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J. Peder Zane Opinion: Censorship by Another Name is Still Dangerous

The progressive war on free expression hit a speed bump on July 4 when a federal judge prevented the Biden administration from communicating with social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook in its effort to police online content it deems misinformation.

In a preliminary ruling regarding a case brought by Republican attorneys general from Missouri and Louisiana, U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty wrote, “If the allegations made by Plaintiffs are true, the present case arguably involves the most massive attack against free speech in United States’ history.”

One might expect the mainstream media, whose very lifeblood is the First Amendment, to celebrate this decision – especially since much of the information the government sought to muzzle regarded highly-contested facts surrounded the efficacy of masks and vaccines and other issues related to COVID-19. Instead, it brought out the knives. The New York Times described the decision as a “ruling that could curtail efforts to combat false and misleading narratives about the coronavirus pandemic and other issues.” The Washington Post told its readers, “The Donald Trump-appointed judge’s move could undo years of efforts to enhance coordination between the government and social media companies.”

Over at CNN, chief White House correspondent Phil Mattingly stated, “[T]he Biden administration would regularly reach out to Twitter and Facebook and other companies in kind of the early stages of their COVID response and say, this person is spreading lies about vaccines, this account is spreading misinformation that is inhibiting not just our efforts, the administration’s efforts to address COVID but also public health, do something about it. And often, I think more often than not, the companies would respond and say, okay. And there are emails that came out during the course of this case that that was something that I think when it was explained to me at the time, I thought, alright, that makes sense, that’s probably what we should do on public health grounds.”

These responses are not just surprising, they are appalling – don’t CNN, the Post and Times understand that they could be next? While the government might properly alert social media companies about online criminal activities including child pornography and sex trafficking, using its power and influence to “suggest” they take down content they disagree with is beyond the pale. It is tantamount to declaring that any views the authorities don’t like is yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Let’s be clear: The administration’s determination to clamp down on what it considers “misinformation,” “disinformation,” and “hate speech” is censorship. It is part of the left’s larger effort to silence its enemies, which has been an ongoing problem at universities, corporations, and online platforms during the past decade. (Yes, the right does this too, but not with such ferocity or force.) The fact that major media outlets seem onboard with the effort is another indication of how far America has gone off its rails.

Ironically, censorship is gaining traction because of the explosion of free speech ignited by the rise of social media. Twitter and Facebook gave everybody a printing press. It is impossible to overstate the historic importance of this development. Unfortunately, this has occurred, perhaps not coincidently, at a time when our nation is riven by partisan division, as politics has become a main source of personal identity for many citizens. Policy differences are seen as personal attacks, adding deep emotional and psychological layers to our reaction to views we disagree with. Shut Up – with all its variants – seems the quickest way to end the discomfort. When government does the same, however, it runs afoul of the First Amendment.

Censorship is also thriving because many Americans do not know and understand our national history, which progressives have sought to delegitimize by transforming it into a parade of horribles. If the past has nothing to positive to teach us, then we only have the left’s vision of the future. As a result, we are cheating ourselves of the wisdom of our forebears, who came up with a brilliant solution to the problem bedeviling speech.

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The most under-appreciated achievement of America’s founding fathers was their recognition that while some truths may be self-evident, most are hard to see – and subject to change. Rejecting the long tradition in which authorities insisted they knew best, they crafted the Bill of Rights, which created a robust marketplace of ideas by protecting citizens from government’s censorious impulses.

It is impossible to overstate how radical this notion was. Until then, it was customary to imprison “enemies of the state.” The Tower of London was rarely vacant. America – albeit with many hiccups along the way – gave free rein to anyone who wished to criticize the nation and its leaders. It’s why dissent (and “misinformation” and hate speech) are as American as apple pie and tandoori chicken.

This extraordinary scheme didn’t just depend on government restraint; it hinged on the willingness of citizens to tolerate diverse points of view. This was no small gamble. At root, communities are forged by people who coalesce because they have common values and assumptions – by folks who are singing from the same hymnal. Those who defy the group are naturally, instinctively, seen as threats.

The First Amendment upended this compact of conformity by asking us to live peaceably alongside those whose ideas don’t just seem wrong but dangerous. We might recoil at communists who call for the overthrow of the government and neo-Nazis who spout hatred, but we accepted the proposition that silencing them posed an even greater threat to the Republic. The glue that held our country together was an abiding faith in diversity, that the benefits of freedom far outweighed the costs.

While we often think of the First Amendment in terms of the outliers it protects, its deeper purpose is to empower everyone to think for themselves. We protect Nazis so that decent people feel free to question everything from mask mandates to the efficacy of vaccines.

This deeply democratic system generates the new ideas that fuel progress – not just from a small coterie of experts, but talented people wherever they may be. The American dream is realized thanks to the freedom to dream, to challenge existing ways of being and doing. If you have a good idea, it may take flight. If your idea is all wet, it will sink. The Founders understood that a robust marketplace of ideas and a free-market economy were far better arbiters of quality than dictates from on high. They also knew their history: Governments with the authority to censor bad ideas almost certainly stifle good ones they don’t like.

The United States has never been a free speech paradise. Countenancing ideas we don’t like is hard. It takes effort. We have fallen short in the past – as we do today. As with so many other aspects of the American experiment, we must dedicate ourselves to aligning our reality with our ideals. But to do that we must know and understand what those shining ideas are and why they must endure.

J. Peder Zane is a RealClearInvestigations editor and columnist. He previously worked as a book review editor and book columnist for the News & Observer (Raleigh), where his writing won several national honors. Zane has also worked at the New York Times and taught writing at Duke University and Saint Augustine’s University. This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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