When you ate your meals in a high chair, chances are your mother or someone else spoon-fed you for a time. That was because you were incapable of discerning what was good for you and what could harm you. Eventually you learned to feed yourself and distinguish between food and the spoon itself.
Imagine if today if your mother would decide that all of the information you receive would be spoon-fed to you. Sadly, that may now be a thing.
The fact is, lots of things can harm us, but part of growing into maturity and adulthood is developing an ability to distinguish between that which can cause harm and that which cannot. This does not mean everyone makes good choices. None of us do so completely, but for the most part, once into adulthood we are trusted to make decisions for ourselves.
One area where the founders trusted us to make decisions for ourselves has been in the area of speech. And that trust has carried forward throughout the generations to today.
Free speech, of course, is a right protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That right extends to both the messenger and the receiver. What quickly gets overlooked is that not only do we have the right to speak, but we also have a right to hear.
This rationale for freedom of speech can be best summed up in the word “discernment.” Adults are trusted to make decisions for themselves. In a free society, freedom of choice, or freedom to discern is assumed. It’s a fundamental and core value.
The movement against the free flow of information
That’s what makes an emerging movement against the free flow of information perplexing.
Based on the premise that information can harm you, a burgeoning school of thought has emerged to encourage you to rely on third parties to tell you what information to trust and what information not to trust. At the end of the day, they want to spoon-feed you. They are saying, “Trust me, don’t trust yourself to discern.”
From the time of America’s founding, the First Amendment has protected citizens’ rights to freedom of expression. Those rights have been put to the test for almost 250 years in numerous court cases rising to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Without getting into the details of each case, an obvious pattern has defined the court’s rulings. Speech is to be unregulated, uncensored and protected regardless of how offensive or often inaccurate it may be. From the burning of the nation’s flag and the naming of a music band, to the protection of hate speech, the court has sided with freedom of expression.
Those court rulings are based on the premise that the cure for offensive or misinformed speech is more speech. In the marketplace of ideas, bad ideas and information must be countered, not suppressed.
Based on this, the First Amendment does not allow for government regulation of speech. To be sure, the First Amendment centers primarily on government powers, but it has shaped American society to foster the free flow of information in all sectors, from individuals and private businesses, to nonprofits, community and other organizations.
In my public relations work over decades, I’ve learned to appreciate that First Amendment. Without it, so many interests, people and organizations I have seen would not have had a voice, and society would have suffered terribly.
What is concerning today is the gathering momentum of the notion that speech is harmful to a degree that it must be regulated, either by government or outsourced to private industry. That Americans must be protected from some speech. That adults should be treated as children and are not to be permitted to right and opportunity to discern.
Freedom to speak v. freedom to suppress
There is a common assumption among some that freedom of speech is only tolerable if it’s speech that they agree with or they can easily suppress or discredit. Speech that challenges their assumptions is “misinformation” or “disinformation.” Speech that defies their own worldview should not be permitted a platform.
Proponents of this mindset think nothing of framing speech they fear as dangerous or harmful, whether that speech be political in nature or centered on such hot issues as the environment or health policy.
There are two quotes I’ve found good to revisit at times like this. The first is from historian and social critic Noam Chomsky: “If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
That gets at the messengers and our requirement in a free society to allow them a platform, but what about the idea that content itself can be harmful? What about those seeking relief from the mere exposure to unwelcome thought, all in the name of our well-being?
Look no further than founding father Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety.”
What visionaries could not anticipate
I’m not one to argue with great thinkers, but even they probably did not anticipate a world where government wouldn’t be the dominant force in the removal of the free flow of information, the denial of the opportunity to discern.
What we now see is that such freedoms are lost incrementally, day by day, through complicity, silence, or when growing numbers delegate discernment to others.
Enter the arbiters
And that’s where the arbiters come in. “Fact checkers” and “trust ratings” for websites and news sites. Anonymous reviewers in the bowels of some big tech company, and non-human algorithms designed to filter some information out and ensure that some information is filtered in. The arbiters promise to do the heavy lifting by providing their own context. In other words, the one person they does not trust to make discernments for you is you.
This movement uses a tacit strategy of communication. You are told it’s not about you, it’s about other people. That’s right. It’s not about protecting you because you’re too savvy to need such protection. It’s about protecting other people who are not as sophisticated as you. Unsophisticated people who may be exposed to “misinformation” or “disinformation” and actually believe some of it. The solution, you are told, is that others must be protected through a new form of information prohibition.
The truth is that no matter what organization or service decides to get in the business of fact-checking or filtering the information you receive, it will create a criteria and algorithms based on a very specific ideology. If that service is left leaning, it will prescribe only trusted left leaning media. If it is right leaning, it will prescribe only trusted right leaning media.
Still, the service you choose will lean one way or the other. It will play favorites. You will be told these oppositional media sites are guilty of spreading misinformation, disinformation, and fake news. That in itself may be a lie.
Opinion is just that – opinion. When opinion is now branded “misinformation,” that’s a good sign to start questioning the motivations of the accuser.
A new age of Prohibition
With these mechanisms in place, third parties, which include big tech, now serve as society’s arbiters for what is deemed “harmful” speech and what is not. You are not permitted to discern for yourself.
Keep in mind, it wasn’t long ago that something had to be dubbed hate speech to receive similar treatment. The bar has dropped dramatically and quickly from that standard to now cover anything that those in power deem to be nebulously “harmful.” This, you are told, is for your own good.
Yes, it may not be the government doing it, but it is the wholesale restriction of the free flow of information in a democratic society.
Is this ethical?
During my career, I’ve adhered to my industries’ codes of ethics, from journalism to public relations. I’ve seen and read many other ethics codes as well, and while the content may vary, the core principles are often the same.
In the PR field, one of our codes is based on the premise that the public interest is best served when several values are protected and adhered to, including serving as responsible advocates for those we represent, and honesty and accuracy in the content that we generate.
The codes also frame certain core values as integral to communication in a healthy society, including the free flow of information and the disclosure of information.
I have had some troubling observations as I’ve noticed others in my field who don’t see a problem with the denial the right to discern, along with the undermining of the values that comprise our codes of ethics.
My concerns are that we can’t be effective advocates if the case we want to make, meaningful as it may be, is deemed harmful by a third party and therefore denied a platform. We can’t be honest if in doing so we run afoul of a third party that believes our honesty is harmful to their own version of reality or their agenda.
We can’t count on a free flow of information if an entire industry takes a hard stand to filter information out. We can’t assume that all of the most critical information we need to maintain a healthy society is even being disclosed if the gatekeepers are in such tight control, are not transparent and cannot be held to account.
This is a new age of information prohibition. It’s defined by subjective and sometimes agenda-driven claims that certain speech must not be heard. That adults can’t be trusted to discern for themselves what speech is acceptable and what speech is not. What does it say about a free society when opinion is deemed dangerous? Information is power. In 2021, it’s never been more powerful or priceless. This is not the time to let others to do the thinking for us.
Tim O’Brien founded Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications in 2001. The consultancy focuses on communications assessments and strategic planning, media relations, media coaching, writing and content development, issues and crisis management, and marketing communications. The firm is one of the “Best PR Firms in Pittsburgh,” as ranked by Expertise.com. It is a leading corporate communications firm and one of Pittsburgh’s top crisis and issues management firms.
Also published on Medium.