National Opinions

Tensions rise between free speech, free association

FILE -- Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist, before his show in Austin, Feb. 17, 2017. Over the past several days Apple, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify have removed most of Alex Jones programming from their services.Credit (Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times)
FILE -- Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist, before his show in Austin, Feb. 17, 2017. Over the past several days Apple, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify have removed most of Alex Jones programming from their services.Credit (Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times) NYT

These are dark times for those who believe in unfettered freedom of expression. These are amazing times for those who believe in unfettered freedom of association. And these are untenable times for those who hope to balance both.

The biggest, most worrying news on the free-speech front is that 43 percent of self-identified Republicans believe “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior,” according to a Daily Beast report on an Ipsos poll. Meanwhile, liberal New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio attacked the good folks at News Corp. as enemies of the people.

Then there are online pressure campaigns to silence political enemies. Disney removed James Gunn from helming the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise after alt-right activists discovered pedophilia jokes on his Twitter.

This campaign was seen as payback for efforts to get the Trump-supporting actress Roseanne Barr fired from her hit TV show — at first for being that rarest of things, an outspoken supporter of the president in the entertainment industry, and later for a racist joke about Valerie Jarrett.

Finally, there’s the near-simultaneous decision by YouTube, Facebook and Apple to remove Alex Jones and Infowars from their various services. This comes on the heels of reports that Twitter is “shadow banning” conservative voices. It also arrives in the midst of an ongoing campaign by YouTube to censor and demonetize a number of right-to-far-right video outlets.

Jones is an uniquely toxic figure. Slandering the Sandy Hook families by suggesting their dead children were nothing but “crisis actors” was grotesque. And Jones has a long history of buffoonery, including but not limited to 9/11 trutherism.

But those who refuse to see this as the first step toward a more aggressive campaign of de-platforming conservatives are being obtuse. There is a growing belief that speech can be considered violence, that racist speech is by definition violence and that conservative thought is inherently racist.

Which brings me to freedom of association. No one, no group, no business should be forced to associate with one whose political views they find abhorrent. Reconciling this belief with a belief in free speech is made doubly difficult by the fact that the mainstream media and Silicon Valley both are monolithically Democratic.

And that’s where the real fear and the real danger come from. If you create a world in which you appeal to principles and then weaponize these principles in such a way that only one side of the fight is hurt you encourage people to abandon their principles altogether. We move closer to this kind of world when people argue that large web-based companies such as Google and Facebook and Twitter should be treated essentially as public utilities, regulated by the government in order to ensure access for all. That idea is just as much of a threat to speech and association alike as the growing belief that the president should be able to censor outlets for “bad behavior.”

For now, the First Amendment will likely hold off any efforts to compel association (or allow the executive to unilaterally shut down a printing press). But I fear that our changing norms will render it a temporary bulwark.

Given the fact that reputable legal minds writing in reputable publications are comfortable arguing that we have too much freedom under the First Amendment, and given changing attitudes about free speech on college campuses and free association in the conservative movement, radical changes are coming sooner than we might like.

Sonny Bunch is executive editor and film critic for the Washington Free Beacon.

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