‘We the people’ may be a bigger threat to free speech than the government
How free is your speech when the price of saying or doing something controversial may be your livelihood and personal well being?
That’s an important question for America in 2017, where expressing unpopular views might earn you a public shaming on Twitter and a “doxing” (online slang for the exposure of details about your personal life) from internet vigilantes.
Kyle Quinn works at the Engineering Research Center at the University of Arkansas. During the violence at Charlottesville he was in Bentonville, more than a thousand miles away from Virginia, yet because he bore a physical resemblance to a man seen at the riots he was targeted for vilification and personal destruction by an online mob.
“I’ve dedicated my life to helping all people, trying to improve health care and train the next
generation of scientists, and this is potentially throwing a wrench in that,” Quinn told the New
York Times of the situation.
A North Dakota man, Peter Tefft from the Fargo area, was identified online in a similar way. He actually is a self-identified white nationalist and was in Virginia to support the “alt-right” protests, but his family wasn’t. The internet vigilantes went after not only Tefft but also the livelihoods of some of his family members who repudiate his views.
So much for justice.
“Hate speech isn’t free speech” is how some justify these mob attacks.
Except, hate speech really is free speech. We do not have the First Amendment to protect non-
threatening conversations about the weather. We have it, and we need it, to protect exactly the sort of speech which makes people angry.
The ACLU, hardly a bastion of right wing sympathies, defended the Unite the Right event in Virginia on the idea that even people with abhorrent views on race are allowed to assemble and speak.
Some also point out the First Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t prohibit private citizens from silencing one another. It reads “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”
The conclusion being that we are free to abridge one another’s speech as long as Congress doesn’t get involved.
We have more power to silence one another than ever before. Social media has made it possible to harass and intimidate each other in ways which simply weren’t practical or even possible in another age.
The First Amendment was a specific restriction on Congress silencing speech perhaps because the authors couldn’t foresee a time when we’d have so much power of each other.
They couldn’t foresee the dangers of online populism.
In this digital age, the biggest threat to free speech may not come from Congress or any other government agent, but rather from our own desire to punish, out of a misguided sense of justice, those who say or do things which anger us.
What a dangerous place for our society to be.
Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.