There is a shell game being played by a number of politicians, Big Tech executives, news media executives and journalists, and well-known PR people that goes like this:
- The First Amendment exists to protect the news media’s right to free speech. Nothing should be done to inhibit a free press.
- When Big Tech censors and bans users, it’s a private company and so it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the First Amendment when it comes to giving users freedom of speech. But on the flip side, those same platforms deserve First Amendment protections.
- Speech should be banned and censored, and the communicators should be banned and denied access to the public square if their speech is “dangerous” or “harmful misinformation.”
I’d like to say that’s where it stops, but it doesn’t. The debate goes around in a perpetual circle and always leads back to where you started.
I’ve been in the communications business for decades, starting in radio, TV and newspapers in various capacities. Then advertising, and then several decades in public relations at high levels. I’ve never seen the bar for communication set like this, regardless of available technologies.
The reverence for the First Amendment, particularly among communications professionals, has always been so great that I can say with tremendous confidence that almost none would have ever entertained censoring anyone’s speech on the basis of allegations that the speech was “dangerous,” “harmful” or “misinformation.”
Systems of Protection Have Existed
The standard has usually been set this way. If the speech is deemed harmful by someone, the aggrieved party had access to the courts to sue for libel, slander, defamation, violation of patents, trademarks or copyrights, or some other harm. The same party could also report certain claims to the appropriate government agencies, such as the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
To be sure, since free speech is protected under the First Amendment, there has been a narrow path to enforcement of any speech restrictions, even at these agencies. Culturally, the government has always been very careful not to infringe on First Amendment rights and America’s culture of free speech.
In the private sector, the atmosphere for free speech has largely been as free as it sounds…until now.
Using “Misinformation” to Silence Opponents
There has been a movement afoot over the past two years to clamp down on free exercise of speech. It’s been designed to silence opposing points of view in the name of restricting “harmful and dangerous disinformation and misinformation.”
During the pandemic, some argued that giving the public bad information or unsanctioned opinions could cause harm to others.
We saw numerous examples of how this impacted restrictions placed on public participation at school board meetings and other public meetings. We saw how private companies that constitute Big Tech banned people and content from their platforms, only to find months or years later that the disputed content was indeed factually right.
Is Being Right the Price of Admission?
All of this leads to one question. In America, do we have to be right to be assured freedom of speech?
If so, who decides who is right and who’s wrong?
Does this mean that all information we see, from social media platforms and websites, to all news media must be 100 percent factually correct before permission to ‘speak’ is granted?
Where does opinion fit? Do opinions have to be factually correct? Should certain opinions be banned while others are sanctioned? Who decides? How do they decide? Who’s watching them?
Keep in mind, the person who is deemed wrong today, could be proven right tomorrow. That’s the whole point of public dialogue.
Yet, we’ve seen this throughout the pandemic (just one example) as official government agencies have gone back and forth on the efficacy of masks, the effectiveness of vaccines and certain treatments. Everyone was right and wrong at various points. Some were censored only to be proven right later.
So, I will ask the question again. Do we have to be right in order to enjoy freedom of speech in America?
The answer is, “No.” If someone’s content has to be deemed right or “safe” by a third party in order to speak, there is no freedom of speech.
Keep this in mind the next time someone tries to tell you that your speech or someone else’s speech is dangerous or harmful misinformation. Then ask yourself what’s their end game? Is it really to protect you, or is it something else?
What do you think? Just let me know.