John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Facebook bans illustrate erosion of freedom of speech in America

Posted on May 6, 2019
“I may hate what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

So said the French philosopher Voltaire, as quoted by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

Noble words in theory, but much harder in reality.

Nobody really wants to die defending ideas that they disagree with.

Nor do they want to lose market capitalization.

Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk are not government utilities. But these days, they seem to have the final word in arbitrating how far America wants to go in defending free speech.

And it turns out, not that far.

The American Constitution was inspired, in part, by French philosophers of the Enlightenment, Voltaire included among them.

It was the view of this cadre of deep thinkers that there should be a firm separation between the Church and the State, that rational, scientific thought was the highest virtue, that individual expression should be protected and inspired, and that democracy was a far better and more just way to govern than monarchy.

These ideas inspired Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, two slave-holding deists who were the primary architects of our founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The American Revolution was mainly an economic dispute that was poorly handled by an arrogant British parliament and a delusional King George III.

The essential nature of that economic dispute probably saved America from the more wrenching devastation that flowed from the radical excesses that flowed from the French Revolution.

But here we are, 225 years later, still stuck with the basic ideas of the French philosophes -- as encapsulated by our First Amendment -- that you should be able to say just about anything you want, that you can worship any God you want to worship, and that democracy is far better than other forms of government, despite its obvious flaws.

It’s hard to find too many First Amendment absolutists on either the left or the right these days.

That’s especially the case in academia, which seems to be most hostile to the idea of free thoughts and free expression.

I get it. Nobody really wants to be put in the position of defending either Alex Jones or Louis Farrakhan.

But here’s the thing. If we cheer on Facebook and Twitter as they remove from their platforms people we find offensive, what happens when somebody finds something we say to be offensive?

Are we going to have somebody monitoring all of our emails and call the authorities when your friend’s uncle sends you a really bad joke? Where does this all end and who gets to decide?

Who is the referee here?

Is it some functionary in Facebook’s general counsel’s office? Are we putting this all on Jack Dorsey’s shoulders?

I for one would rather have a free market of ideas, to go along with the freedom practice of religion and the freedom to assemble and petition the government.

We are different than Europe, China and Russia because we aren’t afraid of bad or subversive ideas in this country.

That’s because we have so many of them, so many bad ideas, dumb conspiracy theories, counter-productive movements, and vile, racist thoughts.
How best to confront these bad thoughts is the existential question of the 21st century.

Shall good ideas win through rational discourse, sound science, and solid evidence or have we lost complete faith in the essential wisdom of the common people and thus must turn to stifling free speech and hunting down those who dare utter things that we find objectionable?

It seems that many prefer to turn our backs on the enlightenment ideal and take the path of the Chinese government. Social control is far more important than free expression, the theory goes.

I don’t know if employing an overactive editor is the right road.

I appreciate the argument that because Facebook and Twitter are private companies when they censor speech it is not the same as if the government were to censor speech.

But I think self-censorship is in many ways worse. If the private sector won’t defend the principle of free speech, nobody will, especially government entities that have a vested interest in protecting their power and their secrets.

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