In an interview with The Verge Editor-in-Chief Nilay Patel, former President Barack Obama once again claimed that he is virtually a “First Amendment absolutist” despite supporting censorship for years, including United Nations efforts to criminalize criticism of religion on a global scale. There are aspects of the Obama terms that I have praised, but his record on free speech is not one of them.
Obama declared in the interview that “I’m close to a First Amendment absolutist in the sense that I generally don’t believe that even offensive speech, mean speech, etcetera, it should be certainly not regulated by the government.”
That is virtually identical to prior statements that “I’m pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist” as he was arguing for social media censorship. Notably, Obama avoids calling himself a “near free speech absolutist.” The distinction is key for Obama and others in supporting massive censorship while virtue signaling that they are tolerant of opposing views.
The First Amendment is not synonymous with free speech. It is only a restriction on government action. As emphasized by groups like the ACLU, censorship by private companies is also an attack on free speech. As I discuss in my new book, The Indispensable Right, the greatest threat today to free speech is the alliance of government, academic, and business interests in censoring speech.
Obama is fully aware of the distinction and has often stressed that you can support both the First Amendment and censorship. In prior events, after claiming his absolutist position, Obama has stressed that:
“The First Amendment is a check on the power of the state. It doesn’t apply to private companies like Facebook or Twitter, any more than it applies to editorial decisions made by the New York Times or Fox News. Never has. Social media companies already make choices about what is or is not allowed on their platforms and how that content appears. Both explicitly through content moderation and implicitly through algorithms.”
He analogized corporate censors to meat inspectors protecting the health of the nation.
Even under the First Amendment, Obama has stressed that there are exceptions since “we have laws against certain kinds of speech that we deem to be really harmful to the public health and welfare.”
As someone often called a free speech absolutist, I find Obama’s self-characterization maddening. He has been no friend to the free speech community.
The effort to evade or obfuscate on the issue is common in the current anti-free speech period. However, as I testified before Congress, the level of government involvement and support for these corporate censorship programs could well violate even the First Amendment by creating a “censorship by surrogate” approach.
Later, that is precisely what a federal court found in issuing an injunction against the Administration. Chief U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty found that the evidence overwhelmingly shows systematic violation of the First Amendment by the Biden administration. According to Judge Doughty, the government used layers of coordination and consultation to “assume a role similar to an Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth.’” The court found that “the censorship alleged in this case almost exclusively targeted conservative speech.”
While claiming to be a First Amendment [near] absolutist, Obama has supported massive censorship on social media and called for the media to frame news to better educate citizens and shape public opinion.
For those of us in the free speech community, those positions make Obama’s recurring claim nothing short of absolute nonsense.