The New Censors: The Call For Banning Political Lies Threatens Free Speech

Below is my column on the call by Democratic members for censorship of political ads by Facebook. The overwhelming support for the call by members like Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez shows the erosion in our values of free speech. Democrats and the media were once the defenders of free speech and critics of censorship. They are now demanding that corporations police political ads and remove ads viewed as false or misleading. It is a standard that many of these members would quickly denounce if applied to some of their own past comments.

Here is the column:

For people fearful of the power of companies like Facebook and Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg is right out of central casting. A Silicon Valley billionaire with an androidish demeanor, he comes across as more machine than man in responding to politicians on Capitol Hill who, at times, appear on the verge of hysterics over the supposed “lies” of their opponents.

With the House Financial Services Committee hearing this past week, Democrats and the media condemned Zuckerberg and his refusal to put a stop to false political ads. As unpopular as it may be, however, Zuckerberg is right that what members are demanding from Facebook is censorship and, if allowed, it would create a dangerous regulation of free speech. Indeed, the scariest thing to come out of the hearing, besides the relative silence of civil liberties and free speech groups, is that Zuckerberg may be one of the last barriers to a system of political censorship in America.

Watching the cable news coverage of the hearing, you sensed the rising revulsion on some networks over his refusal to promise to review and regulate political ads for alleged lies. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York made regulating political speech sound noble and obvious by demanding, “So you will not take down lies or you will take down lies? I think that is just a pretty simple yes or no.” The answer, if you believe in free speech, is a simple no. Media hosts and writers expressed disbelief that Zuckerburg would allow lies to pervade the 2020 election, and Ocasio Cortez was heralded for “schooling” and “dismantling” him.

I have written for years about the erosion of free speech in Western democracies, particularly in Britain, France, and Germany. Governments now regulate political speech and prosecute those deemed to engage in hate speech or false speech. In the United States, calls for greater speech regulation are growing on college campuses all across the country and in media outlets, both once the bastions of free speech.

On college campuses, conservative or controversial speakers are routinely prevented from participating in discussions. A controversy at the Harvard Crimson newspaper is illustrative of this trend. The student newspaper was completing a story on immigration issues and protests. The reporter did what any responsible journalist would do and asked the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for a response. That request triggered a furious counterprotest. It was not the content of the comment that sparked it, but the mere solicitation of comment from the agency.

University of Pennsylvania students recently prevented a discussion with former Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan. Georgetown University students prevented others from discussing immigration policy with Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan. No action was taken by the college against the students. Northwestern University students stopped a class from discussing policy with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement representative after the class heard from an undocumented person. Student April Navarro rejected the right of the professor to have a “nice conversation” about the agency. Again, no action was taken by the college against the students.

The House hearing with Zuckerberg revealed what House Democrats want to create, which is a system where companies can block political ads deemed false. Of course, reasonable minds can disagree on what is false in politics. But history shows that once this power is given to regulate speech, the appetite for censorship then becomes insatiable.

An insight can be found in the work of the British Advertising Standards Authority. Established to weed out gender and racial stereotypes and other social ills in advertising, the authority has set about its task with humorless zeal and recently banned commercials for Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Volkswagen. The first showed men so lost in enjoying the cream cheese that they leave their babies on a conveyor belt.

The fact that it was a joke did not matter since, as Ella Smillie of the agency explained, “The use of humor or banter is unlikely to mitigate against the potential for harm.” The commercial was spiked for implicating that women are better at child care. The Volkswagen commercial was taken down for having images of male astronauts and hikers along with a brief shot of a woman with a baby. Clearly, Volkswagen was saying that women cannot be astronauts or hikers.

Americans have long resisted such boards or authorities. Yet Democrats are using Russian internet trolling operations and presidential tweets to make another play for speech regulation. Would Ocasio Cortez feel the same way about Facebook banning an ad featuring her false assertion that the “vast majority” of Americans do not make a “living wage”? Or her false assertion that Walmart and Amazon do not pay minimum wages? Or how about her false assertion that most of “Medicare for All” could be paid for by simply recouping $21 trillion lost due to “Pentagon errors”?

Then there is Representative Adam Schiff using a House hearing to give a false account of the transcript of the call between President Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart. The Washington Post itself found repeated misrepresentations in his speech. While assuring the public that this was the “essence” of the transcript, he proceeded to falsely speak in the voice of Trump as he read, “I hear what you want. I have a favor I want from you though. I am going to say this only seven times, so you better listen good. I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent. Understand? Lots of it, on this and on that.” It clearly was false, designed to enrage.

But where does Facebook stop? Trump offers troubling descriptions of undocumented persons, while Hillary Clinton has hinted at Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii being a “Russian asset.” Then there are contested descriptions of climate change on both sides. One can imagine constant demands from groups to take down ads as factually misleading, a more sophisticated version of the shout downs on college campus.

There is an alternative to the kind of political commissar demanded by Ocasio Cortez and others. It is free speech. Zuckerberg correctly stated that plenty of third parties currently review and contest false political statements. He would leave political speech to politics. Facebook already engages in too much content regulation of sites and postings. Yet that is still not enough for many House members, who want to decide when and how individuals and groups can speak out in the political arena.

The truly insidious aspect of this effort by those on the left is that they are dressing up censorship as the protection of democracy to try to convince citizens to give up core free speech protections. In the silence that would follow, few would be able to object. After all, the censors could merely treat censorship objections as simply more “lies” to take down.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

60 thoughts on “The New Censors: The Call For Banning Political Lies Threatens Free Speech”

  1. I am sorry, but there is no way AOC with that 120 degree mandible jaw is a woman. I just refuse to believe it. Maybe she, maybe she isn’t. I guess will never know for sure.

  2. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York made regulating political speech sound noble and obvious by demanding, “So you will not take down lies or you will take down lies? I think that is just a pretty simple yes or no.”

    Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York should put her crayons down – she might poke herself in the eye.

    Has anyone had the fortitude to peruse Cortez’s House Resolution 109 (Green New Deal)?

    It is filled with nothing but lies.

    https://www.congress.gov/116/bills/hres109/BILLS-116hres109ih.pdf

    This woman is a complete disgrace.

    Who in their right mind would vote to re-elect such a worthless ideologue?

  3. In our 1st amendment nation, audience abandonment is the tool to discipline media sources that are out-and-out infowarfare-propagandists. How would that apply to radical Dems like AOC?….she needs to stop paying attention to Facebook, and encourage others to do the same.

  4. “The truly insidious aspect of this effort by those on the left is that they are dressing up censorship as the protection of democracy to try to convince citizens to give up core free speech protections. In the silence that would follow, few would be able to object. After all, the censors could merely treat censorship objections as simply more “lies” to take down.”
    *******************************
    For the five or so folks who haven’t noticed, the Left has gone batshinola crazy since 2016. They’re anti-democracy, anti-fundamental rights, anti-capitalism and increasingly anti-Caucasian. This isn’t a thinly subscribed opinion; it’s going getting mainstream.

    They either come back to sanity or go the way of Bigfoot — maybe it exists but only a precious few care.

  5. I guess if you consider AOC to be a legitimate anything (she was probably a terrible bartender, too) then there is a whole other conversation that needs to take place. All she tells *me* is that in NY (where my family goes back 70+ years) doesn’t give two craps about her district. She is beyond parody and idiocy, and if she gets reelected, I will pretty much consider our republic done. The rest is incidental, Jon. you seem to be blind to the particulars, which is ofd for a lawyer of your esteem. I don’t care if she’s a smiley on a popsicle stick – she is a symbol of exactly where we could very well be headed if smarter persons don’t find their spines. If their is no longer a rule or standard of law, where will that leave people like Jonathan Turley?

  6. Freedom of speech and all rights, freedoms and immunities provided by the Constitution and Bill of Rights are anathema to communists (i.e. liberals, progressives, socialists, democrats).

    One cannot be half pregnant and one cannot be half communist.

    Communists (i.e. liberals, progressives, socialists, democrats) are direct and mortal enemies of freedom, free enterprise, the Constitution, Bill of Rights, America and Americans.

    “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;…” The constitutional and absolute right to private property denies Congress any power to control or dispose of private property, Eminent Domain notwithstanding, and Article 1, Section 8 denies Congress any power to tax for individual welfare or redistribution of wealth or to regulate anything other than “…money…” and “…commerce among the several States.”

    The communists (i.e. liberals, progressives, socialists, democrats) cannot:

    – REDISTRIBUTE

    – REGULATE

    – POSSESS/CONTROL PRIVATE PROPERTY.

    The entire communistic American welfare state is unconstitutional including, but not limited to, affirmative action, quotas, welfare, food stamps, rent control, social services, forced busing, minimum wage, utility subsidies, WIC, TANF, HAMP, HARP, Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Labor, Energy, Obamacare, Social Security, Social Security Disability, Social Security Supplemental Income, Medicare, Medicaid, “Fair Housing” laws, “Non-Discrimination” laws, etc.

    The American thesis is freedom and self-reliance.

    The Communist thesis is slavery and dependence.

    Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto 59 years after the adoption of the Constitution because none of the principles of the Communist Manifesto were in the Constitution. Had the principles of the Communist Manifesto been in the Constitution, Karl Marx would have had no reason to write the Communist Manifesto. The principles of the Communist Manifesto were not in the Constitution then and the principles of the Communist Manifesto are not in the Constitution now.
    __________________________________________________________

    Social media that have no competition, or possibility thereof, are “…general Welfare (i.e. goods and services used by all Americans in similar amounts and at similar frequencies)…” and must be state regulated monopolies. Facebook, Twitter and other social media that have no possibility of competition must be “taken” under Eminent Domain and provided “…just compensation.”

  7. James Wilkinson, Although the Russian Troll meme has been disproven over and over again, I’m waving the magic wand and saying: YES, Russian trolls are misleading black people!!!!. Are black people incapable of discerning this misleading information for themselves? Are they incapable of rejecting false statements? I don’t see that, even for a moment.

    I think it is very demeaning of the NYTimes to think that black people need “protection” from fake news because they are somehow incapable of understanding when they are being propagandized. Using them as a special example of those needing protection, “for their own good” may even be an example of direct racism by the NYTimes.

    No one, no matter what color they are, should be assumed to need “protection” from discerning that which is true of false, real or fake.

    1. Anonymous: Let’s see confirmation by a mainstream news source that Russian Troll Memes have been disproven. I think I missed that headline. What’s more, the NYT is ‘not’ promoting ‘protection’ for Black people. The NYT piece is only a straight news story reporting the results of 2 reports commissioned by the Republican controlled Senate.

      I am seriously left to wonder if ‘you’ are a Russian troll since we have no idea ‘who’ you really are.

      1. I am seriously left to wonder if ‘you’ are a Russian troll since we have no idea ‘who’ you really are.

        LOL! You’ll always be left to wonder as logic requires the use of the left half of your brain. Using your own statement, you are a Russian troll, since we have no idea who you really are.

      2. James, You don’t have to wonder, it should be clear. I’m likely a Republican troll, isn’t that what you meant to say?

        I granted you that Russian trolls were influencing black people. After that, I made the argument which you didn’t address. I told you that black people, and people of any other color are able to make our own discernment about what is true and false. We don’t need, “correct the record” to tell us what to think or to let us know how special and wonderful the MSM is. We are all capable of making our own discernment and do not need or want the help of Clinton people or the MSM or social media to tell us what to think.

        1. Jill, the argument you’re making is popular with Libertarians. It’s called the ‘stupid tax’. The idea seems to be that if people are sucker enough to fall for a con, they should pay the stupid tax’.

          The argument you’re making is essentially the same as that made by tobacco companies in defense of cigarette advertising. Cigarette producers argued for years that consumers should be trusted to make their own judgements regarding cigarettes.

          Sub-prime loans are another example. A cynic could argue that buyers have a responsibility to read all the paper work when buying a house. And that argument was made by defenders of sub-prime loans when the housing market collapsed. It turned out, however, that Black, first time home-buyers were routinely steered to sub-prime loans even when they qualified for conventional mortgages.

          When Lincoln Federal Savings & Loan collapsed back in the 1980’s, it came out that Lincoln was steering elderly depositors towards Junk Bonds as an investment option while suggesting they were government-backed. Those bonds were, in fact, highly risky investments and ‘not’ backed by the government.

          So your argument, Jill, is basically that stupid people should pay the ‘stupid tax’.

          1. That isn’t my argument at all. Here, political autocrats and their minions, along with social media are taking away the right of people to hear information which is often completely truthful, but not to the liking of authoritarians and their minions. They can’t make an argument so they will just refuse to let you even see the information in the first place. Who decides what should be kept from the public? People in power.

            In the case of cigarette smoking it was again people in power who disallowed accurate studies and information from reaching the public. These companies had evidence that their product was killing people and they were able to keep that information from the people because they had politicians and media in their pocket.

            Clinton, Trump and AOC are like the cigarette companies. They all know they are lying. They lie all the time. But they don’t want us to know they are lying so they use minions to keep the truth from the people.

            My argument is that the public has a right to know about when politicians are lying. Your argument is that they should both 1. be allowed to lie and 2. cover up those lies by removing them public exposure. That is reprehensible as I’m sure you know.

            1. Jill, Russian trolls are targeting America in a very big way and they’re trying to exploit every division they can open. In 2016, Russian trolls succeeded in fooling thousands of Blacks into thinking they were part of Black Lives Matter. And I was using that as an example of the type of mischief that Facebook has unleashed.

              But here you irrationally accuse me of supporting liars and cover-ups. Your argument seems to be that Russian trolls are the only credible sources. And I guess that only makes sense if you think Julian Assange is the Martin Luther King Jr. of our time.

  8. RUSSIAN TROLLS TARGET BLACK AMERICANS

    EVERY EFFORT MADE TO EXPLOIT COMMON GRIEVANCES

    The Russian influence campaign on social media in the 2016 election made an extraordinary effort to target African-Americans, used an array of tactics to try to suppress turnout among Democratic voters and unleashed a blizzard of activity on Instagram that rivaled or exceeded its posts on Facebook, according to a report produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

    The report adds new details to the portrait that has emerged over the last two years of the energy and imagination of the Russian effort to sway American opinion and divide the country, which the authors said continues to this day.

    “Active and ongoing interference operations remain on several platforms,” says the report, produced by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company based in Austin, Tex., along with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research LLC.

    The New Knowledge report is one of two commissioned by the Senate committee on a bipartisan basis. They are based largely on data about the Russian operations provided to the Senate by Facebook, Twitter and the other companies whose platforms were used.

    The second report was written by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University along with Graphika, a company that specializes in analyzing social media.

    The Russian influence campaign in 2016 was run by a St. Petersburg company called the Internet Research Agency, owned by a businessman, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who is a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

    Both reports stress that the Internet Research Agency created social media accounts under fake names on virtually every available platform. But the New Knowledge report gives particular attention to the Russians’ focus on African-Americans, which is evident to anyone who examines collections of their memes and messages.

    “The most prolific I.R.A. efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing black audiences and recruiting black Americans as assets,” the report says. Using Gmail accounts with American-sounding names, the Russians recruited and sometimes paid unwitting American activists of all races to stage rallies and spread content, but there was a disproportionate pursuit of African-Americans, it concludes.

    The report says that while “other distinct ethnic and religious groups were the focus of one or two Facebook Pages or Instagram accounts, the black community was targeted extensively with dozens.” In some cases, Facebook ads were targeted at users who had shown interest in particular topics, including black history, the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. The most popular of the Russian Instagram accounts was @blackstagram, with 303,663 followers.

    The Internet Research Agency also created a dozen websites disguised as African-American in origin, with names like blackmattersus.com, blacktivist.info, blacktolive.org and blacksoul.us. On YouTube, the largest share of Russian material covered the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, with channels called “Don’t Shoot” and “BlackToLive.”

    Of 81 Facebook pages created by the Internet Research Agency in the Senate’s data, 30 targeted African-American audiences, amassing 1.2 million followers, the report finds. By comparison, 25 pages targeted the political right and drew 1.4 million followers. Just seven pages focused on the political left, drawing 689,045 followers.

    Whether such efforts had a significant effect is difficult to judge. Black voter turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election, but it is impossible to determine whether that was the result of the Russian campaign.

    Edited from: “Russian 2016 Influence Operation Targeted African Americans On Social Media”

    New York Times, 12/17/18

    1. Regarding Above:

      The article goes on to note that the Russian Internet Research Agency was promoting Black Lives Matters and Blue Lives Matters both at the same time. Their obvious goal, of course, it to polarize Americans as much as possible.

      This effort by the Russians to upset American Blacks is more than a little insidious. It amounts to a major propaganda campaign that was never possible in the pre-internet age. What’s more, this effort raises serious questions about security and public safety. Russians trolls could possibly succeed in promoting major race riots in American cities.

      Therefore Professor Turley’s dismissive attitude towards the issue of accuracy in Facebook ad greatly understates the dangers at hand. This isn’t just a matter where flaky liberals want to enforce their concept of ‘correctness’.

  9. Putting aside JT’s ridiculous confusion of parody with lying, is Facebook a privately owned business, a utility, or under FCC regs for use of our public airwaves? The former, and therefore free to censor or not as it wishes. JT can throw us of his blog anytime he wants – and Lord knows Darren tries to – and it is not a 1st amendment violation. If i don’t like the rules, or those of Facebook, i can pound sand or start my own blog or social media platform.

    This is not a 1st amendment issue and FB can tell AOC and JT to GFT.

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