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. Another example of the rule they follow in their world of no morals or ethics. That rule is “Anything said or done to advance The Party IS the Truth.” That’s life sort of in The Collective of The Party providing proof there true name ‘The Stupid Party’ and their motto Required Regressivism until you are as stupid as The Collective.

  2. Here is one of our evil overloards, The Atlantic Council, “coordinating” information with State officials and tech companies to remove content they did not like from social media platforms during the 2018 election. He gets rolling at .33. As a person who has voted in Ohio many times I can say that there have been multiple reports of machines changing votes over years,. Although this is a common “feature” of our voting machines since early 2000’s, in 2018 to say this is happening must be removed from public knowledge.

    This makes my hair stand up on end. Microsoft, a product of child rapist Jeff Epstein’s good friend, (namely Bill Gates), will control our voting machines by 2020, it would appear to me that this is very real interference in our elections. There is voting machine fraud in Ohio but, we are not allowed to hear about it. And why are state authorities cooperating with the Atlantic Council and social media companies?????????

  3. There was a time when the left stood for freedom of speech. George Carlin was a hero to us. But along came political correctness, in multiple waves, and it ultimately devoured the left. Carlin was right when he said “political correctness is fascism.” He added that what makes political correctness so pernicious is that it is intolerance in the guise of tolerance.

    Crowder’s remake of Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on TV”:

    1. A few of them meant it.

      It’s a reasonable inference that campaigning for ‘free speech’ in the Lenny Bruce era was a power move, and nothing more.

  4. Re: censoring Kanye, being woke and virtue signaling

    Yeezus Follows Jesus

    “He’s a jackas_.” That’s what Barack Obama said of Kanye West in 2009, after West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards.

    The comment was one of the high points in a long-running feud between the two pop stars, and for nearly a decade afterward, it described how many felt about Kanye. The rapper even adopted the “jackas_” persona in his subsequent music, first for self-deprecation in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) and later as a source of pride in the circus surrounding Yeezus (2013). With each subsequent album, he re-invented it—to fit an asinine mogul in The Life of Pablo (2016) and then a bi-polar Trumpist in ye and KIDS SEE GHOSTS (2018). And every time, the disparity between Obama’s description of Taylor as a “perfectly nice person” and Kanye’s image as the supreme “jackas_” took on new significance.

    So where do the two stand in 2019? Taylor, of course, has embraced the latest rites of “perfectly nice” people. Since becoming overtly political in 2018, she regularly airs her demands for gender equality and LGBTQ rights, and calls for more people to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. “Why are you mad, when you could be GLAAD?” she chides in the recent “You Need to Calm Down.” “Obviously, I’m pro-choice” she declared in August, after expressing outrage at the pro-life legislation passing in many states. It’s a far cry from when she felt free to use “gay” as a slur in 2006.

    But then, everyone is a far cry from where they were in 2006—and Kanye not least. Although Kanye first burst onto the scene with “Jesus Walks” and constantly drops references to God, Jesus Is King, released on Friday, is his first explicitly Christian album. It calls into question his role as the nation’s resident jackas_. Gone are the days when he threatened to “choke a South Park writer with a fishstick” and claimed his 2009 outburst made Taylor “famous.” These days, he’s dropping full gospel tracks, making sure his children are baptized, and confessing his constant need for God’s mercy.

    And since the album’s release, Kanye has given a series of candid interviews touching on subjects such as his struggles with porn addiction, the abortion industry’s systematic targeting of black people, and his overall disgust with “woke” culture.

    “Everybody thinks they’re so woke but they’re following the rules of what woke is supposed to be,” he said Friday. “Hip-hop ain’t never been about following rules. It’s been about doing what you feel.”

    And for whatever reason, what Kanye feels right now is Christianity.

    Of course, many Christians are not comfortable with that. But most of their criticism so far reads like virtue signaling: Kanye isn’t pure enough because he hasn’t demonstrated a history of his religion—oh, and he wears a Trump hat. Kanye actually anticipates and addresses that skepticism in “Hands On”: “Said I’m finna do a gospel album / What have you been hearin’ from the Christians? / They’ll be the first one to judge me.” It’s fair to hesitate somewhat when a celebrity becomes a Christian, and it would be opportunistic and uncharitable to make Kanye a spokesman for Christianity. But to discount his faith simply because of its newness is cynical.

    Moreover, it’s impossible to discount these beats. Jesus Is King kicks off with a full gospel choir, and doesn’t let up through the end of the last track. “Selah” features a Hallelujah-laden interlude that will blow out your speakers. The tracks “Follow God” and “On God” play like classic Kanye bangers, with old-school flows and soul samples. The back half of the album has its standouts, too, especially the reunion of Pusha T and No Malice’s supergroup Clipse on “Use This Gospel” (a true feat of rap ecumenism).

    Like every Kanye album, Jesus Is King is a culmination of all his previous work. There’s no profanity, a throwback to 808s & Heartbreak (2008). It’s a short 27 minutes, similar to the brevity of ye. Songs like “Follow God” feature elements pulled from previous songs: Kanye ends it with a piercing scream similar to that of Yeezus’s “I Am A God.” In Yeezus, that scream is an inhuman cry of deification, but in “Follow God” it’s a very human cry of frustration from a man attempting to become more “Christ-like.”

    And like the first three Kanye albums, it’s campy. The naysayers are already belittling Kanye’s more goofy asides, such as the infamous “Chick-fil-A” chorus of “Closed on Sunday” and Kenny G’s gauzy sax on “Use This Gospel.” But these are just dumb Kanye jokes—his Happy Gilmore references, Fritos-eating advice, and now his apparent preference for a chicken sandwich with lemonade—and are part of what keep him so fresh.

    “Would you consider yourself to be a Christian music artist now?” Jimmy Kimmel asked Kanye over the weekend.

    “I’m just a Christian everything,” Kanye replied.

    I’m good with it. After all, perfectly nice people don’t become saints. God tends to prefer working with jackas_es.

  5. The main legal difference between the U.S. and Europe regarding hate speech is our First Amendment protections. Further, I view Facebook and its ilk as akin to a billboard whose owner can decide what ads to allow on it. Of course, the comparison falls apart because Facebook is ubiquitous. But one should expect (hope) that the viewers understand that all that glitters on Facebook is not gold. En fin, I opt for unfettered free speech in the U.S. N.B. Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment scholar and advocate, understands why Germany and other European countries have taken to banning “hate speech.” But he says that it’s not for us.

    1. They’re protected from defamation suits as a common carrier but they’re editing content like a publisher. Do you want them treated as a common carrier or a publisher?

    2. Free Speech huh?


      Michigan auto shop’s display of Trump with Obama’s head on rope draws outrage

      FOWLERVILLE — A Livingston County auto shop’s Halloween decorations that depicted President Donald Trump holding former President Barack Obama’s head by a rope has drawn outrage from dozens of people who turned to social media to denounce the display as racist. 

      Quality Coatings owner Dave Huff has since altered the Trump scarecrow that stands outside his business on Carr Street in Fowlerville, about 10 miles west of Howell. Huff hadn’t expected backlash to the decorations because he said he’s not racist and “no race ever went into this thing.”

      “It was a Halloween decoration that I guess went too far,” he told the Detroit Free Press on Sunday. 

      The original display, which he put up three weeks ago, showed a Trump scarecrow holding a black rope with an Obama mask attached to it. Some who criticized the display have said that the rope looked like a noose. Huff said it was meant to represent a spine and a move from the game Mortal Kombat.  

      It also depicted the Trump scarecrow with his foot on Hillary Clinton’s head. Huff changed the scarecrow Friday, removing the rope and the Obama mask and adding yellow tape that reads, “PC-POLICE.” 

      1. Remember the rodeo clown who lost his jobs. With liberals, it’s status games all the way down.

        1. I continue to take a pulse of university students, staff, faculty (medical sciences) and clinic staff and patients re: their most pressing concerns…. few if any have any regard for the topics “driving” Matt Drudge, CNN, WSJ headlines….thankfully

          so it goes

  6. What fascinates me is that Democrats lie so much. So they want to shut themselves? Fine by me.

    1. Hilarious that you speak of the Democrats lying so much, but not a word about the grandmaster of lies, Donald Trump. His next book should be titled the Art of The Lie.

  7. AOC didn’t make any friends by going after that HQ2 Amazon deal in NYC, by targeting CEO Jeff Bezos, NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo & NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio.

  8. First I want to point out that Mark is asking Congress to keep him out of the brier patch. FB already engages in censorship based on content. They are a hidden arm of the govt., basically a military contractor, just like all the other tech companies. This fact should be kept clearly in mind and we should not be fooled by Mark’s own attempt to present himself as a “savior” of free speech.

    The people will decide what is and is not false speech. AOC has shown herself to be a totalitarian from the beginning of her miserable political career and I really wish Democrats would stop looking up to every flavor of authoritarian, new or old. But this isn’t just a problem on Democrats, it runs through the entire Congress with only a few civil libertarians speaking out. How things have changed. Here is an outline of what has coming to pass in the US. It is from Democrat, Frank Church: “… the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.“ Frank Church (1924-1984), American lawyer and U.S. Senator, chairman of the Church Senate Committee, (in an interview with TV program ‘Meet The Press’, Aug. 17, 1975)” (from an article at Global Research.

    Where are these type of people today in the halls of power?

    AOC and her worshipers readily align themselves with pedophiles and sadists of the tech industry. Evil likes evil. The American people do not require the “services” of evil overlords (or any overlord) to tell us what to think and do. If we the people have come to believe that we need such people to control what we know, then we quickly need to turn our own thinking around.

  9. Recognize that the calls to regulate speech are not based on ethics or the desire to build a better country; the move to censor is a naked power grab.

    The left sets itself up as censors and then gets to decide what is “acceptable speech”.

    The Nazis did the same.

  10. I loved the free speech during the game last night. tRump’s ignorance is finally catching up to him; deplorables are SAD.

    1. I doubt that the President was expecting to carry Washington DC next year, anyway.

      1. tRump sells a lot of BS and your ilk are buying so w/o being too elitist, you clearly are inferior.

  11. People in Congress who wish to censor the rights of others “need to go back”. I am not refering to where they came from out of country, but they need to go back to Calfiornia or New York or whatever their state is and begin work as grass cutters or steam fitters.

  12. Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”—that is the motto of enlightenment.

    Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians. It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me. The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult. Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone. Now this danger is not actually so great, for after falling a few times they would in the end certainly learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes men timid and usually frightens them out of all further attempts.

    Thus, it is difficult for any individual man to work himself out of the immaturity that has all but become his nature. He has even become fond of this state and for the time being is actually incapable of using his own understanding, for no one has ever allowed him to attempt it. Rules and formulas, those mechanical aids to the rational use, or rather misuse, of his natural gifts, are the shackles of a permanent immaturity. Whoever threw them off would still make only an uncertain leap over the smallest ditch, since he is unaccustomed to this kind of free movement. Consequently, only a few have succeeded, by cultivating their own minds, in freeing themselves from immaturity and pursuing a secure course.

  13. Again, academics (that’s the people you work with, Professor) fancy ‘free speech’ is for peers, not the rest of us.

    Donkey Chompers is not going to advocate scrapping Sullivan and grant effective relief through defamation suits. The Democratic Party is the electoral vehicle of the media, and accountability is something they wouldn’t like.

  14. Facebook has been closing dozens of palestinian websites. They don’t believe in free speech at all. It’s Just a privatized part of the government.

  15. Two of our rights rise above the others: the right to equal protection and due process of law, and the right to free speech. The loss of either one ends our representative republic.

    1. Donkey Chompers should build a proper adult life before she seeks to spend time in public office. Ideally, the minimum age to run for public office would be 39 and the maximum age would be 72, with dispensations allowed for presumptively p/t local offices (say a minimum age between 25 and 39 and a maximum between 72 and 86 depending on the office and the population of the jurisdiction in question). There are so many things she and Riley could be doing with their lives that they’re not doing because she’s a parody politician.

      1. You mean for taunting the people who give you emotional validation? I gather no one ever impressed upon you that self-centeredness is a vice.

  16. What amazes me is that few noted this pernicious direction when the Hate Speech legislation was passed decades ago. We have been on this road towards perdition for some time now. Perhaps far less blind partisan support within the democrat party and more actual cognitive functioning would help.

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