Tag Archives: free speech

Sedition and Free Speech

Conservatives are claiming that companies like Amazon and Twitter are violating their First Amendment rights. They’re wrong, but their situation points to a deeper problem in our public discourse.


The First Amendment says that the government can’t punish you for speaking your mind. It doesn’t say that anyone in the private sector has to maintain their relationships with you if you say something they don’t want to be associated with. I find this analogy useful: Free speech is like a bar you can drink at. But no one has to sit next to you, listen to what you say, or join in when you start singing.

In particular, a number of US corporations have decided that their brands would be damaged by association with the invasion of the US Capitol and the attempt to maintain Trump in office by force.

And so Josh Hawley, the Fascist senator from Missouri (F-MO), lost his book contract with Simon & Schuster after he raised his fist in support of the violent mob that was about to invade his workplace. His Twitter bio describes him as a “constitutional lawyer”, so he must understand that what he tweets here to “the woke mob at @SimonSchuster” — a metaphoric mob as opposed to the literal mob Hawley encouraged — is nonsense:

This could not be more Orwellian. Simon & Schuster is canceling my contract because I was representing my constituents, leading a debate on the Senate floor on voter integrity, which they have now decided to redefine as sedition. Let me be clear, this is not just a contract dispute. It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment. Only approved speech can now be published. This is the Left looking to cancel everyone they don’t approve of. I will fight this cancel culture with everything I have. We’ll see you in court.

The libertarian site Reason points out what should be obvious:

Hawley has no right to publish a book with Simon & Schuster, using Simon & Schuster’s resources, without Simon & Schuster’s consent. … In light of this, there is nothing Orwellian about any part of this episode. We all have a right to refuse to associate with those who are repugnant to us, and none of us have a right to associate with those who don’t want to associate with us.

In a similar but more significant case, Twitter decided it didn’t like seeing its platform used to foment insurrection against the United States, and so it removed Donald Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”.

Trump tried to get his tweets out through other accounts, which Twitter shut down in whack-a-mole fashion. “If it is clear that another account is being used for the purposes of evading a ban, it is also subject to suspension.”

After Facebook decided that some conservative users were consistently violating its “community standards” (which I also occasionally run afoul of, for reasons that escape me), many of them emigrated to Parler, a social media platform more accepting of racism and incitement of violence. Much of the planning for the Capitol riot apparently happened over Parler, though much of the really violent stuff was discussed on sites like TheDonald.win, where people are still calling for Trump to declare martial law and stay in power by force. In a visit of less than a minute, I noticed this:

State legislatures failed, governors failed, secretary of states failed, judges failed, congress failed and the highest court in the land failed. If there was ever a time to use the Insurrection Act right now would be arguably the reason why we have it.

Again, major corporations don’t like being associated with fascist insurrection. So Google and Apple removed the Parler app from their app stores, making it hard for new users to join. But the big blow came when Amazon Web Services (AWS) decided to stop hosting Parler’s site.

AWS provides technology and services to customers across the political spectrum, and we continue to respect Parler’s right to determine for itself what content it will allow on its site. However, we cannot provide services to a customer that is unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others. Because Parler cannot comply with our terms of service and poses a very real risk to public safety, we plan to suspend Parler’s account.

As a result, Parler CEO John Matze estimates that the site could be offline for about a week, while it rebuilds its infrastructure. Like Hawley, he protests against censorship.

Concentration, not censorship. There actually is an issue here, but has nothing to do with the First Amendment. It’s antitrust and monopoly, a topic that fits badly inside a conservative worldview that makes a fetish of the “free” market.

The national discourse now depends on a fairly small number of corporations like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. If you look beyond the internet and social media, the number doesn’t get much bigger: Disney, Time-Warner, AT&T, Comcast, ViacomCBS, and a few others control the major TV networks and most of the major magazines. Local newspapers and TV stations have been gobbled up by chains like Gannett and Sinclair, and few newspapers beyond The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have national scope or a national readership.

The problem isn’t “censorship” or “media bias” however you interpret those terms. And it’s not targeted at conservatives, in spite of all their whining and howling. (I believe that if Biden ends his term by attempting a violent coup, Twitter will probably shut him off as well.) The problem is that we have allowed our media infrastructure to develop choke points, which are controlled by corporations or individuals whose interests are not necessarily the public interest, and whose decisions are beyond public appeal.

That’s a complex problem that can’t be solved by a lawsuit or a new interpretation of the First Amendment. It’s going to require some real thought and some wise public policy.

Democracy and free speech. The essence of the problem is that the relationship between democracy and free speech has changed in recent years. Rather than Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare of too little speech, where no one is in a position to contest the government’s narrative, we now arguably face too much speech. “The Truth is Out There” according to the poster in Fox Mulder’s office, but how will you find it, or recognize it when you do? Disinformation has replaced ignorance as the primary threat to democratic public discourse. Truth is not kept secret so much as buried under mountains of bullshit.

Thomas Edsall discusses the problems (but offers little in the way of solutions) in “Have Trump’s Lies Wrecked Free Speech?” My own view, which still needs a lot of work to flesh out, is that we are experiencing a market failure in the marketplace of ideas. (I believe this novel application of the term “market failure” comes from Richard Hasen, whose book Cheap Speech should be worth reading when it comes out.)

The original theory of free speech and its role in a democracy is that Truth eventually wins out in the marketplace of ideas, if it is allowed to compete. That seems to be in doubt now.

But the marketplace of ideas, like all markets, is a human construction, not something that occurs naturally. Markets work or don’t work depending on how they’re set up. The marketplace of ideas, as currently constituted, is not working. Edsall quotes Lawrence Lessig:

There’s a very particular reason why this more recent change in technology has become so particularly destructive: it is not just the technology, but also the changes in the business model of media that those changes have inspired. The essence is that the business model of advertising added to the editor-free world of the internet, means that it pays for them to make us crazy. Think about the comparison to the processed food industry: they, like the internet platforms, have a business that exploits a human weakness, they profit the more they exploit, the more they exploit, the sicker we are.

It’s still possible to imagine a world where Truth rises to the top and disinformation sinks out of sight — maybe by some crowdsourced method rather than by the decision of either a government bureaucrat or an officer of some corporate monopoly. It’s possible to imagine a world where people are encouraged to feed their minds a healthy diet of information with some relationship to facts and logic, rather than violence-inducing conspiracy theories. But such a model will need to be constructed, promoted, and consciously chosen. Simply wishing we had one will not be enough.