It is not easy to unseat an incumbent in Congress, but Will Rollins believes that he has hit on a guaranteed winner to galvanize Democratic support in California’s 41st congressional district. He is pledging to push for greater censorship to stop those “profiting by spreading division based on lies.” Of course, the former assistant U.S. Attorney suggests that he will know who is lying and who should be allowed to speak freely.
Rollins is also running on his role “prosecuting insurrectionists” from January 6. While most of us condemned the riot on that day and supported the prosecution of those who broke into the Capitol, polls show that most Americans do not view what occurred as an actual insurrection or rebellion.
That, however, is a legitimate matter of debate and people of good faith can differ in how they view the crimes committed that day. What is far more serious is the embrace of censorship as a political cause.
Rollins pledged to stop people saying things that “erode our democracy.” His policy platform promises “accountability” for tech platforms that “spread conspiracy theories” and do not yield to demands for censorship. It appears to be a pitch to restore censorship systems on sites like X but also pledges to go after “media outlets.”
He is not alone in such efforts. Democratic members caused a firestorm previously by writing to cable carriers like AT&T to ask why they are still allowing people to watch FOX News. Rollins promises to crackdown on “propaganda networks to protect the public’s right to be informed.” He does not identify which networks would be targeted, but the assumption is that it is not MSNBC. (For full disclosure, I am a legal analyst on Fox News). However, he wants ramped up penalties for anything that he considers “harmful lies and conspiracy theories.”
Of course, one person’s “conspiracy theory” is another person’s news. It is again unlikely that Rollins will be pursuing the Washington Post which recently reaffirmed that it is standing by past false claims made about Lafayette Park, the Hunter Biden laptop, and Russian collusion. Rollins is not likely referencing the false conspiracy theories funded by the Clinton campaign like the Alfa Bank allegations.
As someone who was raised in a liberal, politically active Democratic family in Chicago, I remember when the party championed free speech as a touchstone of the party. Now it is often treated as an existential threat to democracy.
In recent hearings on the government’s censorship programs, Democratic members and pundits attacked witnesses as “Putin lovers” or supporters of “insurrectionists” in opposing censorship.
President Joe Biden is now arguably the most anti-free speech president since John Adams. His administration is unabashedly and unrepentantly pursuing the silencing of those with opposing views. Jen Easterly, who heads the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, extended her agency’s mandate over critical infrastructure to include “our cognitive infrastructure.” That includes combating “malinformation” – described as information “based on fact, but used out of context to mislead, harm, or manipulate.”
Democratic members have warned social media companies that they will not tolerate any backsliding after Elon Musk dismantled the massive censorship system at Twitter.
In one hearing, tech CEOs appeared before the Senate on past censorship. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) pushed back on statements from the witnesses suggesting an effort to protect free speech and reminded them that “the pandemic and misinformation about COVID-19, manipulated media also cause harm” as well as “climate change misinformation policy” and “climate denialism.”
It did not matter that many censored over their views on the efficacy of masks or the necessity of shutting down schools have been vindicated. Even raising the lab theory on the origin of Covid 19 was denounced as a conspiracy theory. Even after the theory was embraced by government agencies as possible or the most likely explanation, science and health reporter for the New York Times, Apoorva Mandavilli, continued to denounce the theory as “racist.”
The concerning aspect of Rollins’ campaign is that censorship was largely used as a political tactic in Washington to silence critics and opposing views. It is now an actual political campaign. It shows how speech regulation has become popular with the rank-and-file in the party. It now defines the party.
Campaigning for censorship should be a warning sign of the breakdown of democratic values. Limiting free speech is akin to cutting off oxygen to the body politic. It produces atrophy in a system, the breakdown of our political tissues. That is also reflected in a recent poll that shows that 52% of Biden supporters say Republicans are now a threat to American life while 47% of Trump supporters say the same about Democrats. Roughly 40% of both parties believe violence is now justified and roughly a quarter of both parties now question our system of government.
Politicians fuel that anger by running on silencing their opponents in the name of disinformation or malinformation. It is of course popular. Rage is often popular. Indeed, it can be addictive. Yet, what remains is release from reason in the blind pursuit of those with opposing views.
Will Rollins is right that this is a popular pitch for an age of rage. However, it is the political version of the Dead Sea Fruits that were irresistible to pick but would turn to ashes in one’s mouth. Silencing others creates an insatiable appetite for combating an ever widening circle of “lies.” Until, that is, when you find yourself encircled by your own truth police.