Issue Briefs

No Easy Way To Silence Bad Speech

No Easy Way To Silence Bad Speech

Paolo von Schirach

January 31st, 2021

WASHINGTON – In our United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution establishing the protection of freedom of speech is the cornerstone of an institutional edifice proclaiming that this Republic was created to protect individual liberties. Without the full enjoyment of freedom of speech there is no real Liberty, and therefore no real Democracy. In America every citizen should feel absolutely free to publicly state, proclaim, broadcast pretty much whatever they want, without any fear of retribution. Others may agree or disagree with what I say. They may like or dislike it. But nobody has the power of censoring me or punishing me for what I said.

Limits to free speech?

But now here in the United States, after all what happened in the last few years, culminating with the presidential campaign of 2020 , we have started a dangerous debate on what should be and should not be allowable free speech. At the root of this debate there is a legitimate concern. Is really all speech protected by the First Amendment? No exceptions? At what point –some wonder– do outright lies, outlandish conspiracy theories, combined with manipulation of facts and news become an assault on society, thus requiring censorship?

The simple answer is: never. And I mean never.

“But, wait a minute. What do you mean by never? Even the craziest things should be allowed? Even the patently lunatic theories?” The answer is yes, and yes, even though this means allowing the circulation and recirculation of pure poison. And the reason for this stand is very simple.

No logical limits to censorship

Once we start legalizing any kind of censorship whatsoever, (even if we call it something else), the dam has been broken and the trickle inevitably will turn into a flood. Think about it. We may start with perfectly good intentions, making every effort in creating narrow and precise definitions of what is so egregiously false that deserves censorship.

But this effort, we shall soon discover, cannot be contained. Once we have established that “some” really bad ideas must be censored, down the line someone else will want to add to this list some more categories of “bad things” that should be prohibited. And then, what? Do we really want to start a never ending debate regarding what is constitutionally protected free speech and what is poisonous talk, and therefore unprotected speech? Do we really want to go down that route? You can see where this goes. Not to a good place.

How do we protect ourselves?

And so, if we cannot and should not prohibit the circulation of crazy and false ideas, how do we protect ourselves from the harm they will inevitably cause to our society? Good question for which there is a very simple answer that requires however a monumental education effort as the only appropriate remedy.

The People who are ultimately the targets of all the ideas introduced in public debates need to have or gain the wisdom to know the difference between legitimate and crackpot ideas and crazy fantasies. If they do not have them now, the People need to acquire the intellectual and common sense tools of discernment that will allow them to know the difference and therefore separate legitimate free speech one can agree or disagree with from crackpot stuff to be discarded and junked.

This is at the same time a very simple operation for those who can tell the difference and difficult for those who lack the tools to do so. We know that many lack the ability to know which is which and this is why they embrace crackpot ideas that have no factual basis or –even worse– are based on foundations that deny key principles on which this Republic was founded.

Educated citizens are at the foundation of a viable democracy

And here is where we come to the real point. If millions of citizens (many or even most of them in good faith) believe in ideas that are both false and/or unconstitutional, we are facing a gigantic problem that we ignore at our peril.

As our Founding Fathers stipulated a long time ago, a viable Democracy assumes reasonably competent, fair minded citizens who share basic values and understand that along with the precious freedom of expression we all enjoy, we also must subscribe to unwritten rules of respect for facts and truth, decency, honor, tolerance, and a lot more. These “things”, these guiding principles and values cannot be legislated and ordered into place. These are things we should be able to acquire as we become functioning adults. All this should be the outcome of a good education and socialization process.

A viable republic requires educated citizens

The Founding Fathers recognized that passions and factionalism which would include the deliberate spreading of distortions and falsehood would exist in this Republic. This being the case, the best defense against them would be our constitutional system of checks and balances and reasonably well educated citizens who would be able, at least in most cases, to spot and therefore toss away dangerous and silly ideas, whatever their provenance.

In a word, it is clear that our Republic cannot really function without good citizens, and a good education is the means through which we create good citizens.

If most people look at some ideas, listen to them and quickly conclude: “This is garbage. Let’s move to on more substantive ideas and issues”, then we would have no real problem, and no need to think creatively about ways to introduce any kind of censorship. Indeed, the garbage is dangerous only to the extent that it is believed and embraced by some or many. Education creates a precious immunity against the garbage that some will inevitably spread around.

And please note that bad ideas are dangerous not because these days there are thousands of ways to spread them around. Social media and other information delivery tools are about volume levels. The bad ideas are not dangerous because now they find many powerful outlets. They are dangerous because they find a willing audience that can and will be be persuaded.

With all that, censorship, however appealing it may seem, is a bad solution to the problem. Simply because once you go down that route there is no logical or natural end to it.

Education is the only answer

The only solution, difficult as it is, is in giving the People the tools of discernment, judgment and common sense to examine and sift through ideas, theories and proposals and then simply discard the bad stuff. And please note that the bad stuff should not be the subject of public outrage and debates. The best thing that could be done about bad stuff is to toss it out and ignore it. Ignored by all, the bad stuff would simply die and its purveyors would disappear from the public scene.

I realize that all this sound simplistic or at least very unrealistic, given the magnitude of the problem we are facing. We do know that unfortunately millions of citizens, Fellow Americans, fall for the garbage. They do. They believe it and embrace it, often enthusiastically. As we have seen, at times this garbage may provide the motivation and moral justification for engaging in dangerous and illegal activities. We know all that.

The threat of censorship

However, it is even more dangerous to engage in censorship, even if we would be driven to this extreme remedy by the noble goal of protecting innocent people from garbage. As noted at the beginning, once we start creating a list of items that should fall under the category of unprotected speech, for good or bad reasons inevitably more items will be added to this list. And pretty soon free speech as we know it will be gone.

And there is more. For sure, the growing concerns that certain ideas may be suspect will cause people to start exercising a degree of self-censorship. Knowing about censorship, some people simply will not dare expressing certain unorthodox ideas for fear of negative repercussions. You see how once we enter this new dimension of limits to free speech there is no good way of getting out of it.

Help the education effort

Right now we are in a very imperfect democracy. Many people who have every right to participate in the political process lack the education and common sense to make the necessary distinctions and separations between ideas and crackpot conspiracy theories.

But banning “bad ideas” is not a good way to protect the people. As simplistic as this may sound, offering good education opportunities so that The People will have the tools to make up their own minds on the basis of reason and common sense is the only way out of this predicament. For sure, it will take years, maybe decades to improve this worrisome situation. But there is no other way.

Paolo von Schirach is the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC. He is also the Editor of the Schirach Report.