Below is my column in The Hill on the speech by French President Emmanuel Macron and his calling for the United States to join France in a crackdown on “fake news.” Our members were either clueless or complicit in this thinly veiled call for speech regulation on the Internet. However, there is growing pressure from Europe for the United States to abandon its long commitment to free speech — a call that is being heard by a rising number of academics and politicians. I love the oak (which has disappeared) but the advice in far more invasive for this country.
French President Emmanuel Macron has won the hearts of many Americans, from his planting a tree at the White House to his passionate speech before a joint session of Congress yesterday. For civil libertarians, however, one moment will remain chilling and lasting. It is when Macron called for a joint war against “fake news” and declared, “Democracy is about true choices and rational decisions. The corruption of information is an attempt to corrode the very spirit of our democracies.”
While both Democratic and Republican members were on their feet in rapturous applause, Macron used code familiar to free speech advocates, and it is the antithesis of democratic values. Indeed, it is a mantra that has been used to roll back free speech in Europe, where leaders are about to do the same to the press in new internet regulations. While long rejected in this country, leading American politicians and academics appear eager to adopt this coded pitch of censorship.
Over the course of the last 50 years, the French, English and Germans have waged an open war on free speech by criminalizing speech deemed insulting, harassing or intimidating. In France, a politician was convicted for complaining about the rising number of immigrants children flooding the public education system, while a comedian was charged for making jokes insulting to Jews. In England, a boy was held by police for holding up a sign reading “Scientology is a cult,” while the government there is moving to make “wolf whistles” a hate speech crime this year.
In Germany, a minister was banned from social media for calling an author an “idiot,” while a comedian was charged for making fun of Turkish authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Others have been charged for criticizing homosexuality as well as particular religions and religious practices. After decimating free speech in their countries, these countries are leading an effort to regulate the Internet and punish “fake news.” What is particularly maddening is that they are asking citizens to give up more free speech and free press rights in the name of democracy, just as Macron did this week before our gleeful, starstruck members of Congress.
Recently, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, appeared in Austin, Texas, to encourage Americans to join the European effort to force tech companies to censor hate speech and be subject to government regulations or fines for violations. Once beyond the sound bites, however, the real impact of these laws becomes apparent. Consider the new European Union strategy for fighting “fake news” last week. The East Stratcom Task Force compiled a hall of shame of 3,800 news articles that it highlighted as the type of “fake news” that must be targeted.
On the list was a Post Online article that called Ukraine “an oligarch state with no independent media” and raised the country’s horrific record in World War II against Polish Jews. Brussels and many European countries have maintained a strong pro-Ukraine stance. The article was listed as “fake” even though it was based on a lecture delivered by a journalist who had spent time in Ukraine and is a view shared by many. Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and other authoritarian nations have embraced “fake news” as the justification for their own crackdowns on dissidents.
The United States has long been a bulwark against this anti-free speech trend but that could be coming to an end. Leading American voices are now advocating a crackdown on hateful or fake speech in the name of tolerance. A group of college deans has called for the rejection of a broad array of speech as hate speech, including words that “spread” or “provoke” or “create” “animosity” and “hostility.” They simply declared, “Hate speech does not equal free speech,” and left the definition of what constitutes hate speech for later. We have seen how that discretionary power is used on our college campuses where a wide array of free speech is now regularly punished as either hateful or a form of “microaggression.”
Free speech itself is now often denounced as not a liberty to protect but an oppression to be resisted. At the College of William and Mary, classic liberalism, which favors free speech, was denounced recently as “white supremacy” in stopping an American Civil Liberties Union speaker from defending free speech. Democratic National Committee deputy chairman, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), recently posted a picture holding the “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” which espouses the “anti-fascist outlook is a rejection of the classical liberal phrase … that says I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Others rationalize such tactics in the name of free speech itself. The dean of City University of New York School of Law, Mary Lu Bilek, recently declared that students who prevented a conservative professor from speaking on campus were acting in the fulfillment of free speech values. Bilek essentially insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. It reveals the twisted logic overtaking our schools.
This is not just a liberal problem exclusively. Former FBI director James Comey was recently stopped from speaking by a conservative activist. Many conservatives are also seeking the termination of California State University professor Randa Jarrar after she appeared to celebrate the death of former first lady Barbara Bush in offensive comments on social media. This is why the ecstatic reception given Macron is so worrisome. There is a growing audience in the United States for declaring certain speech as unworthy of protection or a threat in itself. In the meantime, there are bipartisan efforts in Congress to limit Internet speech and impose European-style liability on Internet providers and sites.
Before we protect free speech by killing it, however, Americans should look at what Macron and his colleagues have done in across the Atlantic in achieving “true choices and rational decisions.” Macron helped plant a lovely European oak on the White House grounds and we should keep it. However, Marcon’s effort to plant the seed of European speech regulation should be rejected as an unwelcomed and invasive species.