Free Speech. What’s That?
Before he became a Christian and turned away from his hateful ideology, an English friend of mine was once the editor of a racist publication in Britain. He was arrested and locked up. That’s because in Britain they have laws against “publishing material that is likely to cause religious or racial hatred.” Freedom of speech in Britain is not so passionately defended as it is in the United States.
With Donald Trump’s banishment from Twitter and other social media platforms, the debate about freedom of speech in America is more passionate than ever before. Certainly one of the crucial power centers in any country is the control of information. The powerful people in any country must control the flow of information. Propaganda is power.
America’s laws protecting freedom of speech and freedom to assemble were designed to safeguard the individual liberty of all citizens. Freedom of speech and freedom to assemble are the fear of all tyrants. If the people can speak freely and gather freely (so the argument goes) and if they are armed … they will be able to resist any tyranny.
But does freedom of speech mean every citizen can say whatever they want to whomever they want whenever they want? What if a genuine dictator were to arise who threatened to sweep away our freedoms and replace our republic with his own totalitarian regime? Should a potential dictator be allowed freedom of speech? Should his followers be allowed freedom of assembly?
How far does freedom of speech extend? The pornographers claim freedom of expression for their industry. Should they be allowed total freedom of expression and publication? Should a person who is clearly deranged and follows wild and crazy conspiracy theories be permitted to disseminate their views? Does freedom of speech include incitement of violence? Who defines “incitement of violence”?
The advocates of free speech would argue, “Let people decide. They don’t have to listen to crazy people. They have the freedom to not watch porn. They are grown ups. They should be able to turn away from a dictator who wants to take over.”
That’s all well and good, but people don’t actually turn off the porn. They buy more of it. They actually like insane conspiracy theories. It gives them a thrill to believe in wacky worldview and history reminds us that huge numbers of people are more than willing to follow a dictator if he promises them the world.
So should there be a common sense level of control? If so, who should the censors be? What would be their standards? Who would make those decisions and how would they be enforced? What’s to stop a tyrannical regime from grabbing control and making themselves the censors and using their police powers to stop lawful assemblies? They may say they are stopping a dictator, but what if they themselves are the dictators?
Censorship in the Past
In fact, America has never had total freedom of speech. There has always been a level of control that everyone took for granted. There was a board of film censors, for example, that gave ratings to films according to the amount of sex and violence they contained. From 1934-1968 The Hays Code was a form of moral self censorship in Hollywood that was heavily influenced by Catholics.
Furthermore, there was always a form of censorship that was both practical and economical. Because of the costs of production, very few people had access to mass communication. It was costly to publish a book, or write, print and distribute a daily paper, publish magazines or produce a film, radio or television show. The salaries, hardware, overheads and property costs meant only the big players could create, distribute and broadcast content.
This served as a practical form of censorship and control. The people who acted as informal censors and communication controllers were the publishers, media owners and broadcasters. The people of power were the movie makers, the television executives, the book, magazine and newspaper writers, editors and commissioning editors. The power to publish, the power of propaganda was in the hands of the establishment, and because publishing and broadcasting was so expensive it was elitist.
As a result America, like most countries, had a media that was controlled by the educated and wealthy elite. It operated on certain assumptions and contributed calmly to the liberal status quo.
Market forces also helped with censorship. An article, book, film or TV show had to perform well with the audience. If they didn’t buy it, the publication, show or movie soon went under. As long as the public demanded decency, a kind of natural censorship by market forces rumbled along.
The Internet Age
The recent arguments over freedom of speech are high octane because the technology has changed radically and we are all still trying to get our heads around it.
Now every Tom, Dick or Harry with a laptop can produce a daily newspaper column called a blog, their own TV show (on YouTube) their own radio show (called a podcast) and their own quotable quote (Twitter). Furthermore, they can get their message out to a global audience instantly. It’s not only cheap to produce, it is virtually free to publish worldwide in a moment.
Talk about freedom of speech! The world has never seen anything like it. Gutenberg — who invented moveable type in the fifteenth century (and so revolutionized the world of communication) wouldn’t believe it. This level of freedom of speech is totally unprecedented in world history, and no wonder the powers that be are alarmed by it.
History will look back at Donald Trump’s presidency and realize that it was this new freedom of communication that won him the White House. He tweeted his way to power. He maintained contact with tens of millions of followers in ways never before imagined, and he swept the nation away in his Twitter tide.
The problem is, the global establishment was not happy with such power in the hands (and cell phone) of one man. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Donald Trump’s real crime was upsetting the channels of communication and thus the channels of power.
Revolutions always involve communications. Who controls the information controls the people. Donald Trump’s amazing outsider assault on the corridors of power in Washington was bound to erupt in the dubious events of the 2020 election. There was bound to be a kickback by the established powers against this maverick who occupied “their” presidency.
Now we will see the boundaries of American freedom of speech. Do we really want every single person to have complete and total freedom of speech? Should private companies like Facebook and Twitter not only have the power of censorship, but also have exemption from lawsuits? If they have so much power who has ultimate control over them? If no one has control over them, who really has control of the reins of power?
The Catholic Church promotes a clear teaching about freedom. Human freedom is always the freedom to do the right thing. Freedom of speech is always the freedom to speak “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” The fact that this oath ends with “so help me God.” Is a reminder that all should use their freedom of speech with these parameters in mind, and all who censor speech must do so with the same eye to balanced, moral and fair truth because God is watching.
No matter who does it, to use freedom of speech to spread lies, fake news, conspiracy theories, gossip and misinformation will will always lead to chaos and anarchy. And after chaos and anarchy, totalitarian government will be both demanded and welcomed in order to establish security and peace.
Dwight Longenecker’s new book Beheading Hydra: A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age will be published in the spring.