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.
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#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 www.cato.org/live 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.