A government office to promote disinformation, but proposed to counter disinformation, was the invention of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1923. Stalin knew suppression. Apparently, so does the Biden White House, which just created a “disinformation board” to police our speech.
Terrifying is the right word for this turn. Freedoms – including the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech – can be lost incrementally or in a fell swoop. This turn threatens core rights.
How did this happen? Why is it happening? How can it be stopped?
In short, incremental attacks on free speech – advanced by leftists or anti-free speech advocates in social media and universities – have suddenly been abetted by Congress and the White House.
The timing is revealing. After years of social media glibly canceling, blacklisting, suspending, shutting down, and maligning free speech by political opponents, a free-market entrepreneur, Elon Musk, bought Twitter – to restore free speech. The left exploded.
Pause. What is free speech, anyway? Is it pretty, pleasant, socially quieting, conformist, polite to minorities, cultural disruptors, moral detractors, political opponents, or any slice of the citizenry? Is free speech gentle, inoffensive, accurate, true, civil, safe, or respectful? Must it be free of error, insult, and ignominy? No, no, no. Free speech is – and always has been – free.
So, while most of America breathed relief at the restoration of a constitutional right to speak freely after Musk’s purchase, leftists in and out of government panicked. They lost their heads, declaring an end to “woke” truth and insisting free speech is intolerable.
Within hours, Democrats in Congress demanded Musk be collared, brought before oversight hearings, intimidated. The idea is to make him explain how he can abandon leftist norms in social media.
Within two days, the Biden White House concocted their “Misinformation Board,” ominously placing it at the Department of Homeland Security. Strangely reminiscent of the Stalinist invention of like name, the board will police the truth, monitoring, chilling, deterring, intimidating, and threatening free speech.
To be clear, I witnessed this kind of thing firsthand in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1980s when traveling to those locations from Oxford to meet with dissidents. It happens.
This entire concept – and the boldness with which this White House is defending such a patently anti-free speech, anti-democratic, anti-constitutional institution – sends shivers up the spine.
On April 30, 1789 – 233 years ago this week – George Washington became our first president. No president has ever suggested such an openly anti-speech, anti-constitutional plan. The closest was John Adams’s “Sedition Act” of 1798, which Federalists passed to outlaw Republican criticism. The law was struck down, utterly unconstitutional.
Even in wartime, the First Amendment breathes and permits criticism, although not violence. The founding principle behind free speech is that truth is found with more speech, not less.
All attempts to criminalize speech have been resisted. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court made clear “seditious speech” is protected, if it does not represent an “imminent” threat.
The point is simple. Unlike in the former Soviet Union or Communist China, freedom of speech in America is real. It is palpable and invites disagreements over accuracy and truth. It gets dirty, into the gutter, is insulting, personal, political, offensive, and – in this way – is often persuasive.
That is why the idea of the US Government pulling “cancel culture” in-house, patrolling for truth and accuracy, is deeply odious, repulsive, and ugly. Government has no place policing speech.
So, faced with this ugly turn, what can be done? A lot.
First, Congress should “redline” (block funding) for the office and any part of Homeland Security, Justice, or White House policing speech. Any member of Congress who is not willing to defend free speech should be excoriated and voted out for failure to uphold the Constitution.
Second, citizens and groups can sue the government. While social media companies argued they had First Amendment rights to step on others’ free speech rights, the government cannot suppress speech without violating a citizen’s rights, except in narrow areas. Even the liberal American Civil Liberties Union sues to protect free speech.
No more powerful statement of this truth exists than Justice Benjamin Cardozo in Palko v. Connecticut (1937). “Freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” Government cannot suppress speech.
Third, every American with an opinion should consider the urgency of this moment. A government allowed to suppress opponents today will silence you tomorrow. That is how concentrated power works and always has.
So, what does this turn mean? It is a bold Soviet tactic, an ugly attempt to shut down a core right held by all Americans. It cannot stand. Policing speech has no place in America.
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