Editorial: America engaged in chilling assault on speech

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

Silicon Valley is waging war on free speech.

In the wake of the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump, Twitter has permanently banned the former commander in chief. Facebook blocked Trump from posting at least until after President Joe Biden took office. Trump’s account is still suspended. Reddit, Shopify, Snapchat and others followed suit in banning the former president and his supporters, temporarily or permanently.

The shrinking of what should be a broad marketplace of ideas — like them or not — continues. This is called censorship. And that censorship is taking an even more sinister shape. The social media site Parler has been suspended from Google’s and Apple’s app stores, and Amazon has stopped providing the company with cloud services, effectively killing the service and prompting Parler to launch a federal lawsuit against the tech giant. Parler is favored by Trump supporters, conservatives, conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremists.

The killing of Parler amounts to a chilling assault on speech.

The bans may not be illegal, per se — though Parler is alleging anti-competitive practices. But the answer to “bad” speech — to lies and hate and misinformation — is more speech. The cure is not to hide the bad speech from the public eye.

Some of the exchange on Parler is unconscionable. But to pretend that Facebook and Twitter don’t host death threats and racism and anti-Semitism is laughable. It’s true that Parler users (estimated at about 15 million) discussed and coordinated the riot at the Capitol. But does anyone seriously think that banning the site would have halted it?

Even international figures like Germany’s Angela Merkel has pointed out the conflict with American ideals, calling these recent acts a breach of the “fundamental right to free speech.”

In the end, we must defend people’s right to say things we don’t agree with, even if what is said is false and objectionable.

To do otherwise undermines our country’s principles and, at the same time, simply doesn’t work. Make no mistake, the uglier aspects of the conversation on social media sites, mainstream and otherwise, will find new outlets. For example, the CEO of Gab, an alternative social networking site, managed to back up Trump’s Twitter account and recreate it there.

Sending such conversations underground will only allow them to fester and simmer, unchecked and unmonitored, fueling a radicalized countercultural populism with a grudge to nurse. Being unaware of bad thoughts and evil speech is not a protection. It’s burying our heads in the sand. It’s ignorance of what is going on around us.

The answer remains the same as it always has been: We must counter bad speech with more and better speech.

Social media, like much of the news media, has become a wedge between Americans who are decamping to different platforms along ideological lines in the tens of thousands in the wake of the bans. That cannot be a good thing for the country.

Trump should answer for the role of his speech in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. The law enumerates explicit standards for incitements to violence and insurrection; if Trump is found guilty of violating those standards, he should be prosecuted.

Banning him from social media accounts will serve merely to incense his followers further, as they correctly decry the move as un-American.

Let discourse continue. Let discourse return.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

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