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Freedoms, One of Five
The Free-Speech Influencer/Martyrs would have you believe that some rights are more equal than others
The Never-Ending Great Crisis of Social Media is often characterized as a crisis of “free speech.” While that’s understandable, the right to free speech does not exist in a vacuum, and I’m not just talking about “shouting fire in a crowded room.”
Social platform content policies are generally parsed as rules concerning online speech, or “content,” when we might more usefully discuss online harms.
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For instance, racial and anti-LGBTQIA+ slurs do not exist in abstract isolation once shared in public (leaving aside for the moment their appropriation and repurposing by members of a targeted group). Most of the time, slurs are deployed with the intention to create an inhospitable and unsafe atmosphere for members of a targeted group—just one part of a wider campaign to harass and intimidate out-groups, with the goal of driving them off of platforms and out of public spaces altogether.
Slurs are not the only kind of language used to accomplish this goal—conspiracy theories, fake statistics, pseudoscience and motivated readings of religious texts are other tools in the box. Those using such language may deny their goal of exclusion—some may even convince themselves—but the effects are clear. The question facing online platforms is not “will we allow X, Y and Z words?” but rather “will we allow one class of users to drive another class of users off the platform, simply because the targeted class has the audacity to exist in a shared space?”.
“But the First Amendment!” some will say. Much ink has been spilled on the fact that the First Amendment begins with “Congress shall make no law” and thus does not apply to the actions of private companies. The spirit of the First Amendment, of course, inspires many people. But that too is about more than speech. The text reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The First Amendment contains what are known as the “five freedoms”: Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to peaceably assemble, and freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The five freedoms are profoundly interrelated. No one of them exists entirely independent of the others. Take away one, and the others start to lose their value. What is freedom of religion without freedom of assembly? What is the right to petition without free speech?
To be clear, I am not suggesting that a First Amendment framework is appropriate to social platform management as a matter of law or policy. But the free speech absolutists who find inspiration in the First Amendment would do well to consider the fourth enumerated right.
Under the Constitution, the right to free assembly is every bit as important as the right to free speech. Campaigns of harassing and threatening speech designed to prevent people from freely assembling in shared or public spaces contradict both the spirit and the letter of the First Amendment as surely as “censorship” does.
The text-based nature of social platforms should not muddy the waters. Social media is media, but it’s also social. It’s fundamentally, intrinsically about enabling people to assemble in a shared space.
Putting up a “Whites only” sign in a shared space is not primarily an act of free speech. It’s an effort to bar certain people from public life. Such efforts start with words but rarely stop with them.
Too many of the pundits and tech CEOs who portentously opine about the need for “liberty” and “free speech” online and at colleges are concerned with neither. What they really want is to control public discourse, to shape it into something that pleases them while upsetting those for whom they hold contempt. Ultimately, their program is to transform a notionally public online space into an exclusive haven that rewards people who are some combination of White, cisgendered, heterosexual, Christian, and male, while driving all others out of public life.
First Amendment rights for me, but not for thee. Not exactly a new argument, nor a particularly recent argument. But one that most people have come to see as specious and inimical to the ideal of America that we reach for today.
Freedom of speech without freedom of assembly is no freedom at all. A First Amendment that protects one, but not the other, is not our First Amendment.
This is the paradigm of the Free-Speech Influencer/Martyrs—people so oppressed that their shouted complaints about censorship drown out almost everything else.
Immune to the demands of logical or ethical consistency, Free-Speech Influencer/Martyrs such as Donald Trump and Elon Musk figuratively and literally own platforms that tilt the scales so far in their favor that their enemies spend most of their time reacting to them. Such people are the opposite of censored. They benefit from amplification at a level never before imagined, and still they crave more.
The Influencer/Martyrs spend their considerable financial and political resources manufacturing and amplifying outrage over the Censorship They Endure, but they are notably silent about the Censorship They Empower—efforts by their fellow travelers to literally ban books all over America, to prohibit universities from teaching history, and to force educators to pass ideological purity tests. In other words, exactly the kind of activity that is unambiguously damned by the First Amendment.
The Influencer/Martyrs remain silent because their ultimate goal is precisely the same as those who write the book bans—to drive certain “undesirable” groups of people out of public life. Those who are not White, who are not Christian, who are not male, who are not straight, who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth.
Some in the mainstream media seem to have missed this point, although a lot of ordinary Americans haven’t. It’s worth saying out loud and repeating often. The Free Speech Influencer/Martyrs don’t care about the First Amendment. They have chosen the First Amendment as a battlefield because you care about it, and they intend to leave it only scorched, desolate earth when the war is over.
When they try to hang a “Whites only” sign on the Internet, remember that free speech is about more than speech. It’s about who gets to participate in the public life of the nation—“me, not thee.”
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