Free speech is under threat, and the calls for censorship are coming from journalists. In the past few weeks, op-eds have been published in The Washington Post and The Walrus, as well as many other outlets, demanding that action be taken by legislators and corporations to restrain and control speech online. The writers of these op-eds are certain that the problems of violence and intolerance in our society can be solved by quieting those who espouse views that are anathema to a tolerant, equitable society. But there is something else at play here. They are not merely concerned for the public at large, but for the viability of their own outlets.
These op-eds that oppose free speech are chock full of good intentions—enough to pave a superhighway to hell. Indeed, it almost seems that the people running these establishment outlets want this more than anything. They pour out ink and pixels to evidence compassion for those who might feel hurt by words, fear that violent speech is a slippery slope to violent action, or that the population lacks enough discernment to parse speech for themselves, but none of these is a good reason for placing limits on our fundamental liberty.
From governments to establishment media outlets to corporations, the push for censorship is on. The op-ed in the Washington Post called for the U.S. to draft hate speech laws that would modify the First Amendment’s provision for free speech. While Canada has hate speech laws enshrined in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, The Walrus’ essay demands that those restrictions tighten. Media outlets and authors demanding more censorship, not less, foolishly deny that free speech is essential for journalistic integrity.
In the case of WaPo’s Richard Stengel, he notes that it’s his career in publishing and diplomacy that gives him the bonafides to tell Americans what’s best for them and that it’s time for limits to their own free speech rights. He found that free speech rights were an “outlier.” This is not surprising. What is surprising is that a man who should know first hand how precious free speech is, is dazzled by censorious foreign nations.
Stengel’s critique of the First Amendment is that “it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another. In an age when everyone has a megaphone, that seems like a design flaw.” But this is a feature, not a bug. We must not change our core values simply because others don’t share them.
A bigger problem is how to determine just what constitutes hate speech. Stengel defines it as “speech that attacks and insults people on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin and sexual orientation.” At first glance, that looks fine, until we realize that the definitions of all of those words and concepts are currently being interrogated and rewritten.
Meanwhile, North of the border in the more censorious landscape of Canada, Erica Lenti has penned an essay basically demanding that Canadian hate speech laws be strengthened. She advocates for the aims of the Canadian Digital Charter—an initiative to force social media companies to regulate and censor the content of their users. Lenti cites a Ryerson University professor who claims that “so much of the internet’s hate and violence problem can be blamed on a lack of oversight: the internet is the only global industry without regulation.” But we do not live in a global democracy, and if we did, Lenti would find that many of her values would be upended.
Why is it that writers—of all people—are advocating for external regulation of citizens’ expression? Are they simply motivated by the fear of losing their jobs? In a recent Quillette article on free speech, Jon Kay revealed to us the current lay of the land in establishment media:
As recently as the late 1990s, which is when I began my career in journalism, media organizations were able to insulate themselves against social panics and fads through the employment of a large corps of experienced, risk-averse, highly professional desk editors and middle managers. They supplied a sort of ideological ballast, so that a small number of activist journalists within the organization couldn’t exert veto power on controversial issues. Over the last 20 years, that entire stratum of professionals has been packaged out, and the editorial staffing in these organizations generally consists of just two groups: (a) a small corps of managing journalists in their 50s and 60s who are desperately trying to make it to retirement; and (b) a larger corps of poorly paid 20-somethings.
Perhaps the prospective retirees are just trying to hold on to their jobs as long as possible, but the poorly paid 20-somethings are probably naive enough to think that preventing people from expressing their opinions will lead to a “safer” environment where they will finally be able to thrive. The truth is, they are signing the death warrants for their own careers.
Their view that safety is more important than liberty will eat them as well as the rest of us. The things that matter most are not how we deal with our day to day concerns, but how we maintain a viable process to continue making decisions that ensure the greatest individual autonomy so that each person feels determinacy over their own lives. We are not our groups. We are much more.
For decades, legacy publications have had a monopoly on perceived veracity. The New York Times surety that it contained “all the news that was fit to print” went largely unquestioned. Now that anyone can access the digital megaphone, outlets fear that they will no longer have the final word. There is something of a power vacuum in media right now, and while that may be terrifying, it is actually a good thing. There are more people able to speak their minds, more ears that can hear them, more minds that can evaluate for themselves and think critically. There will be some rough spots, but the goodwill outweigh the difficulty. And even if it doesn’t, we have to uphold our principles, because without that we have nothing. The fact that we do not always live up to our highest expectations does not mean that they aren’t worth having.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Walrus, Vox, HuffPo, Slate… the list of outlets with editorials decrying free speech goes on. All of these “concerned” establishment media outlets don’t want speech restrictions for themselves—they want them for you. The scary news is that it seems to be working. The cries for silence are coming from those who already have a platform to speak. Interests of authoritarians are meeting those who want to keep their jobs, and those who feel cowed by an overindulgence of compassion. These writers would have us believe that there is nothing more frightening than a bigot with a microphone, but a populace that is not permitted to speak in full voice is substantially worse.