America was built on an unwavering commitment to free speech? No, that’s fiction

A cascade of new technology gave unparalleled communicative power to “the people formerly known as the audience.”

A cascade of new technology gave unparalleled communicative power to “the people formerly known as the audience.”

Jenny Kane/Associated Press 2019

The idea that the U.S. was built on an unwavering commitment to freedom of speech is a cornerstone of the American civic creed. It’s proclaimed so often, lately by the current wave of tech plutocrats, that suggesting some speech should be barred feels unpatriotic.

But it’s a dangerously misleading fiction.

This country has been picky about which speech it enables and which it suppresses; speech has always and everywhere been closely regulated and ruthlessly managed by a shifting constellation of power based on economic, political, religious, racial and technological privilege. True, outliers were rarely jailed; America handles defiance and dissent by rendering it inaudible — either drowned out by the din of approved voices or kept off the channels with the reach and credibility to matter.

Only now, with the explosion of monster social media that profit from eluding those restraints, does the prospect of truly free public discourse stare us in the face. And that prospect is terrifying.

There’s an irony here, an awkward one for progressives who regard the media with ambivalence — sometimes in support of advancement, but more dependably as a force for political conformity and corporatist hegemony. That less heroic identity was long a reason for dismay among people whose causes were ignored when the issues of the day were framed.

And so we watched the media cheerlead our wars, dwell on the disruptive consequences of reform, worship the rich, comfort the masses with tales of resilience and soft-pedal systemic challenges — climate change and wealth inequality, for starters — until the danger was clear and present. The notion that our media foster a public conversation steeped in the freewheeling expression of alternatives has never, in my lifetime, been close to true.

Not long ago there was a moment of jubilation over the cascade of inventions that gave unparalleled communicative power to “the people formerly known as the audience,” in Jay Rosen’s pitch-perfect phrase. The cultural response was rapturous: The media establishment was crumbling not from mere grassroots pressure, but from pressures deeper and stronger — tectonic changes from a new digital communications infrastructure that were redrawing the boundaries of life on the surface. The media’s twin monopolies, access to information and access to audiences, were shattered. Strangers thronged to new networks as “friends.” Amateurs invaded the turf owned by professional commentators. “Here comes everybody,” as Clay Shirky put it in a 2009 book. Something was happening.

But that was before the angry, the frightened, the uninformed, the scorned, the vengeful found each other. Before QAnon and Proud Boys, MAGA, Jan. 6, the murders enabled by online networks, doxing, cancel culture, incels. Before the flood of suspicions and calumnies — the election a fraud, the pandemic a scam, climate change a fabrication, conspiracies afoot to destroy your country, your faith, your gender, your race. This surge of populist wrath, reverberating through civil society and government, is unimaginable without the media marvels hailed as miraculous a decade ago.

So maybe that self-serving, elitist, pre-digital media, the one that the progressive left longed to replace with a communicative democracy, actually did a pretty good job keeping the lid screwed tight. Maybe for all its faults, it made cranks with slanderous abuse and lethal intent write on bathroom stalls, instead of mobilizing them by the legion to recruit the credulous — and make money for media owners and trouble for the rest of us.

What can be done? For starters, recognize that this is indeed new, really new. Never has a society faced anything like the volume of communication produced by huge numbers of ordinary people for mass audiences independently of any review of its veracity and potential for harm. Never has a society watched the damage that unrestrained communication can do. And failed to respond.

Remedies are not easy. First Amendment jurisprudence leaves little scope for legislative intervention. Even scrapping the reviled Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the immunity from damage suits it provides platforms would barely scratch the surface. Fortunately, social media are voluntary associations of private people and are free to adopt standards of permissible speech. It’s time they adopted them and enforced them.

To be credible, standards must honor core values of our culture — fairness, decency, truthfulness and respect, for starters. The platforms themselves have already adopted a model of community standards, which they have applied, albeit inconsistently, to bar content.

But current self-regulation is puny and overmatched. Oversight can’t be conducted by a coven of invited worthies; the networks are huge and furiously busy, and must devote commensurate resources to controlling the dangers they create. That means money. It also means review procedures that embody principles of participatory democracy — widely publicized, broadly supported, accountable — and run by people representative of the communities they serve. Their oversight must be sweeping enough to shape the character of the network and respond quickly to the challenges that arise.

Self-regulation is not a throwback to the pre-internet strictures. It’s a route to the emancipation that the utopianists imagined a generation ago, a roadmap toward a discursive environment where people who were silent feel safe to speak because speech finally is free — free from the falsity, threats and fear of reprisal that keeps people from using today’s epoch-making media to speak their minds and together create their common future.

Edward Wasserman is a professor of journalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, where he is the former dean.