrorism, and demanded that libel laws be expanded to allow individuals to sue media organizations that publish unflattering stories about them. Following the 2016 election results, pundits blamed social media for creating an increasingly polarized voting public; Facebook and Google announced an initiative to go after so-called "fake news sites," despite controversy over which sites, exactly, should qualify as fake; and more and more platforms have adopted increasingly restrictive policies regarding acceptable speech.

Nick Gillespie and Flemming Rose are among the many classical liberals who worry about the trajectory freedom of speech and freedom of the press seems to be taking. As editor in chief of Reason Magazine and Reason TV, Gillespie has faced Department of Justice subpoenas and a gag order from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. When Rose, then-culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, became the target of death threats and more after commissioning 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad to be published around an op-ed on Islam, free speech, and multiculturalism in 2006, he refused to retract his opinions, instead becoming a global activist for free speech—detailed in his book The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech, published by the Cato Institute.

On Tuesday, December 6, join the Cato Institute for a timely discussion of threats to freedom of expression, followed by a book signing and wine and cheese reception.

#CatoDigital is free of charge and a regular event series at the Cato Institute highlighting the intersection of tech, social media, and the ideas of liberty.

If you can't make it to the event, you can watch it live online at and join the conversation on Twitter using #CatoDigital. Follow @CatoEvents on Twitter to get future event updates, live streams, and videos from the Cato Institute.

NEXT: 4 Incredibly Dumb Ways the Government Is Spending Your Money to Punish People for Having Sex

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “Social media (can we just start calling it media already?) and othr technological innovations”

    We can call it media when it starts spelling words correctly.

    1. We can call it media when it starts spelling words correctly.

      So, never

  2. Flemming Rose is just a patsy for the Danish Secular Caliphate.


  3. Of course it will help free speech, you can say anything hateful you want against Trump and the MSM and SJW’s will applaud you. After all he is Hitler.

  4. “It’s 2016 and School Districts are Still Pulling To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn From Libraries”
    Yeah, it’s Trump’s fault!
    Seems Reason has a serious case of TDS; seek help.

  5. Also, “Reason” considering name change to “Drama Queen Monthly Digest”

  6. seemks like Reason is freaking out when he hasn’t done anything maybe reason should read its own headlines.

    Many people would like libel laws to be changed to make it easier to get the media to correct their own fake news.

  7. Presidents are trophies of the masses. Whatever epic superhero entity occupies the magical chosen space of this place-

    what remains is the perpetual resistance to that which evaporates the liquid nature of human expression. Active and distinct refusal to fall under the ravaging removal of free and open communication against impinging wringing forces that have existed since the shadows of Babylon.

  8. Nick,

    I’ve long respected your views and your contributions to libertarian journalism. That said, you’ve descended into proggie histrionics. It is not a good look.

    There are claims in this article that are written just as nebulously as any leftist MSM PoV pusher. Intended not to tell us the exact truth about what was actually said but bait-and-switch context so it can appear to mean something that wasn’t actually said. There is enough in what Trump says he wants to do that is bad that you can report on without having to make shit up too. There is also some good stuff in there too (if you read his hundred-days promises).

    I think (hope) you’ll eventually snap out of it and come back down to Earth with the rest of us. I think it would hurt us to lose you to the safety-pin social signalers, the collectivists, the identity politicians. Don’t give in to the dark side of the force. Remember that we were getting an incredibly shitty choice brought to us by the race-to-the-bottom duopoly either way. We were not going to be happy regardless of the outcome, so it’s business-as-usual in America for a libertarian. We have no idea if Trump will listen to libertarians, but we know for a fact that Hillary would not have. I wouldn’t call that any sort of “win” but it’s something, I guess.

  9. Well, if he keeps his promises (questionable), you’ll be more likely to get sued for criticizing notable world leaders, but less likely to be shot or stabbed or blown up for doing so. So, it’s hard to say whether you come out ahead or not.

    1. It’s not going to happen. Whether or not Trump even understands that defamation suits are handled in local courts under tort law and the federal govt. has no hand in them at all is up for debate. Regardless, he’d have to find a bunch of Republicans willing to stand up and give the lie to any states’-rights platform positions they’ve previously claimed. It would probably cost them a lot of seats just to try for something they wouldn’t achieve anyway and would likely be overturned down the road by the Supreme Court.

  10. Well, if he keeps his promises (questionable), you’ll be more likely to get sued for criticizing notable world leaders, but less likely to be shot or stabbed or blown up for doing so. So, it’s hard to say whether you come out ahead or not.

  11. He said he wanted to “open up” libel laws so he would have an easier time going after newspapers that he claimed wrote “wrong” things about him.

    Public figures are now in a uniquely disadvantaged position, having to meet a much higher standard of proof in libel cases. All Trump has proposed is that there be one standard of proof in libel cases. Hardly, IMO, the end of the 1A.

    Other than that, pretty much what Zero Sum said above. I can’t imagine, for example, where you get the idea that Trump “might well be worse on a range of free-speech issues than campus leftoids.” That’s the kind of hyperbole that erodes the entire article’s credibility. The gratuitous, in a 1A article, parenthetical (which misrepresents what he said) about Mexicans doesn’t help, especially since it comes off as a defense of PC, which is unquestionably hostile to free speech.

    C’mon, guys. A little quality control, please?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.