Barone: From impeaching incitement to canceling conservatism

By Michael Barone |

It wasn’t just Donald Trump’s detractors who felt a sudden sense of relief when they heard that Twitter was blocking his feed after the storming of the Capitol and disruption of the reading of the Electoral College results January 6. While Trump’s exact words to the crowd on the Ellipse didn’t constitute a criminal incitement, they were uttered with a reckless disregard for the possibility they’d provoke violence which any reasonable person could find impeachable.

But a moment’s reflection should have left any believer in free speech feeling queasy about a private firm censoring the president of the United States and preventing him from effectively communicating with citizens over a chosen medium of universal reach. And especially queasy, since a large body of opinion sees this suppression of free speech by Big Tech monopolies not as a one-time exception but as the new rule.

Oliver Darcy of CNN wants its cable rivals to be held “responsible for the lies they peddle.” Law professors are surprisingly open to speech suppression, as Thomas Edsall reports in his New York Times blog. Yale’s Robert Post laments that “the formation of public opinion is out of control”; California-Irvine’s Rick Hasen laments “a market failure when it comes to reliable information voters need”; Columbia’s Tim Wu suggests “the weaponization of speech” makes the First Amendment jurisprudence “increasingly obsolete.”

Democratic worthies have been singing the same tune. Michelle Obama took the lead in urging the permanent ban on Donald Trump which Twitter promptly promulgated. Presidential candidate Andrew Yang called for cable news channels to be required to air competing views. Biden press aide Bill Russo wants Facebook to censor “misleading” information.

The law professors leave it ambiguous who would “control” information and decide what is “reliable information.” But probably and Democrats obviously expert the decisions to be made by folks on their side of the political divide.

The speech restrictions and speech suppression by Twitter, Facebook, Apple and Google, including the expulsion from the cloud of the Twitter competitor Parler, are all intended to benefit the political Left and penalize the political Right. These firms come as close as non-government actors could to canceling if not criminalizing at least certain strands of conservatism.

Many if not most believe that it is legal and praiseworthy to suppress “hate speech” in the U.S. But hate speech, unless it directly and explicitly incites violence, is protected by the First Amendment under longstanding Supreme Court precedent. Europeans, as Harvard law professor Noah Feldman points out, are comfortable banning “hate speech,” and it’s understandable that post-World War II Germany banned Nazi writing and images.

So it’s interesting that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, no pal of Donald Trump, called Twitter’s permanent ban of Trump “problematic.” And that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, where the dominant TV network Televisa slavishly toed the government line for years, criticized Facebook’s blocking of the outgoing American president. Or that the Portuguese analyst Bruno Maçães thinks it’s “Time to start a debate in Europe whether we want to stay tightly connected to a US internet where repression of speech will keep growing.”

“Yesterday,” wrote the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher late last week, “I predicted that the Left and the liberal Establishment would use the Beer Belly Putsch as an opportunity to begin to implement the rudiments of a social credit system, and to otherwise marginalize and suppress right-of-center discourse and people. Well, here we go.” The reference is to China’s system of surveillance and supervision, which uses consumer data, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and GPS tracking to identify regime critics and deny them access to everything from airline seats to bank credit. You don’t have to surf very long on your device to find self-described liberals calling for some such restrictions on Trump supporters, or for major corporation CEOs delighted to go along.

Are such fears exaggerated? Big Tech assures us it stands for free expression. “Access to information and freedom of expression, including the public conversation on Twitter, is never more important than during democratic processes, particularly elections,” Twitter tweeted this week. But that was about providing information about an election in Uganda. In the U.S., not so much. Twitter joined other Big Tech firms in effectively suppressing the New York Post’s now-validated stories about Hunter Biden’s dodgy business dealings.

Big Tech suppression of speech, at one party’s urging, but not government order, technically doesn’t violate the First Amendment. But, as CNN commentator Mary Katharine Ham tweets, “It feels creepy and authoritarian.” It threatens to be the most effective speech suppression here since Democratic postmasters in the antebellum South deep-sixed anti-slavery material. That speech suppression didn’t ultimately prevail. How long the speech suppression by Big Tech and its liberal friends will prevail is unclear.

Michael Barone is the senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, a resident fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, and the longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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