Reason Roundup

Studies Find Conservatives More Committed to Free Speech Online, Federalism

Plus: Government regulation of speech is on trial, biohackers flock to experimental charter city in Honduras, and more…


Conservatives are attached to the principles of federalism and free speech online even when these principles make it harder to achieve their policy aims, suggest two recent studies. Meanwhile, liberals are more open to giving power to whichever arm of government—federal, state, or local—they think will best achieve their aims. And while they're generally more open to the suppression of online speech that is inaccurate, they are more likely to shift positions based on whether this speech supports their side.

Conservative Attachment to Federalism Is "Genuine" 

The federalism study—"Ideology and Support for Federalism in Theory—And in Practice"—comes from Tufts University researchers and was published in Publius: The Journal of Federalism on February 3.

The authors looked at a variety of survey data to gauge liberal and conservative support for federalism—that is, the separation of power between federal, state, and local governments. They found that "conservatives are more likely to prefer a devolution of power to state and local jurisdictions, even if doing so might make it harder to achieve conservative policy aims," while liberals are "more likely to prioritize policy aims and to support whichever level of government seems most likely to achieve them."

For example, "among conservatives, the more religious are more supportive of state/local control over school prayer than the less religious"—which makes sense, because that's a position more conducive to allowing prayer in schools.

"But even among nonreligious conservatives, a significant majority—59 percent—support devolution on the issue. It is liberals whose response to the issue swings much more by religiosity. For liberals, one's position on the question of which level of government should control school prayer is heavily determined by their religiosity."

The authors also looked at examples involving COVID-19 policy, abortion, environmental regulations, and painkiller policy, reaching similar conclusions for each. For instance, on the environmental policy question—whether states like California should be set to adopt greenhouse gas standards and vehicle emission controls that are stricter than those set by the federal government—a majority of conservatives gave the pro-federalism response, despite the fact that conservatives don't tend to support stricter standards.

The COVID-19 questions, asked in early 2020, first asked whether state governments or the federal government should be responsible for handling pandemic policies. Seventy-six percent of liberals said the federal government should be, while only 43 percent of conservatives said likewise. The researchers then asked which level of government respondents trusted to handle pandemic policy. Even though President Donald Trump was still in power, only 49 percent of conservatives said they trusted the federal government to lead the way. Meanwhile, only 24 percent of liberals said they trusted the federal government's lead, "despite the fact that they overwhelmingly think that the federal government should do so," note the researchers.

Taken together, the various surveys suggest a significant values gap between conservatives and liberals on issues of federalism.

"Conservatives are more attached to the principle of federalism than liberals are" and this difference is "among the most dramatic in the whole panoply of ideas that differentiate those on the right and those on the left," the authors suggest. They argue that "conservative attachment to the devolution of power is genuine, and that it often survives (albeit with some erosion) when policy preferences are at stake," while liberals "tend to prefer more centralized policymaking" but are more likely to favor state control "when their policy preferences are best served by the states."

This argument stands in contrast with the (popular liberal) claim that conservative embrace of "state's rights" is limited to situations where this will benefit their preferred policies. It does, however, lend credence to a conservative claim that liberals will seize whatever means necessary to accomplish their goals—an argument that people on the national conservatism side often make, unfortunately, to bolster their case for using any means necessary to get what they want.

Republicans and Democrats Come Down Differently on Online Content Removal

The free speech study—"Partisan Conflict Over Content Moderation Is More Than Disagreement about Facts"—comes from Stanford University's Ruth E. Appel and Jennifer Pan and Margaret E. Roberts of the University of California, San Diego. For this study, the researchers theorized that differences in conservative and liberal preferences regarding online content moderation may stem from a "fact gap" (that is, "differences in what is perceived as misinformation"), a "value gap" (different preferences "about how much misinformation should be removed"), or party promotion incentives ("a desire to leave misinformation online that promotes one's own party by flattering it or denigrating the other party").

To test the latter two hypotheses, they showed study participants headlines that either flatter or denigrate their side—then explicitly told participants that these headlines were false. Participants were then asked whether a hypothetical social media company should remove the content, whether it would be "censorship" if so, and whether they would personally report the misleading content as "harmful."

The results offer substantial support for the value gap hypotheses. "When Republicans and Democrats agree that the content is false, Republicans and Democrats still hold vastly different preferences for whether that information should be removed," note the study authors in their paper. "Regardless of the partisan slant of the content, Democrats are more likely to support the removal of content, while Republicans are more likely to oppose removing content."

The authors also found "support for party promotion among Democrats who are slightly less likely to support removing misinformation that promotes their own side than misinformation that promotes Republicans, but no evidence of party promotion among Republicans." However, "the effect of party promotion on content moderation preferences of Democrats is overall quite small."

The study authors conclude that "partisan animosity does not seem to be the main driver of partisan disagreement over content moderation." Rather, these disagreements are driven primarily by "differences in values."

Open to Interpretation?

Taken together, these two studies "suggest that American conservatives are more committed than liberals to two important procedural norms — federalism and free speech — independent of whose partisan interests they serve," suggests Jason Willick at The Washington Post.

But Willick also notes that "both papers are open to multiple interpretations, of course, and it's possible these findings are better explained by subtle power dynamics than principles and values. For much of the 20th century, the process of open debate was seen as a means of persuading more people of liberal positions; today, it is more often seen as a threat to dominant liberal institutions."

So, on the social media "censorship" question, both factions could be acting in self-serving ways. It's just that progressives see online misinformation—or unfettered free speech generally—as more of a threat to their side, while conservatives see it by and large as more of a benefit. Both would have incentives to promote less or more free speech online even if the particular circumstances in any given case are not helpful to their side.

That the speech study specifically looked at social media content moderation is notable, since conservatives perceive (though evidence supporting it is mixed) social media "censorship" to be biased against them. For this reason, conservatives have rallied around calls for less social media moderation, even as many embrace speech restrictions in other realms (like schools, libraries, etc.).

But in any event, the speech study cuts against the idea—popular among Democrats—that conservatives only want free speech on social media so that they can spread misinformation that benefits their side.

The federalism study seems like a more clear-cut case of genuine attachment to a principal on the part of conservatives, though the same dynamic noted above (support even in cases where federalism doesn't benefit them bolstered by a general belief that it will) could be at play.

In general, these studies offer a flattering view of conservatives' principles—and one that makes recent attempts to steer the movement away from free speech, federalism, and other tenets of limited government all the more sad.  The new right—call them national conservatives or populists or integralists or whatever—explicitly rejects the idea that it shouldn't use state power to crush enemies and institute a conservative vision of the common good.


The Supreme Court's big Section 230 case is coming up next week. And it brings up an important question: Do people still overwhelmingly believe "that governmental regulation of content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free range of ideas than encourage it"? Law professor Jeff Kosseff, author of The 26 Words That Created the Internet, worries that Americans do not. A thread:


"FDA-approved gene therapy treatments remain rare, but those breaking through come with eye-watering price tags, in part because of the cost and complexity involved in their creation," notes the MIT Technology Review. Part of this cost and complexity, of course, comes from all the hoop-jumping required by the Food and Drug Administration:

Over the past few years, a parade of newly released gene therapies have consecutively claimed the title of most expensive drug in the world; the current honor goes to the $3.5 million hemophilia B treatment Hemgenix, launched in November 2022. These therapies are produced by the likes of Novartis and CSL Behring, pharma giants that have amassed years' worth of clinical trial data and followed rigorous testing procedures under the exacting gaze of the US Food and Drug Administration.

Some are seeking a different route. For instance, biotech startup Minicircle is conducting a clinical trial in Próspera, Honduras—a charter city with a private government—and paying subjects in cryptocurrency. "The startup, which is registered in Delaware, aims to fuse elements of the traditional drug testing path with the ethos of 'biohackers'—medical mavericks who proudly dabble in self-experimentation and have long hailed the promise of DIY gene therapies," notes the Review:

The eccentricities don't end there. Minicircle's trials are going ahead in Próspera, an aspiring libertarian paradise born from controversial legislation that has allowed international businesses to carve off bits of Honduras and establish their own micronations. It's a radical experiment that is allowing a private company to take on the role of the state. While much attention has been paid to the charter city's use of Bitcoin as legal tender, the partnership with Minicircle is an important milestone toward another goal—becoming a hotbed of medical innovation and a future hub of medical tourism.


• "The mother of Anthony 'Tony' Mitchell, a Walker County man who died in police custody in January, has filed a federal lawsuit against multiple jail officials, including Sheriff Nick Smith, alleging that authorities deprived the man of his constitutional rights by leaving him in the jail's walk-in freezer 'or similar frigid environment' for hours," reports Alabama's CBS 42.

• Are tiny homes a solution to the housing crisis? The New York Times' Julie Lasky goes to the International Builders' Show to explore this question.

• "Across almost every demographic group, American adults old and young, single and coupled, rich and poor are having less sex than they have had at any point in at least the past three decades," writes Magdalene J. Taylor in an op-ed urging Americans to have more sex.

• The Lincoln Network asks how interest groups might use artificial intelligence to try and influence Congress: