It's Not About Free Speech

For free-speech warriors, it's about power and privilege—their power and privilege.

Bill Maher is a comedian, so I’d be seriously mistaken to take his views too seriously. Still, the host of HBO’s Real Time has an enormous audience. His views, genuinely or ironically held, are therefore amplified far and wide.

When it comes to free speech, his views are amplified even more, as they are in sync with a legal movement among conservatives to “weaponize the First Amendment,” according to US Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

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Over the weekend, Maher said that liberals should be defending Alex Jones on free speech grounds. The Infowars conspiracy theorist was recently (and rightly) banned from some social media platforms. Maher said:

“If you’re a liberal, you’re supposed to be for free speech. That’s free speech for the speech you hate. That’s what free speech means. We’re losing the thread of the concepts that are important to this country. You care about the real American shit or you don’t. And if you do, it goes for every side. I don’t like Alex Jones, but Alex Jones gets to speak. Everybody gets to speak.”

It’s worth unpacking this.

First, Alex Jones is best known for accusing the parents of 20 six-year-old children murdered during the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre of not being real.

Jones claimed they were “crisis actors” hired to fake the mass murder in order to justify the Obama administration’s eventual confiscation of firearms from law-abiding gun owners. Sandy Hook parents have been harassed in public, sued in court, and threatened with death thanks to Alex Jones’ slander, propaganda, and lies.

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It’s one thing to say that liberals are supposed to be for free speech. It’s another to say that liberals are supposed to defend the free speech of a contemptible human being who is still profiting from the suffering of the still-grieving parents of 20 dead kids.

Jones has a right to speak. He does not have a right to harm others.

Second, free speech is about individuals in a context of political power, principally the individual’s right to speak truthfully versus the government’s interest in suppressing that speech. In no way does this dynamic apply to the private owners of public forums, as every newspaper publisher will tell you. You have the right to send a letter to the editor, but the editor is under no legal or constitutional obligation to publish it.

Social media platforms are similarly entitled. If Facebook does not want to see Alex Jones’ face on its platform, Facebook can block him for any reason. Social media platforms cannot ban whole classes on account of creed, race, religion, sex, etc. But Jones is an individual, not a protected class. Facebook and others are entirely within their rights, and liberals are not hypocritical in celebrating his pariahdom.

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Third, free-speech warriors are not as universal in their concern for free-speech rights as they claim to be. Bill Maher said: “You care about the real American shit or you don’t.” But free-speech warriors tend to be very choosy, focusing more on “culture war” hotspots like college campuses than on instances in which the government really does violate an individual’s free-speech rights, as was the case with John Brennan.

Brennan, as you’ll recall, is the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Obama. He has been among a handful of former national security leaders visibly and loudly critical of President Donald Trump. In the same week that social media platforms banned Alex Jones, the president revoked Brennan’s top secret security clearance. The move was largely meaningless. Brennan is retired. But it was clearly an attempt by the president to punish speech, an attempt that could have a chilling effect among those presently working inside the federal government.

We should ask why. Why focus on Alex Jones, not John Brennan?

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I think the answer is pretty clear.

For free-speech warriors like Bill Maher, free speech really isn’t the point. The real point is power and privilege, especially their power and privilege against attempts by those without either to use free speech to attain a measure of both. Put another way: people with power and privilege don’t want to compete against people who don’t have power and privilege. And when you don’t want to compete, where do you turn?

To the courts, and the government.

Maher and others are, intentionally or not, part of a movement to turn free speech on its head. Where free speech once protected the powerless against the powerful, it’s being used now by the powerful to keep the powerless from attaining power.

“Once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful,” Catharine A. MacKinnon, a law professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in The Free Speech Century.

“Legally, what was, toward the beginning of the 20th century, a shield for radicals, artists and activists, socialists and pacifists, the excluded and the dispossessed, has become a sword for authoritarians, racists and misogynists, Nazis and Klansmen, pornographers and corporations buying elections.”

So yes. Liberals are supposed to be for free speech. But liberals are also supposed to defend individuals whose rights and freedom are threatened by those in power.

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Joy Reid loves the Editorial Board!

MSNBC’s host of “AM Joy” had this to say about the Editorial Board’s Thursday newsletter, “What We're Not Talking About When We Talk About Nancy Pelosi”:

You’re absolutely spot on, John, and the pathetic weakness of the liberal commentariat calling for her head it embarrassing. The idea that to win, Democrats must promise to replace a qualified woman with a young white man (the forgettable Tim Ryan), an black man (James Clyburn) who’s even older than Pelosi, or some random person merely because they are young or a “fresh face” is so dumb. It misses the point of what a speaker does, and sends the message to women, don’t get too powerful or too ambitious or else.

It’s the same message sent to Hillary Clinton. I have my issues with Nancy Pelosi but the reason Republicans hate her is because she is effective. The left piling on her only helps the right. And I doubt it’s really even 14 percent of voters who make up their minds based on the speaker. Hell, most Americans don’t know who the speaker is and wouldn’t know who Pelosi was if they tripped over her.

I think it’s fine—even smart—for centrist candidates to run away from her. I suspect she agrees. But asking her to step down in advance (and not asking the same of Jim Jordan) is the commentariat doing the same thing they did when they editorialized that for the good and healing of the country Barack Obama should promise not to run for a second term.

Thanks, Joy!


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Thanks! —John Stoehr

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