Proposals that the federal government regulate social media companies to promote content neutrality are dangerous and must be rejected. To protect freedom of speech in accord with the First Amendment, the government must continue to protect the right of social media companies to say—or not say—whatever they want, within broad limits imposed by common law. This right may be jeopardized by several recent proposals developed in the wake of January 6. As the Wall Street Journal suggests, these proposals could lay the foundation for an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth”—a new bureaucracy which could, as in 1984, someday have the ultimate say in what we can not see, read, and believe.
Readers of this column know that I am on record as believing that to take away First Amendment free speech rights for some is to endanger those rights for all, and that once government begins to infringe on those rights, it establishes precedents for further infringements. To do my small part in preserving the first amendment I have—in city council sessions, in political forums, and as an opinion writer—defended the rights of Colin Kaepernick, the Ku Klux Klan, and Tarleton students wanting to produce a play depicting a gay Jesus. Their freedom to advance their views is more important than their actual views, all of which I personally oppose.
I’ve also always thought the best way to counter speech we don’t like is with speech we do like. To that end, when the Ku Klux Klan came to town, my late wife and I worked with the leader of the then-active Stephenville NAACP to produce a counter protest. By the same token, social media platforms can sponsor competing and conflicting views—if they choose. But their freedom to choose what they say must remain more important than what they actually do say, or suppress, on their own.
So what proposals do I find so offensive and dangerous? Currently, two:
First, New York University’s Center for Business and Human Rights is advocating the creation of a “Digital Regulatory Agency” to supervise social media companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter in the development and enforcement of new rules against the spread of “disinformation.” A major example of “disinformation” is the assertion that social media companies are biased against conservatives. Indeed, such an accusation, according to the NYU report as quoted in the Wall Street Journal, “appeals to the same conspiratorial mindset that has fostered the QAnon movement.” In other words, charges of bias must be suppressed. See https://www.wsj.com/articles/liberalisms-ministry-of-truth-11612395404.
Second, a columnist for the New York Times likewise reports that “Several experts I spoke with recommended that the Biden administration put together a cross-agency task force to tackle disinformation and domestic extremism, which would be led by something like a ‘reality czar.’” Moreover, “This task force could also meet regularly with tech platforms, and push for structural changes that could help those companies tackle their own extremism and misinformation problems. (For example, it could formulate ‘safe harbor’ exemptions that would allow platforms to share data about QAnon and other conspiracy theory communities with researchers and government agencies without running afoul of privacy laws.) And it could become the tip of the spear for the federal government’s response to the reality crisis.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/technology/biden-reality-crisis-misinformation.html.
These proposals endanger free speech by inviting greater government control over social media content. Right now, Big Tech firms and other private entities have—and should have–the freedom to speak or be silent on whatever topics they choose. That’s why I defended Twitter’s decision to ban President Trump, as well as publisher Simon and Schuster’s refusal to publish Senator Hawley’s book on the dangers of Big Tech. Freedom of speech is too precious to surrender control of social media content to the government
This is not to say that government has no legitimate role to play. Of course, the government itself is perfectly free to use its vast public relations system to combat whatever ideas are expressed on social media platforms or anywhere else. But to the extent that the government chooses to involve itself directly with Big Tech, it should do so only to preserve, protect, and defend the rights of social media platforms to say what they want, and to ensure that existing social media companies exert no power to prevent new companies from entering the market.
And for those of you who think that allowing the expression of conservative or more extreme views endangers the country and should therefore be suppressed by government-coordinated action, consider this: The same power that government might bring to bear against those on the right today could someday be used to regulate you as well. The best way to protect anyone’s rights is to protect the rights of all.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.