- - Monday, February 15, 2021

“If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise. Otherwise you are not in favor of freedom of speech,” said the linguist and social critic Noam Chomksy to a group of students who wanted to know why he defended the right of a Holocaust denier, Robert Faurisson, to express his views free of censorship.

The right to express despicable ideas free of government interference is the basis of America’s cherished tradition of free speech, a right cemented by more than a half century of First Amendment jurisprudence.

To free speech absolutists, it comes down to a simple choice: you are either for free speech or you are not. But what about other forms of censorship or consequences for expressing offensive ideas?

As Chomsky once stated in a C-SPAN interview, “I’m personally very skeptical of any form of regulation of any kind of speech.”

In America’s raging culture wars, however, it is increasingly difficult to embrace free speech absolutism. Congressional pressure is mounting on social media platforms to police offensive content and deplatform individuals who break the platforms’ rules against disinformation.

Cancel culture-obsessed online mobs call out people for saying the wrong thing. And businesses and institutions, always fearful of negative publicity, are ready to fire or disassociate themselves from anyone who violates the new cultural orthodoxies, however arbitrarily imposed.

Granted, this is a rather dark interpretation of the current landscape. One might also consider that forms of free expression are as democratic as ever thanks to the internet, and that it is easier to hold the powerful and influential accountable for their words as a result.

In the latest episode of History As It Happens, Yale University English professor John Peters said free speech has always been complicated — and through history, in diverse societies, it has rarely given people license to say whatever they want whenever they want.

Free speech absolutists are “courting the abyss” — to borrow the title of Peters’ 2005 book — “by embracing free speech at all costs without thinking carefully about the form, the forums, the consequences, the pain, the context, the media through which free speech comes,” said Peters, whose work also specializes in film and media studies.

“Part of what I am trying to do is reconstruct the history of thinking about free speech in a way that would allow us to have a more nuanced take, to be able to say, yes, we want free speech, but no, we don’t want a culture in which anybody says any dang thing they feel like saying, because that is not a healthy culture,” Peters said.

The vexing question, however, is who gets to decide what is acceptable speech. The question is all the more complicated at a time when social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter arguably exercise more power and influence over speech than the government does.

“This very notion of the marketplace of ideas is much more recent than we would expect… it is essentially a Cold War phenomenon,” said Peters. “This [notion] that says free speech is also free market is one which is deeply embedded in Anglo-American culture, but it gives us all kinds of problems… how did a private company come to be the place that dominates public discussion, if you take Twitter to be public discussion?”

Peters takes issue with using the term censorship when describing Twitter’s decision to deplatform then-President Donald Trump. “Censorship is one of those words that can get people instantly up in arms because it sounds automatically unjust and abusive.”

In his view, Twitter was simply exercising judgment about the credibility of Mr. Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, among other things, and as a private company it enforced its guidelines. But he concedes Twitter, and Big Tech in general, does not enforce rules governing speech consistently.

“When you talk about arbitrary power, the ability of a CEO to decide case by case who is allowed and who isn’t, it is totally astonishing. This is the kind of slippery slope that liberals and conservatives should be very nervous about.”

Has the left forsaken the primacy of free speech? For John Peters’ answer and for an update on what Congress might do to companies such as Facebook and Twitter, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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