Speech and censorship face off—the irrepressible against the dogged. This month’s headlines come from Russia, China, Myanmar and, unfortunately, the United States. The others are hopeless, but let me comment on our country.
Numerous debates are now underway on the constitutional boundaries of free speech and there are important reasons why none of us should be complacent. Let me look forward with a glancing look back.
I chaired the Federal Communications Commission when, attempting to protect children from Howard Stern’s vulgar national radio broadcasts, we fined his network company for breaches of what Congress called “indecent broadcasting.” This eventually forced the company to move Stern to a subscriber tier on satellite radio. But, deciding when speech can be constitutionally censored is not easy work.
A debate is now underway on the extent to which Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 enables Internet computer services to censor online sources of expression. There are many providers, but the headlines normally cite Facebook or Twitter. The law gives companies that have chosen to moderate their users speech the right to exclude speech that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” Keep those words in mind.
Free speech talks back. I have noticed that readers of The Spy are not reluctant to express themselves, sometimes aggressively. And free speakers are frequently critics and power is not enamored with criticism.
Certainly many, if not most, recoil at the censorious aggression of the Woke culture as its outrage seeps into education, publishing and more. The Woke culture frequently sows division while claiming to preclude it.
Also, increasingly businesses have become censorious. For example, Amazon, which has a streaming service and is “promoting a wide array of films as a part of Black History Month, choose not to include a PBS produced show called “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.” The film was available to stream on Amazon, but not anymore.
The political Right is angry believing it is being barred from Facebook and Twitter, among others. My concern goes beyond the current headlines. What about the potential to trigger attacks? Post-January 6th we don’t have to stretch our imaginations to envision mobs on the loose. Or what about intrusion from countries like Russia? Also we should remind ourselves that credulity is an invitation to manipulate. Indeed, can a democracy be healthy when a significant percentage of people accept outrage commentary at face value?
Historically when we think about speech, we think about words. Today hardcore agitation is frequently accompanied by images. Take a look at what Adobe’s Photoshop service lets you do with images. Or look up images of Tom Cruise in recent TikTok videos. These are referred to as deepfake productions which refers to the use of algorithms to replace the person in the original video with someone else. Images used to be primary evidence of truth. Not anymore.
What happens when manipulated images and incendiary words are paired with what I think of as outrage contagion by an organization whose name is a public relation agent’s concoction? Computer services know who is easily riled and again, after January 6th our imagination is no longer necessary in understanding what can happen.
The debate about online speech is underway. It is a debate that will test your span of attention, but remember your speech can count and if businesses offend you, shop elsewhere. Feedback, indeed pushback, are protected responses.
Let me close with some questions. Most importantly, what should be the limits of the free speech guarantee? Should online speakers have to identify themselves? Should the marketing of combustible speech have any effect on its constitutionality? There are many questions, but mostly difficult answers.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.