The Censorship That Isn’t There
There is a terribly muddled debate about free speech and censorship going on where terms have lost all meaning. Elon Musk may be a genius at securing subsidies to line his pocket but he’s utterly clueless as to the issues of free speech.
Almost 100% of the time the current debate concentrates on matters which are NOT censorship, but falsely labelled as such. Part of the problem is verbal inflation at work. That’s where ideologues take legitimate terms and expand their meaning to cover everything and anything they don’t like.
Having escaped a repressive evangelical “education,” one of the first things I supported was free speech. In my evangelical high school and college you simply were not allowed to say certain things or believe certain things. It is one reason I left them behind and went public about the threat evangelicalism presented to traditional American values.
In 1991 I authored Proposition O in San Francisco — the free speech initiative. It started out, “We the people of the City and County of San Francisco reaffirm our unqualified support for the First Amendment of the Constitution…”
The measure called on the local government to cease any efforts to censor individual speech. We had endorsements from Nancy Pelosi, Mayor Art Agnos, nine of the city Supervisors, the Democratic Party Central Committee, Libertarian Party, Green Party, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, Jello Biafra, the Black Leadership Forum, and a host of others. The measure passed overwhelmingly.
Shortly after, I moved to South Africa to start a newspaper for the LGBT community, something that meant police harassment including having them sit outside my home. I testified against censorship before parliament and debated the leader of the religious effort to censor erotica on national television. He quite literally had a mental breakdown during the debate. I was also a board member of the Freedom of Expression Institute.
In other words, I do have some bona fides when it comes to the fight for free speech. But what people are fighting for today is NOT free speech but subsidized speech. Musk has always relied on politicians taking property from others and handing it to him, and something similar is going on in the debate on “censorship” today.
Let us first define censorship — something Musk and others have refuse to do. Censorship is the use of force, or the threat of it, by anyone to prevent someone from expressing their opinion with their OWN property, or with the property of others voluntarily made available to them by the owners. That should be a crime, not a law.
Musk isn’t insisting on that at all. He has been demanding the use of other people’s property absent their consent. That’s not free speech, that’s theft.
One may express an opinion with a gesture: giving a police officer the finger is protected speech whether the cops like it or not. Similarly a clinched fist held in the air is protected speech — that same fist in someone’s eye socket is not.
Similar to all other rights, the right to free speech is not blanket permission to violate the rights of others. If you want to hold a prayer meeting have at it, just not in my living room. Musk, and many others, seems to think free speech rights mean others are obligated to give them property.
While Facebook is badly managed when they turn over free speech to the absurd bots that roam it sending people to Facebook jail, other sites are more reasonable. Twitter has some of the loosest rules requiring use on the site. But bigotry is not permitted and that has some conservatives upset — especially those who are bigoted. They want other people to provide them a forum.
In essence they are demanding a right to Twitter’s living room. Musk tries to justify it by invoking collective ownership of someone else’s property. He has compared it to the “town square,” which is public property and historically a site of protests. Like Trump, Mr. Musk has a tendency to think the wealth and property of others is his to do with as he wishes. He has little or no respect for the rights of others. It is one reason I think he’s probably another example of the toxic results of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as is Trump.
This public square nonsense was adjudicated in the courts and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on it when the right-wing Prager “University” demanded rights over Youtube. The Court said hosting speech by others “does not alone transform private entities into state actors subject to First Amendment constraints.” They said “digital Internet platforms that open their property to user-generated content do not become state actors.” These platforms remain private property and property-owners have the right to determine who will use their property and how they may use it.
Bizarrely in our current Orwellian world of authoritarian politics the people screaming the loudest about censorship are the most fervent practitioners of genuine censorship. Banning books from libraries IS censorship, as a ban is a government edict promising to use force against the librarians for daring to allow a book to sit on shelves for people to read voluntarily. It is a forceful violation of a voluntary act. That is censorship.
Refusing to allow bigots to use your property is not censorship. It’s a property right. Liberties are always and everywhere restricted by the rights of others. Your right to take a nap ends when you decide to use my bed and not your own.
While we each have the right to speak our mind we don’t have the right to force others to provide us with the resources to do so. You have a right to sell a book but can’t force unwilling book vendors to stock it. You are free to preach in your church, but you can’t invade other churches in order to preach to them without their consent.
Almost everything now being branded “cancel culture” isn’t related to censorship at all. If you say hateful things and I boycott your business it isn’t a violation of your rights — you don’t have a right to my business without my consent and I can withdraw my consent if I wish. It’s not censorship if I ridicule your views or laugh at you — it’s my free speech at work. If I don’t let you post hateful things on my pages that is not censorship — if I stop you from posting hateful things on sites you own it is.
I think there is plenty of speech which sites should ban. I think hate speech is rubbish and it’s permissible for site owners to throw out the trash. Ideas have consequences and hate speech leads to hate crimes — where rights are actually violated. When Trump started his B.S. about “the China virus” we saw a rise in assaults on Asian-Americans.
As the GOP has abandoned all the principles of Goldwater and Reagan, and adopted those of Putin and Trump, we have seen hate-inspired assaults increase. The rise of anti-LGBT rhetoric by rabid Republicans has resulted in more harassment and bullying. It is right and proper to shun those kinds of people and socially isolate them as much as possible. I respect those who do and have no respect for those who do not.
I remember well when conservatives at least pretended to support depoliticized markets. When some suggested hate crime laws they responded the “market will take care of it.” Well, when Twitter and other social media sites ban evangelical and alt-right hate mongers on their sites that is precisely what is happening — the market is taking care of it. Now the GOP is demanding state control in order to stop market processes from working.
One truth we who embrace depoliticized markets must understand is the “culture wars” started by conservatives years ago cannot be won by them without destroying markets. Markets are dynamic and create change and the Right fear change and expanded social freedom. In the end they will wage war on markets in order to impose their theocratic rule. To save genuine free speech we must save property rights, to continue the process of social evolution toward greater individual choice we have to save depoliticized markets.
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