Free Speech

The New York Times Says 'Free Speech Is Killing Us.' But Violent Crime Is Lower Than Ever.

The 2018 Uniform Crime Report contained bad news for pessimists but good news for everybody else.


It has simply become too dangerous for the U.S. to cling to its norms of broad protection for all speech, no matter how hateful or extreme. Or so claims Andrew Marantz, a writer for The New Yorker and the author of a forthcoming book, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation.

In a New York Times op-ed headlined "Free Speech Is Killing Us," Marantz writes that "noxious speech is causing tangible harm." Citing the ideologically motivated killings in Charlottesville and El Paso, he warns that something must be done to prevent extremist speech from continuing to inspire violence.

Here are some of his ideas:

I am not calling for repealing the First Amendment, or even for banning speech I find offensive on private platforms. What I'm arguing against is paralysis. We can protect unpopular speech from government interference while also admitting that unchecked speech can expose us to real risks. And we can take steps to mitigate those risks.

The Constitution prevents the government from using sticks, but it says nothing about carrots.

Congress could fund, for example, a national campaign to promote news literacy, or it could invest heavily in library programming. It could build a robust public media in the mold of the BBC. It could rethink Section 230 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act—the rule that essentially allows Facebook and YouTube to get away with (glorification of) murder. If Congress wanted to get really ambitious, it could fund a rival to compete with Facebook or Google, the way the Postal Service competes with FedEx and U.P.S.

Or the private sector could pitch in on its own. Tomorrow, by fiat, Mark Zuckerberg could make Facebook slightly less profitable and enormously less immoral: He could hire thousands more content moderators and pay them fairly. Or he could replace Sheryl Sandberg with Susan Benesch, a human rights lawyer and an expert on how speech can lead to violence. Social media companies have shown how quickly they can act when under pressure. After every high-profile eruption of violence—Charlottesville, Christchurch and the like—tech companies have scrambled to ban inflammatory accounts, take down graphic videos, even rewrite their terms of service. Some of the most egregious actors, such as Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, have been permanently banned from all major platforms.

Most of these suggestions involve government regulation, government funding, or some other sort of government intervention. (Repealing Section 230 would singlehandedly destroy free speech on the internet as we know it.) So it's worth exploring whether the claim "free speech is killing us" really holds up.

It does not. Today the U.S. has greater protections for free speech and less violence. The Supreme Court has recognized increasingly fewer exceptions to the First Amendment over the last several decades. The result has not been an increase in violence: The violent crime rate has plummeted since the early 1990s.

Just last week, the FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report, covering the year 2018. The report was largely good news: "Both violent crime and property crime fell in 2018 from the previous year, according to the FBI's annual crime statistics released today." The report relies on data submitted voluntarily by local police agencies, and as such cannot be completely relied upon. But the general trend of declining violence is a well-established fact.

It's true that far-right white nationalists have posed an increasing threat in recent years, and that they are responsible for more ideologically motivated killings than other groups. But ideologically motivated killings comprise a very tiny portion of overall violence. We are talking about dozens of deaths each year. In the year 2018, there were vastly more homicides in the city of Chicago (1,400 killings) than known homicides by domestic extremists anywhere in the country (50 killings). And those 50 killings include not just actual hate crimes and terror attacks but completely non-ideological murders that happen to have been committed by extremists.

If the argument is that free speech protections must be curbed in order to stave off an epidemic of violence, then the argument should be heartily rejected. Domestically, our capacity for free speech has increased, but violence has not.