Freedom of expression is having a tough time in the United States. Attacks on it are coming from everywhere — from the left as well as the right.
The attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 in Paris united the left and the right in the U.S. where, suddenly, everyone was “Charlie.” In other words, the entire country stood behind the principle of free speech, and that included the right to express disturbing viewpoints which others may or may not agree with, whether or not they offend.
How things have changed in so few years.
First, there was the rise of television and social media outlets encouraging the most partisan and ideologically rigid to live in a vacuum and hear what they want to hear repeatedly. The most striking manifestation of this phenomenon is perhaps the recent scandal at Fox News. The network, including its big boss, admitted in court to lying about the 2020 election to please and preserve its viewership.
Now, things are increasingly shifting to a new stage: attempting to prevent the expression of opposing viewpoints. If this came only from fairly obscure organizations, the danger to democracy would appear less immediate. But these attempts at curbing freedoms are increasingly coming directly from the state.
What had started out as a “cancel culture” concentrated mainly on certain American college campuses is beginning to take on a whole other dimension in a number of government agencies.
By exercising the power of the state to restrict freedom of expression, censorship is taking place on both the left and the right, cloaked in noble principles.
On the one hand, states like Florida, under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, have begun to ban certain books intended for primary school students that may contain pedophilic or pornographic material.
At first glance, who could be opposed to such virtue? But who decides which books are or are not acceptable? Government employees deemed “media specialists” who are expressly trained for the task.
Teachers who dare to present a book to students prohibited by these executive specialists risk a criminal record.
Already, teachers and personnel in primary and secondary schools are emptying the aisles of their libraries to comb through every book. And, already, some of the most influential books of recent generations are on the chopping block. For example, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which recounts the experience of a teenage girl during the Holocaust; or, “The Lovely Bones,” about a 14-year-old girl who, after being killed, finds heaven. (It was later adapted for the screen by Peter Jackson, director of “The Lord of the Rings,” starring Saoirse Ronan and Mark Wahlberg.)
Laws like the one in Florida are currently the subject of multiple lawsuits, but they remain in force for now.
In Medical Offices
At the other end of the spectrum, in California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation last fall claiming to fight against COVID-19 “disinformation.” Again, at first glance, the principle is hardly controversial.
But who decides what does or does not constitute disinformation? The state of California. And doctors must abide by the directives, just like any other citizen. Those who contravene it are subject to having their medical license revoked, even as science continues its exploration of the illness.
Since 2020, an impressive amount of peer studies have presented seemingly contradictory arguments, or, at the very least, ones that open the debate on certain measures. Scientific consensus has changed — and continues to evolve — on topics from immunization to the origins of the virus. How can one know exactly what can and cannot be said, and who will be able to in a year’s time?
The contested law has just been blocked by a federal court in California.
Twitter before and after Musk
Attacks on freedom of expression are not limited to libraries and medical offices; they are increasingly common online.
The scale of the controversy sparked by Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter revolved around this question: Who will decide what will and will not be allowed on the social network that, without a doubt, is the one most used by journalists?
In his first weeks as head of the company, Musk invited a number of independent journalists to examine thousands of internal documents and make them public if they wanted to, right on Twitter.
Some of these revelations, at a minimum, have serious implications for what is supposed to be the world’s biggest democracy. For example, the FBI put into place the means for secret and encrypted communication with former heads of Twitter and used it to privately pressure them to control its content. When questioned under oath before Congress, one of the former managers admitted that the company had felt such pressure.
If Twitter has the power, under the pretext of editorial discretion, to control user content, it is acting as a media company. But should the police, whether municipal, state, or federal, have such a hold on the media?
The sad irony is that Musk has suspended the accounts of several journalists, all the while presenting himself as a champion of free speech. The media organizations they worked for, which had largely ignored Musk’s revelations, with a few important exceptions, almost immediately covered up the suspension of their employees’ accounts en masse. As a result of this pressure, Musk reinstated them.
This is perhaps the crux of the matter: In such a fragmented media environment, everyone denounces what they want to denounce, and everyone rails against attacks on free speech when those attacks are committed by the other side, while justifying their own.
The pretext of “false equivalents” is convenient because it allows one to avoid introspection and favors escalation. The victim is always one and the same: the First Amendment to the Constitution, that of freedom of speech.