Donald Trump's re-election is a dire threat to free speech
It's much worse than petty library bullying
A friend recently told me that he thinks the concept of “free speech” has become coded as right-wing over the past few years thanks to debates about content moderation on social media platforms.
I don’t know how true this is, but the specific instance of Elon Musk suggesting that under his hypothetical ownership Twitter would have less aggressive content moderation produced some fairly unhinged reactions. Mehdi Hasan called it “problematic,” the Washington Post published a piece about experts clapping back at Musk’s vision, and he was criticized in The Verge and by Kara Swisher in the Times. What’s weird about this hostile reaction is that Musk has not conveyed any information about his desire to change Twitter content policies other than to say he wants to be more supportive of “free speech.” The phrase itself seems to have triggered people, not because of its vagueness or indeterminacy, but because of the notion that anyone who says they are for free speech must be a bad person.
Which is nutty to me. Personally, I think free speech is good.
I also don’t think it’s obvious what the right kind of distribution and moderation model for Twitter is. I think my preference would be to return to the old-fashioned model where users see all and only the tweets of people they follow. And I think there should be very little moderation. I don’t like to see algorithmic amplification of misinformation, but I also don’t trust Twitter to decide which information is misinformation. Suppose they’d cracked down aggressively on pro-mask speech back in March 2020 when the experts were trying to discourage mask usage? Some folks are too hung up on a constitutional law point — the first amendment right to free speech does not apply to Twitter — and insufficiently attentive to the basic Millian point about the benefits of an open exchange of ideas.
But beyond Twitter moderation policies, it’s crazy to cede the terrain of free speech to the right when there is an extremely clear and present danger to free speech from the Republican Party. And I think many of the liberals who make that point tend to lean on the wrong examples to illustrate it. Having petty bullies running a school system is not great, but it’s also not going to be the end of the republic.
What really might be, though, is Trump’s clearly articulated and semi-implemented plan to use his control over the regulatory state to dominate the commanding heights of American media.
The thing I don’t worry about as much
Out-parties always exhibit a surge in grassroots activism, and with Joe Biden in the White House, a lot of conservative activism is aimed at orchestrating library purges.
Walton County Public Schools in Florida has ordered nearly 60 books removed from school libraries, including two famous works by Toni Morrison, “The Kite Runner,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “Normal People,” “The God of Small Things,” and a book I’ve never heard of called “The Purim Superhero.”
This stuff is bad.
You can see in progressives’ response to these purges that we all do, in fact, acknowledge that there is value to free speech and intellectual inquiry separate from constitutional issues. Nobody has a first amendment right to have their book stocked in a school library (my books aren’t in Walton County Public Schools libraries, as far as I know), and people will inevitably disagree about which books are the books worth stocking. And while I have no problem with a school library stocking Charlaine Harris’ “Dead Until Dark,” I’m also not going to go to the mattresses for it as a classic of world literature. But “The Bluest Eye” is a staple of high school curricula for a reason, and if you’re purging it from your library, something is wrong with you.
But while I would urge you to vote against local officials who act this way, I do not think that small-town politicians being close-minded and prudish is a super-alarming social trend. This is the way of the world. The reason many of us have a harsher reaction to the faculty, staff, and students of elite universities adopting wildly overblown ideas about “harm” and “safety” with regard to the speech of others is that we’re concerned these institutions have real social and cultural cachet in a way that the Walton County School Board does not. So I think a different kind of focus on elite institutions and top-tier left-wing intellectuals is warranted.
In terms of who is coded how, it is important to remember that the scolding, book-banning rightwingers that some of us remember from the 1980s and 1990s haven’t vanished just to be replaced by a new set that loves free inquiry. They’re somewhat diminished in number and clout, but very much still trying to rid their little worlds of any hint of “harmful” content.
But the big, truly scary right-wing threat to free speech is coming from a completely different direction.
Trump conducted big-time regulatory abuses
Back in the fall of 2017, AT&T bid to take over Time Warner, the company that owns, among other things, CNN.
As I said at the time, this was a dumb blunder by AT&T. Many times over the course of business history, the executives of a profitable-but-boring company have decided that it would be fun to buy a movie studio. If you own AT&T, your meetings are about spectrum auctions and permitting for cell phone towers. But if you own Time Warner, you get to go to the Oscars, hang out with movie stars, and be in meetings where people talk about Batman. People like to buy movie studios. There was no business advantage to this merger, but also no harm to consumers.
There are also a lot of people running around who want to change antitrust doctrine and move away from the past 40 years of antitrust analysis, and they were eager to object to this proposed merger as part of an effort to revive old-fashioned legal skepticism of vertical integration.
And they got what they wanted from the Trump Justice Department, which sued to block the merger. When the suit came down, there were basically two interpretations. One was that the Trump administration had decided that progressive antitrust reformers were correct and the government should adopt a whole new antitrust doctrine that would be much harsher on mergers. The other was that Trump was just mad at CNN and trying to abuse his power to stop them. The courts ended up ruling against the government, and outside of the business press, the case was never a huge story. But several years later, Jane Mayer reported that Trump did in fact call John Kelly and Gary Cohn and demand that they come up with a pretext for blocking the merger.
More tellingly, I think, the Trump administration waved through the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile and also Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox. These were both much more straightforward cases from the standpoint of traditional merger analysis. It’s not totally shocking that a pro-business Republican administration would approve them, but a Democratic administration might not have (especially the Sprint/T-Mobile one), and certainly a GOP administration that wanted to break with conventional conservative politics and pursue aggressive antitrust litigation would have challenged them. This is just to say that Trump didn’t try to block the AT&T/Time Warner merger because he believed in a new and more expansive antitrust doctrine. He had his administration pick that idea up arbitrarily in an effort to punish Time Warner for daring to run journalism he disliked.