Constitutional Crossroads 4/6/23

Politics with Richard Bleil

Reading about the Congressional grilling of the president of TikTok (about ten days ago by the time this posts, but as of the writing of this post), it occurred to me that we are approaching something of a technology induced Constitutional crossroads.  Our nation has always prided itself on freedom of speech, at least in theory if not always practice.  But today, thanks to computer technology, the word of a single person can reach far wider and farther and much faster than ever before in history including misinformation, outright lies and dangerous rhetoric.  This raises an interesting question.

Before moving on, let’s talk a bit about the current restrictions of free speech.  The Supreme Court decided long ago (although as we’ve seen those decisions can be overturned much to the dismay of over half of the people in the country) that free speech has its limitations.  Free speech is not protected in cases of inducing to riot, and hate speech.  We are not (in principle) allowed, for example, to threaten somebody or call for harm to be done to them.  I think that most of us can agree that this is a good thing. 

Among the first amendment beneficiaries, however, are people like news personalities and politicians.  Politicians are, sadly, expected to lie.  They “skirt” the truth so they can say things that appeals to their constituents.  As we have recently seen, however, sometimes such rhetoric can lead to violence such as the attempted insurrection to overturn the will of the majority of voters in 2020.  There is strong evidence that this was caused by an outright lie perpetrated by the losing presidential candidate, a lie that has been demonstrated to be false and that he continues to push even to this day (as of the writing of this post, anyway).  His call to “take back our nation” has been mentioned in multiple court trials as the motivation for the violence within our own capitol.

The biggest and most powerful mainstream news agency elected to perpetuate that lie.  As has been seen in the trial with a voting machine manufacturer, both executives and news personalities at the station admitted to each other that they knew that they did not believe what the then-president was saying, and yet fully aware that there was violence caused by his lies, continued to tell these lies to their viewers. 

The civil war provides an interesting case study.  The disadvantage in the mid-nineteenth century is that news spread slowly, and largely by press and word of mouth.  The slow spread of the news to the government likely limited the response time possible, letting the news take root before anything could be done to stop its spread, but any rallying cries were isolated.  The telegram, surely, spread news from newspaper to newspaper, but the information transmitted was very restricted by the cost and time to compose telegrams, and the screening of those reports from news reporters.  The south became disgruntled with issues, and while the north may have been aware of their dissatisfaction, they probably were just disgruntled with the south.

Today, news spreads and reaches every household in the nation, potentially within microseconds.  In the Civil war, and I’m inferring it was because of limited communication, it was southern states versus north.  Today, if a new war began, any inciting commentary would be spread throughout the nation equally.  Where I live, there are more conservatives, but there are still liberals like me spread throughout this more-or-less “purple leaning red” state.  Should, God forbid, violence break out, it will be household to household, not state to state.

So, the question is, in the land of free speech, should the government and legal system step in?  Should news reporters and programs have stricter regulation, requiring fact-checking and with penalties for spreading lies?  Obama demonstrated the immense political power of the use of social media sites, and Trump demonstrated the excessive danger of misusing it.  Should politicians have regulations regarding to what extent, exactly, they can “exaggerate” and lie?  Can we distinguish between a political lie and a lie that is outright and bald faced?  Should politicians be held to their promises, and responsible for their rhetoric, especially if it’s dangerous? 

These are not questions I intend to answer here.  They are things that, I believe, all of us have to consider for ourselves.  The FBI is tracking things like organized violence from extreme groups with increasing accuracy (but perhaps not enough), but angry rhetoric is still slipping unnoticed right before a gunman walks into a school and kills people.  Just how flexible, or rigid, do we need to be in our definition of “free speech”?  All I know is that I believe that changes are in the wind.


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