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Opinion | Behold the Free Speech Chutzpah of the Republican Party

At Harvard, 133 members of the faculty have joined the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, dedicated to upholding the free speech guidelines adopted by the university in 1990:

Free speech is uniquely important to the University because we are a community committed to reason and rational discourse. Free interchange of ideas is vital for our primary function of discovering and disseminating ideas through research, teaching, and learning.

Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at the school and a founder of the group, wrote in an email that achieving this goal is much tougher than generally believed:

To understand the recent assaults on free speech, we need to flip the question: Not why diverse opinions are being suppressed, but why they are tolerated. Freedom of speech is an exotic, counterintuitive concept. What’s intuitive is that the people who disagree with me are spreading dangerous falsehoods and must be stifled for the greater good. The realization that everyone feels this way, that all humans are fallible, that however confident I am in my beliefs, I may be wrong, and that the only way we can collectively approach the truth is to allow opinions to be expressed and then evaluate them, requires feats of abstraction and self-control.

The example I cited at the beginning of this column — the charge that the Biden administration “colluded with big tech and ‘disinformation’ partners to censor” the claims of election deniers — has proved to be a case study of a successful Republican tactic on multiple fronts.

Republicans claimed the moral high ground as the victims of censorship, throwing their adversaries on the defensive and quieting their opponents.

On June 6, The Washington Post reported, in “These Academics Studied Falsehoods Spread by Trump. Now the G.O.P. Wants Answers,” that

The pressure has forced some researchers to change their approach or step back, even as disinformation is rising ahead of the 2024 election. As artificial intelligence makes deception easier and platforms relax their rules on political hoaxes, industry veterans say they fear that young scholars will avoid studying disinformation.

One of the underlying issues in the free speech debate is the unequal distribution of power. Paul Frymer, a political scientist at Princeton, raised a question in reply to my email: “I wonder if the century long standard for why we defend free speech — that we need a fairly absolute marketplace of ideas to allow all ideas to be heard (with a few exceptions), deliberated upon, and that the truth will ultimately win out — is a bit dated in this modern era of social media, algorithms and most importantly profound corporate power.”

While there has always been a corporate skew to speech, Frymer argued,

in the modern era, technology enables such an overwhelming drowning out of different ideas. How long are we hanging on to the protection of a hypothetical — that someone will find the truth on the 40th page of a Google search or a podcast with no corporate backing? How long do we defend a hypothetical when the reality is so strongly skewed toward the suppression of the meaningful exercise of free speech?

Frymer contended that

We do seem to need regulation of speech, in some form, more than ever. I’m not convinced we can’t find a way to do it that would enable our society to be more just and informed. The stakes — the fragility of democracy, the increasing hatred and violence on the basis of demographic categories, and the health of our planet — are extremely high to defend a single idea with no compromise.

Frymer suggested that ultimately

We can’t consider free speech without at least some understanding of power. We can’t assume in all contexts that the truth will ever come out; unregulated speech does not mean free speech.

From a different vantage point, Robert C. Post, a law professor at Yale, argued in an email that the censorship-free speech debate has run amok:

It certainly has gone haywire. The way I understand it is that freedom of speech has not been a principled commitment, but has been used instrumentally to attain other political ends. The very folks who were so active in demanding freedom of speech in universities have turned around and imposed unconscionable censorship on schools and libraries. The very folks who have demanded a freedom of speech for minority groups have sought to suppress offensive and racist speech.

The framing in the current debate over free speech and the First Amendment, Post contends, is dangerously off-kilter. Post sent me an article he wrote that will be published shortly by the scholarly journal Daedalus, “The Unfortunate Consequences of a Misguided Free Speech Principle.” In it, he notes that the issues are not just more complex than generally recognized, but in fact distorted by false assumptions.

Post makes the case that there is “a widespread tendency to conceptualize the problem as one of free speech. We imagine that the crisis would be resolved if only we could speak more freely.” In fact, he writes, “the difficulty we face is not one of free speech, but of politics. Our capacity to speak has been disrupted because our politics has become diseased.”

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