We let some time pass for all the details to come in about the auto-da-fé that students and staff inflicted on Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Let us review these details and then suggest some next steps for Stanford.
Multiple sources and video confirm the judge was shouted down, berated, and abused during a lecture he had been invited to give to the Federalist Society chapter at Stanford Law on “The Fifth Circuit in Conversation with the Supreme Court: Covid, Guns, and Twitter.”
In the leadup to Judge Duncan’s talk, students at Stanford Law put up flyers that not only targeted Judge Duncan, but also students in the Federalist Society, posting their pictures and saying they “should be ashamed.” Over 70 students also emailed the FedSoc chapter asking it to cancel the event or move it to Zoom, arguing that Duncan has “proudly threatened healthcare and basic rights for marginalized communities.”
On the day of the event, around 100 protesters picketed outside the event, booing attendees, and calling out individual classmates. Protesters came into the room, holding signs with political slogans and shouting over any attempt by Judge Duncan to speak. For about ten minutes, Judge Duncan tried to give his planned remarks, but the protestors simply yelled over him.
Tirien Steinbach, Stanford Law’s Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and the University's student-relations representative, initially allowed protestors to continue to disrupt the event. She failed to enforce the school's policy against disrupting speakers, despite assurances given to this speaker that he would be protected.
Finally, Dean Steinbach stood up to control the crowd, but only after taking time to criticize Judge Duncan, saying that he “has caused harm.” Rather than telling disruptive students to respect the speech of a sitting federal judge and ask challenging questions later, Steinbach stated that “this event is tearing at the fabric of this community that I care about and am here to support.”
Steinbach repeatedly asks: “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” She clarified “is it worth the pain that this causes and the division that this causes?” Apparently free expression is only worth defending if a diversity administrator finds it not divisive (a standard as old as the trial of Socrates).
Steinbach finally encourages the students to allow Judge Duncan to speak, but without any serious reprimand to the protesters who violated school disruption policies, who lobbed verbal abuse at fellow students and the judge, and who held the most power in this situation. Thus, she validated their tactics and set a terrible precedent.
Although Judge Duncan was eventually allowed to speak, he never gave his prepared remarks as the audience moved directly to Q&A. The questions were predictably unbecoming of law students at one of the nation’s top schools. One heckler hurled lewd insults, and Judge Duncan had to be escorted out by federal marshals.
After the event, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Stanford law school dean Jenny Martinez issued a joint statement apologizing to Judge Duncan. Citing Dean Steinbach’s speech, the statement said that “staff members who should have enforced university policies failed to do so, and instead intervened in inappropriate ways that are not aligned with the university’s commitment to free speech.”
This incident was beyond unacceptable. You don’t have to agree with the judge’s views on jurisprudence or gender to worry about where such behavior is heading. While Protect The 1st is pleased by Stanford’s statement, it is only a baby step in the right direction. Stanford must commit itself to restoring freedom of speech, academic freedom, and respect for diversity of thought.
Stanford can begin by inviting Judge Duncan back to speak. Such a gesture would send a strong message that Stanford is truly interested in what a sitting federal Judge has to say. In January, Yale Law did much the same when it reinvited Kristen Waggoner, CEO, President, and General Counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom, to speak after undergoing a similar struggle session. That protest caused a firestorm, with some judges announcing they would not consider Yale Law graduates for clerkships.
Stanford could also take a hard look at the culture of censorship and surveillance that it, like many schools around the country, has built in the last few years. Last month, Protect The 1st reported on Stanford’s bias reporting system, which is used to anonymously report on students or faculty who commit wrongthink. Scores of Stanford faculty have called on the university to investigate free speech and academic freedom on campus, and to abolish the anonymous reporting system. What happened to Judge Duncan is just one flare-up of the chronic problem of intolerance, fear, and repression present on some college campuses.
And if Dean Steinbach and students do this to another speaker, Stanford must defend its reputation by firing Dean Steinbach and suspending or expelling students.
If Florida state Sen. Jason Brodeur gets his way, paid bloggers who cover that state’s governor, lieutenant governor, cabinet, or legislature must register with the state, much as lobbyists do, or face fines that can reach $2,500.
“Paid bloggers are lobbyists who write instead of talk,” Brodeur is quoted in floridapolitics.com. “They both are professional electioneers. If lobbyists must register and report, why shouldn’t paid bloggers?”
Brodeur’s point seems to be that if the enumerated First Amendment rights of lobbyists (the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances) can be regulated, why can’t we regulate the rights of bloggers (freedom of speech and the press)?
If this sounds reasonable on its face, it isn’t when you look at it closely.
In Florida, lobbyists are government relations professionals who are paid to visit legislators to present the views of their corporate, union, NGO, or other special-interest employers. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that government can require such lobbyists to register. Other Floridians can write, petition, or go to their legislator’s office, without any registration or restrictions. That’s called democracy.
The same freedom applies to bloggers. They don’t show up at the Capitol on a daily basis. They may be paid or unpaid. They may work for the common good or spread disinformation. They may shed light or start fires. They can disrespect, criticize, ridicule, and skewer state officers – including Sen. Jason Brodeur – because, you see, the First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” And more than two centuries of American law makes it clear these principles apply to government at all levels, from Tallahassee, Florida; to Laredo, Texas; to Sacramento, California, where youth sporting groups have had to go to court to defend themselves against a law that degrades both their First and Second Amendment rights.
It is easy to see why some people – and politicians – get upset with commentary from the shadier precincts of social media, especially content subsidized by special interests with partisan, ideological, or personal axes to grind. There is no way to stamp this out; however, that doesn’t justify the far worse problem of censorship. The only solution is to marshal facts, be a good communicator, and be vocal in response.
Requiring millions of people who blog about state politicians to register or face fines would be an onerous burden on speech. It would subject political speech to regulation, an impulse far too close to practices in Venezuela, Russia, or China for comfort. And yet, there is increasing interest from the right and the left to find new ways to restrict speech.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had to strike down Florida’s social media law that would have placed restrictions on how social media platforms can moderate content. “Put simply, with minor exceptions, the government can't tell a private person or entity what to say or how to say it,” said Judge Kevin Newsom, appointed by President Trump. A court had to hold up several provisions of a Florida law that would have attempted to fine-tune academic speech.
Many people agree when you complain that the media and the academy have become unfair or increasingly one-sided. But passing one poorly-crafted, unconstitutional messaging bill after another won’t change anything.
Should this bill become law, expect mass civil disobedience from bloggers, including from us. If Florida wants to reduce criticism in the blogosphere, we suggest refraining from proposing and passing unconstitutional laws. That would do more good than trying to regulate free speech.
Protect the First to SCOTUS: Sidewalk Preacher Case Is an “Excellent Vehicle” to Resolve Public Forum Speech Issue
Protect The 1st on Wednesday filed a reply brief answering claims from the University of Alabama against our petition for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Keister v. Bell.
We told the court that this case is an “excellent vehicle” to resolve a split in appellate courts on the proper analysis of what constitutes a public forum. The case revolves around the right of evangelist Rodney Keister to stand on city-owned sidewalks on a public street in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, near the University of Alabama. The UA campus police enforced an agreement with the city to clamp down on expressive activity at that portion of the sidewalk, warning Keister not to preach on this portion of a public sidewalk.
At stake is the right of Americans to use public spaces to engage in speech – a practice that was embedded in American life long before colonials handed out Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlets. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, recognizes that “traditional public fora are open for expressive activity regardless of the government intent.” On the other hand, the Eleventh Circuit ruled against Keister with a multifactor balancing test and allowed the University to forbid expressive activity on the sidewalk.
Protect The 1st wrote: “Even assuming the propriety of a balancing test, the Eleventh Circuit’s circular reliance on the University’s intent to suppress speech was an improper fulcrum for converting the most quintessential of traditional public fora into a limited forum allowing suppression.”
Protect The 1st is hopeful the Court will take this chance to resolve a split in the courts and uphold the traditional right of Americans to use public property for expression and speech.
On December 21st, the faculty senate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology voted to approve a “Free Expression Statement,” defending speech and expression at the university. The statement asserts that “learning from a diversity of viewpoints, and from the deliberation, debate, and dissent that accompany them, are essential ingredients of academic excellence.”
The Free Expression Statement was approved by a vote of 98 to 52, a sizable margin showing that respect for free expression is alive and well at MIT. Not only does the statement enshrine respect for free speech, viewpoint diversity, and debate as cornerstones of academic integrity, but so too does it defend the right to speech that may hurt or offend. “We cannot prohibit speech that some experience as offensive or injurious,” the statement reads.
The Free Expression Statement is the culmination of a year’s work by MIT’s Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression, and was incited by last year’s invitation for, and subsequent cancellation of, a speech by geophysicist Dorian Abbot. Abbot was invited to present 2021’s annual John Carlson Lecture, which “communicates exciting new results in climate science to the general public.” Protestors led a successful campaign to disinvite Abbot because of his critical views on the university’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives.
That the Free Expression Statement was adopted by the faculty senate goes a long way towards rectifying the mistakes of last year, but it still has further to go. “[MIT] President Kornbluth can set a strong example by endorsing the free expression statement herself, as well as by considering and implementing the thoughtful recommendations of the free expression working group,” said Peter Bonilla, Executive Director for the MIT Free Speech Alliance.
PT1 strongly supports the passage of the Free Expression Statement by the faculty senate at MIT. We look forward to further efforts to preserve and protect free speech at MIT and at universities across the country.
The Alliance Defending Freedom scored a win in federal court recently when it represented a Christian student organization that says it was the target of viewpoint discrimination at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).
Ratio Christi — Latin for “the reason of Christ” — is a multinational organization that “equips university students and faculty to give historical, philosophical, and scientific reasons for following Jesus Christ.” In 2021, the UNL chapter requested $1,500 in student activity funding to host Notre Dame Professor Robert Audi. Professor Audi, who previously taught at UNL for nearly thirty years, was slated to give a speech on whether it is rational to believe in God. The University rejected the request, stating that funding could not be provided for “speakers of a political and ideological nature."
The University also stated that Ratio Christi must invite a speaker to represent the opposite views of Audi to obtain the funding. In their suit, the ADF called this “viewpoint discriminatory on its face.” The policy set forward by the university “gives University officials unbridled discretion to engage in viewpoint discrimination by failing to set out narrow, objective, and definite standards for the disbursement of student fees for extracurricular speech.”
Thankfully, a federal court recently ruled in favor of the ADF and Ratio Christi. On December 15th, the ADF announced that the university accepted the court’s judgment and agreed to pay Ratio Christi $1,500. Additionally, the university also changed its student organization funding policy “to promote the availability of diverse viewpoints to UNL students […]”
Protect The 1st congratulates the Alliance Defending Freedom and Ratio Christi on their hard-fought legal victory. We also commend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for accepting the Court’s judgment with magnanimity, and for taking necessary steps to ensure academic freedom and viewpoint diversity are upheld.
Elon Musk’s release of Twitter’s records to journalist Matt Taibbi that revealed a content moderation decision by Twitter to delete the Hunter Biden laptop story continues to set off a chain of recriminations. Some fevered reactions call into question basic constitutional principles.
For example, former President Trump publicly posted (and later tried to walk back) a statement saying that such an act of censorship is one of several reasons to “terminate” provisions of the U.S. Constitution. That bit of histrionics aside, what does the Constitution actually say about the rights of Twitter and its users?
Twitter as a private company is not bound by the First Amendment: it can freely decide to post or remove content. The decision to remove an article with political content in the shadow of a presidential election did not violate the letter of the law. But it did arguably violate First Amendment principles.
Leave it to progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) to remind us in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal the once-banal but seemingly lost truth that the Constitution and its freedom of speech works for all people, in every direction, all the time.
Rep. Khanna wrote: “Defending free speech is easy when it’s speech you agree with. Defending speech you dislike, or speech that doesn’t advance your interests, is more challenging. But it is in exactly those uncomfortable situations that American democratic principles call on us to protect the free exchange of ideas and freedom of the press.”
Rep. Khanna points to the seminal 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan that debate on public issues should be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Even though this debate may “include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” that is no cause for censorship.
Certainly, Twitter and any other social media company have an absolute First Amendment right to manage content and to exclude the Kanye Wests of the world. But with size should come acceptance of responsibility.
Khanna’s position is not posturing after the fact. Twitter’s records reveal that when the censorship occurred, Khanna wrote to Twitter’s general counsel saying that the company’s actions “seemed to be a violation of First Amendment principles.”
Rep. Khanna has it just right. Twitter’s removal of the content was a violation of the principles and spirit of the First Amendment, even if not an actionable violation of the law. The principles of the First Amendment are foundational to who we are as Americans. They should be for social media companies as well.
Protect The 1st commends Congressman Ro Khanna for standing up for speech – even when it is uncomfortable.
More Students Support Violence Against Offensive Speakers
A new poll of undergraduate students reveals they lack a basic understanding of the First Amendment’s guarantees and are growing in acceptance of the heckler’s veto and even violence against speakers on campus.
These are the results of the William F. Buckley, Jr., Program’s eighth annual survey measuring the opinions of college students at four-year colleges and universities. One might wonder if a survey commissioned by a group named for the famous conservative author of God and Man at Yale might have a built-in bias of its own. But the survey, conducted by McLaughlin & Associates of 803 undergraduates nationwide, shows a clear deterioration in basic understanding of the principles of free speech that matches growing reports of intolerance for speech on campus over the last year.
The deterioration of speech principles in higher education begins as a failure in American secondary education. Students are not in disagreement with the American tradition of free speech and the Constitutional order as much as they seem to lack a basic understanding of what that tradition is.
As always, such discussions center around the most offensive speech imaginable, but the practical effect is to demonize anyone we disagree with as being the moral equivalent of a Nazi or Satan. Limiting speech on campus can come from conservatives as well as from liberals.
Students need to understand that – except for explicit calls to violence – hate speech, as contemptible as it is, is allowed in America. This is based on a mature understanding that once we outlaw one kind of speech, rhetorical contortions will be made to define any opposing argument as somehow being hateful and thus worthy of repression. Students are also not taught that outlawing hate speech does not eradicate it: rather, it drives such speech underground and glamorizes it. Repression endows hate speech with a glimmering allure for immature and unhealthy minds.
“The First Amendment bars the government from deciding for us what is true or false, online or anywhere,” the ACLU recently tweeted. “Our government can’t use private pressure to get around our constitutional rights.”
The ACLU responded to a report from Ken Klippenstein and Lee Fang of The Intercept news organization that the federal government works in secret to suggest content that social media organizations should suppress. The Intercept claims that years of internal DHS memos, emails, and documents, as well as a confidential source within the FBI, reveal the extent to which the government works secretly with social media executives in squashing content.
After a few days of cool appraisal of this story, we have to say we have more questions than answers. It is fair to note that The Intercept has had its share of journalistic controversies with questions raised regarding the validity of its reporting. It also appears that this report is significantly sourced on a lawsuit filed by the Missouri Attorney General, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. We’ve also sounded out experts in this space who speculate that much of the content government is flagging is probably illegal content, such as Child Sexual Abuse Materials.
There is also reason for the government to track and report to websites state-sponsored propaganda, malicious disinformation, or use of a platform by individuals or groups that may be planning violent acts. If Russian hackers promote a fiction about Ukrainians committing atrocities with U.S. weapons – or if a geofenced alert is posted that due to the threat of inclement weather, an election has been postponed – there is good reason for officials to act.
The government is in possession of information derived from its domestic or foreign information-gathering that websites don't have, and the timely provision of that information to websites could be helpful in removing content that poses a threat to public safety, endangers children, or is otherwise inappropriate for social media sharing. It would certainly be interesting to know whether the social media companies find the government’s information-sharing efforts to be helpful or whether they feel pressured.
The undeniable problem here is the secret nature of this program. Why did we have to find out about it from an investigative report? The insidious potential of this program is that we will never know when information has been suppressed, much less if the reason for the government’s concern was valid.
The Intercept reports that the meeting minutes appended to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s lawsuit includes discussions that have “ranged from the scale and scope of government intervention in online discourse to the mechanics of streamlining takedown requests for false or intentionally misleading information.”
In a meeting in March, one FBI official reportedly told senior executives from Twitter and JPMorgan Chase “we need a media infrastructure that is held accountable.” Does she mean a media secretly accountable to the government? Klippenstein and Fang report a formalized process for government officials to directly flag content on Facebook or Instagram and request that it be suppressed. The Intercept included the link to Facebook’s “content request system” that visitors with law enforcement or government email addresses can access.
The Intercept reports that the purpose of this program is to remove misinformation (false information spread unintentionally), disinformation (false information spread intentionally), and malinformation (factual information shared, typically out of context, with harmful intent). According to The Intercept, the department plans to target “inaccurate information” on a wide range of topics, including “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.”
The Intercept also reports that “disinformation” is not clearly defined in these government documents. Such a secret government program may include information gathered from activities that violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on accessing personal information without a warrant. It would also be, to amplify the spirited words of the ACLU, a Mack Truck-sized flattening of the First Amendment.
One cannot ignore the potential that the government is doing more than helpfully sharing information with websites along with a suggestion that it be taken down. Is the information-sharing accompanied by pressure exerted by the government on the website? From the information now available, we simply don't know.
Bottom line: if these allegations are true, the U.S. government in some cases may be secretly determining what is and what is not truth, and on that basis may be quietly working with large social media companies behind the scenes to effect the removal of content. So, the possible origin of COVID-19 in a Chinese laboratory was deemed suppressible, until U.S. intelligence agencies reversed course and determined that a man-made origin of the virus is, in fact, a possibility. And the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan? Is our government suppressing content that suggests that it was somehow a less-than-stellar example of American power in action?
If these allegations are true, Jonathan Turley, George Washington University professor of law, is correct in calling this “censorship by surrogate.”
This program, which Klippenstein and Fang report is becoming ever more central to the mission of DHS and other agencies, is not without its wins. “A 2021 report by the Election Integrity Partnership at Stanford University found that of nearly 4,800 flagged items, technology platforms took action on 35 percent – either removing, labeling, or soft-blocking speech, meaning the users were only able to view content after bypassing a warning screen.” On the other hand, the Stanford research shows that in 65 percent of the cases websites exercised independent judgment to maintain the content unmoderated notwithstanding the government's suggestion.
After mulling this over for a few days, we propose the following:
There is no reason why the government cannot stand behind its finding that a given post is the product of, say, Russian or Chinese disinformation, or a call to violence, or some other explicit danger to public safety. But we need to know if the most powerful media in existence is subject to editorial influence from the secret preferences of bureaucrats and politicians. If so, this secret content moderation must end immediately or be radically overhauled.
All We Are Saying Is Give Elon a Chance
“Why Elon Musk’s Idea of ‘Free Speech’ Will Help Ruin America,” reads a headline in the liberal The New Republic. Bottom line – the sale of Twitter to Elon Musk “means that lies and disinformation will overwhelm the truth and the fascists will take over.”
“Stop the Twitterverse – I Want to Get Off,” writes Debra Saunders in the conservative American Spectator a few weeks before Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter became inevitable.
From left and right, cynicism is the dominant reaction to the potential of Twitter under Elon Musk’s direction. The left hates Twitter because it can be abused by noxious personalities with extreme politics. The right hates Twitter because of a perception among conservatives that Twitter takes out the magnifying glass only when evaluating conservative speech.
Both sides have become so used to distortion and the failure of public enterprises and personalities that they have come to welcome it. We’ve even started to root for failure. There is an emotional comfort to always assuming the worst will happen – you will never be disappointed. E.K. Hornbeck, the journalist character in Inherit the Wind, captured the mentality of our times in a play written by Jerome Lawrence half-a-century before the emergence of social media:
“Cynical? That's my fascination.
Social media has elevated Hornbeckism and taught us not just expect the worst, but to celebrate it. We should pause, then, to take note that on the day Elon Musk visited the headquarters of Twitter as he assumes ownership, the billionaire released a surprisingly sweet note to advertisers about the direction the platform will take.
Musk wrote that he bought Twitter “because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence. There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far-right wing and far-left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society.”
He wrote that the “relentless pursuit of clicks” of traditional and social media fuels caters to polarized extremes. Musk admits that failure is real possibility for him and that he must allow some degree of content moderation to keep Twitter from becoming a “free-for-all-hellscape.”
Musk and his team face many granular decisions between statements that are edgy and even offensive to many, and those that are over the line. That line will probably waver back and forth as Twitter experiments with a broader array of speech and speakers. Security will also need to be addressed. A fired former senior executive of Twitter, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that there are “no locks on the doors” at Twitter when it comes to securing users’ data. Twitter, he said, had been infiltrated by foreign spies, including actors on behalf of the People’s Republic of China, seeking Americans’ personal data.
It will be up to Musk to assess and if necessary correct security flaws. He will lead a team that must be capable of executing operations while bringing a more open-minded ethos to the Twitterverse. We can be certain that there will be mistakes, embarrassments, policies made and revoked. But Elon Musk’s rockets exploded on the launchpad before he got SpaceX right. Maybe the same will happen this time.
We should all hope so.
As Twitter evolves, stumbles, evolves some more, we should remain calm and continue to cheer for the platform’s success. There’s nothing quite like it. And if Twitter fails because we cannot as a nation manage a dialogue, then we will all fail as well.
A Death Penalty for Think Tanks?
Perhaps you’ve never heard of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation. You might not be interested in MARAD, but MARAD might be interested in you. Let us hope that MARAD does not have reason to want to put you to death.
Harry Byrd Wilt of The Dispatch (paywalled, but the Cato Institute has a good synopsis) revealed that in March 2020 a committee of the maritime shipping panel reacted to the opposition of two libertarian think tanks, the Cato Institute and the Mercatus Center, to the Jones Act – a 1920 law governing shipping. The Jones Act requires the use of U.S. flagged vessels for the transport of items originating at a U.S. port and bound for another U.S. port. Critics say the law inflates the shipping costs for intrastate traffic.
And what did MARAD propose as a response to these criticisms?
“Charge all past and present members of the Cato and Mercatus Institutes with treason.”
Treason, of course, is punishable by long prison sentences and even death. But why put all past and current members of the Cato Institute and Mercatus Center to death for criticizing the Jones Act when we could, with equal justice, put them to death for their positions on “zoning land use planning” and for writing papers with titles like “Improving the Regulatory Process through Regulatory Budgeting”?
On the surface, this is a silly story. But it contains within it a very serious one. One of the long-standing civic norms that has gone by the wayside in recent years is restraint in the use of the word “treason.” Politicians of both parties and of all ideological stripes now freely accuse one of another of being traitors. This is more dangerous than it seems, because in much of the world, loose standards for treason are a way to imprison and sometimes judicially murder critics of the government. From Iran, to China, to Russia, critics of the government are silenced by painting them as acting at the behest of some foreign (usually American) interests.
It is discouraging to see the same impulse emerging here.
Fortunately, the American Founders were alert to the danger that accusations of treason pose to free speech and the free exchange of ideas. In Article III, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution, they set a very high bar for convicting an American of treason. Treason consists of a citizen who is guilty of “only in levying War against them [the United States], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” Note the use of the word “only.” In addition, the guilty person must either confess or have two witnesses testify against him or her in open court. Furthermore, the Constitution holds that a treasonous person’s guilt cannot be a reason to punish his or her family.
The Constitution is our guardrail against transforming rhetoric about treason into prosecutions. But we cannot rely on that document to shape our norms and political culture. Friedrich Hayek, the Nobel-Prize winning economist and for decades a leading light at the Cato Institute said that “to choose one’s government is not necessarily to secure freedom.” So much free talk about treason, both on the left and the right, betrays a growing desire to use force to silence the other side.
A recent Los Angeles Times editorial recounted how The Baltimore Sun won a Pulitzer Prize this year for unearthing a scandal that forced the resignation of Baltimore’s mayor. The editorial also told of The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer finalist series on how that city’s public schools fail to help even its best students succeed. And yet, The Times revealed, dogged shoe-leather reporting has not been enough to stem the tide of pay cuts, layoffs and furloughs with these and other newspapers. Across the nation, newsroom employment dropped 23 percent from 2008 to 2018.
What to do about the disintegration of local journalism in the face of the digital dominance of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and the loss of classified advertisement to digital platforms?
The Times recommends federal and state support, stating this could be done in way that wouldn’t compromise the independence of local news. We respectfully disagree. Taking government money would create the appearance of being in the bag for the powers that be, whether that is true or not.
A better solution is emerging – of all places – in Washington, D.C. The full Senate will soon consider a bill sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) that recently moved out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with strong bipartisan support from Sens. John Kennedy (R-LA) and Ted Cruz (R-TX). The Journalism Competition Preservation Act would grant news organizations with fewer than 1,500 full-time employees and non-network news broadcasters a narrow exemption from antitrust law to collectively negotiate payment for their content.
On the other side of the table would be companies that have at least 50 million U.S.-based users or subscribers or market cap greater than $550 billion. Translation – Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
Sen. Cruz had blown up an earlier version of this bill, which secured an agreement from Sen. Klobuchar that the bill would not extend antitrust protection to discussions of content moderation and censorship. That won him over and launched the bill with Republican support.
The bill as it exists now makes great sense. One reason local journalism is ailing is that Big Social Media has been displaying the fruits of local investigative reporting and writing for free. Journalists should be allowed to ask these companies to pony up for the use of their content.
That is one way to create a revenue stream for local journalism that won’t make the news dependent on handouts from government or grants from people and foundations with agendas.
“The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act is a needed correction to the free use of local news by digital giants,” said Rick Boucher, former U.S. Representative from Virginia, and Protect The 1st Senior Policy Advisor. “We wholeheartedly endorse it to protect the role of local journalists in exploring local issues and holding government accountable.”
SCOTUS Edges Toward Section 230 Review
Protect The 1st is covering the growing likelihood that the split between the Eleventh and Fifth Circuit courts over the social media moderation content laws of Texas and Florida make it likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve what decisions about political speech – if any – can be made by states.
As we reported last week, the Florida law – which would prohibit social media platforms from removing the posts of political candidates – was stricken by the Eleventh Circuit. The Texas law, which bars companies from removing posts based on a poster’s political ideology, was upheld by the Fifth Circuit. Both laws aim to address questionable content moderation decisions by Twitter, Meta, Google, and Amazon, by eroding the Section 230 liability shield in the Communications Decency Act.
Cert bait doesn’t get more appealing than this. Consider: A split between federal circuits. Laws that would protect free expression in the marketplace of ideas while simultaneously curtailing the speech rights of unpopular companies. Two similar laws with differences governing the moderation of political speech. The petition for SCOTUS reviewing the Texas and Florida laws practically writes itself.
We were not initially surprised when we heard reports the Supreme Court was stepping into the Section 230 fray. The Court, however, is set to examine a different set of challenges to Section 230 in a domain that is oblique to the central questions about political content posed by Texas and Florida.
The court will examine whether the liability protections of Section 230 immunize Alphabet’s Google, YouTube, and Twitter against apparently tangential associations in two cases involving terrorist organizations. Do the loved ones of victims of terror attacks in Paris and Istanbul have an ability to breach 230’s shield?
We don’t mean to diminish the importance of this question, especially to the victims. As far as the central questions of political content moderation and free speech are concerned, however, any decisions on these two cases will have modest impact on the rights and responsibilities of these platforms, a crucial issue at center of the national debate.
It is our position that taking away Section 230 protections would collapse online commerce and dialogue, while violating the First Amendment rights of social media companies. Love social media companies or hate them – and millions of people are coming to hate them – if you abridge the right of one group of unpopular people to moderate their content, you degrade the power of the First Amendment for everyone else.
We continue to press policymakers to look to the principles behind the bipartisan Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, which would compel the big social media companies to offer clear standards and due process for posters in exchange for continuing the liability protection of Section 230.
When a federal district court upholds the First Amendment rights of a person or organization, can it enforce those rights in the future? The answer by The Protect the First Foundation before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit is a resounding “yes.”
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) of Tampa runs ads on its vehicles and bus shelters but prohibits ads that “promote a religious faith or religious organization.” When Young Israel of Tampa, an Orthodox synagogue, tried to place an ad for its “Chanukah on Ice” event, HART rejected those ads under its no-religion policy.
A district court came down on the side of Young Israel on First Amendment grounds and issued a permanent order or injunction forbidding HART from “rejecting any advertisement on the ground that the advertisement primarily promotes a religious faith or religious organization.” HART appealed, arguing that the district court’s injunction was an abuse of its powers and that HART’s advertising policy was constitutional.
The PT1st Foundation counter, filed Wednesday evening, demonstrates:
“First Amendment rights are fundamental rights essential to every other form of freedom. As a result, First Amendment rights warrant special protection. Because courts cannot enjoin conduct and do not ‘strike down’ unconstitutional laws, a court cannot adequately protect First Amendment interests without including prohibitions against future illegal conduct in its injunction.
“Without such preventative relief, governments would be free to repeat the same constitutional violation in the future. Any resolution of this case that fails to prevent future harm does not adequately vindicate the First Amendment.”
PT1st believes remedies to violations of the First Amendment should be as enduring as our right to free speech.
The Violent Threat to Free Expression
This month’s brutal assault on Indian-born British-American novelist Salman Rushdie was not just a violent attack on a prominent author. It was an attack on free expression itself.
In response to The Satanic Verses, a book Rushdie wrote in 1988, the supreme leader of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa against the author. Since then, there have been numerous attempts on Rushdie’s life. This latest attack is just the most successful of them.
There has been no shortage of commentators who have stated in the same breath that, while the fatwa and assassination attempts were wrong, Rushdie should not have published a book that would offend millions of Muslims around the world. Any attempt to balance the interests of free expression with death threats will only cede territory to violence.
This month’s attack only further proves that speech rights around the world are increasingly threatened by political violence. If someone like Rushdie, who has had to flee his home and receive security, can still be targeted, so can anyone who says the wrong thing. Citizens of free societies should be able to disagree with one another, even stridently, without demonizing their opponents.
In 2020, Rushdie, along with other prominent figures, signed an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine slamming the spread of censorship and intolerance. The letter read: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” Now, more than ever, the right to free expression around the world requires even greater defense.
It might sound like a trivial question at a time when speech rights are threatened all around the country, but it’s at the forefront of several First Amendment legal battles.
The role and importance of online speech has grown dramatically in the last decade and lots of government broadcasts, outreach, and business is now done through official social media accounts. For example, each President gets his own official Twitter account, through which he can speak to the public.
Such accounts have altered the nature of social media and have become the subject of controversy. In 2017, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sued President Trump for blocking American citizens on his official Twitter account. They argued that blocking accounts suppresses speech and prevents users from reading official government policy and announcements. The Knight Institute won in both the District Court for the Southern District of New York and the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Supreme Court vacated the case in 2021 after President Trump was not reelected.
A more recent case seeks to argue along the same lines against other official government accounts. (A hat tip to Eugene Volokh of Reason Magazine for detailing the arguments of this case.) Bruce Gilley is a political science professor at Portland State University. Gilley has filed suit against Tova Stabin, the communications manager of the University of Oregon Division of Equity and Inclusion for blocking him on Twitter. The University of Oregon is a public university, meaning its official Twitter accounts are run by the government. Gilley’s complaint reads:
“In both cases, the University of Oregon has created the @UOEquity Twitter account to engage with the public and to solicit feedback. Its purpose is to interact with the public and to foster exchange. That is a public forum. Defendant Stabin was and is a state actor acting in the course and scope of her employment when she blocked, and continues to block, Bruce Gilley from the @UOEquity account. Defendant Stabin acted in a viewpoint discriminatory manner when she blocked Bruce Gilley from the @UOEquity Twitter account.”
It remains to be seen if other courts will stick to the official business framework that worked so well for the Knight Institute.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) deployed it recently when they sent a letter to the Director of Media Services for the New York State Senate requesting that the Senate stop blocking Twitter critics and hiding their tweets. The New York State Senate’s Twitter account frequently blocks or hides criticism of legislation and legislators. The letter reads: “courts across the country have recognized that when a government actor invites public comments on social media, the government actor’s regulation of that online speech is restrained by the First Amendment.”
PT1st looks forward to further developments in the state of online speech rights. Additional questions will need to be answered. Would a prohibition on official government accounts blocking other users offer protections to non-Americans? How do we uphold the rights of citizens in an era of online anonymity?
Religious Schools and National Vibrancy
Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former New York City public school teacher, and Elli Lucas, research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote Monday in The Washington Examiner:
“Not only can [school] choice provide a way out for students in failing schools, but it can also enrich our nation by enhancing its vibrancy, variety, and vivacity. Our nation is better off when its schools are not a bland monoculture but rather match the varied dynamism of its people and their aspirations.”
Protect The 1st would only add that religious schools are a strong contributor of vibrancy and variety for a bland monoculture. Empowering schools that offer quality education standards while also continuing faith traditions – be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu – is a powerful use of the Free Exercise Clause to the benefit of all.
In their haste to place new restrictions on guns, legislators in Sacramento have recently run roughshod over the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment. This is a byproduct of enacting AB 2571, a law prohibiting the marketing of firearms or related products in a manner that “reasonably appears to be attractive to minors.”
The law is part of a broader series of initiatives by California lawmakers adopted in the name of preventing gun violence in the wake of a series of devastating shootings across the country. While Protect The 1st supports focused initiatives to reduce the criminal use of guns, vague legislation targeting speech about lawful products because they might appeal to a lawful subset of gun users – with at best dubious impact on illegal shootings – infringes on the First as well as the Second Amendment rights of Americans.
Among the various problems with California’s new anti-marketing law is that it is overly broad, has serious consequences for lawful gun users in wholesome youth groups and sporting activities, and chills a tremendous amount of legitimate speech in a viewpoint discriminatory manner.
For example, the law prohibits “images or depictions of minors in advertising and marketing materials to depict the use of firearm-related products." But many groups, from sporting associations to the Boy Scouts, use such advertising to generate interest in organizations that give youth much-needed structure, companionship, and character-building activities.
One such group is the California Grizzlies Junior Rifle Program, “a sports program consisting of youths aged 13-20 and focused on providing leadership development in the training of firearm safety, marksmanship, and competition to encourage personal growth, self-discipline, responsibility, team, and life skills development.”
Until recently, the front page of the Grizzlies website featured an image of several youth members sitting together. Now, the entire website is inaccessible and displays a message: “Due to recent California legislation, we are making some updates to our site. We will be back shortly.”
California’s new law sharply proscribes the ability of groups like the California Grizzlies to promote their youth organization in the state or to obtain sponsors for its youth sporting events. Indeed, it even seems to restrict the group from selling T-shirts and hats with its name or the name of various events on them. Of course, the law has no impact on groups or marketing that criticizes guns or shooting events, and thus commits the cardinal First Amendment sin of viewpoint discrimination. Ultimately, it curtails such a tremendous amount of speech that it could mean the death of some sports and sporting groups entirely.
California is not the only state cracking down on Second Amendment rights by targeting those of the First.
In New York, lawmakers have passed a new requirement that citizens seeking gun permits must surrender their social media accounts for review, without probable cause or a warrant for such an intrusive invasion of privacy. Although touted as an attempt to detect missed warning signs about when someone might commit gun violence, the law would give enforcement officials an unprecedented window into the political and religious beliefs and associations of American citizens.
The outcome evokes the Philip K. Dick story and Steven Spielberg movie, Minority Report, in which people are arrested not because they have done anything wrong, but because of a prediction that they might do something wrong in the future. New York’s law promises to be just as invasive as Minority Report’s enforcement against “precrime,” but a lot less effective. And such an intrusion is far more likely to be abused for political purposes, as history has repeatedly shown with past efforts by the FBI and other agencies to monitor and track political associations.
While legitimate attempts to curtail America’s troubling spate of unlawful gun violence are vital, they can never come at the expense of our Constitutional rights or involve overbroad restrictions on the rights of citizens who have done nothing wrong. Such rules must be more narrowly tailored to protect the rights of all Americans.
Protect The 1st Leaps to the Top
With this year’s U.S. Supreme Court term now complete, we are pleased to report that Empirical SCOTUS has determined that Protect The 1st ranks 6th in the nation in the filing of amicus briefs.
Only five organizations, which included the U.S. government and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, filed more briefs. In a little more than one year, Protect The 1st has proven to be competitive and effective in terms of wins as well as in terms of volume.
Much of the logic and actual language offered by Protect The 1st appeared in five winning cases — FEC v. Cruz, Ramirez v. Collier, Carson v. Makin, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, and Shurtleff v. Boston. In each instance, Protect The 1st anticipated the Supreme Court majority’s reaction against sudden and dramatic curtailments of the freedom of speech and religion. In FEC v. Cruz, the Court even cited Protect The 1st's brief.
From post-election contributions to a coach denied personal prayer, to the religious rights of a prisoner on death row, to a Maine tuition assistance program denied to religious schools, to a public flagpole at Boston City Hall, we helped define restrictions in terms of First Amendment rights ranging from political speech to religious exercise. We are proud to have helped guide decisions to uphold constitutional rights in each of these landmark cases.
Protect The 1st will build on these efforts, continuing to urge the courts to defend the five enumerated rights of the First Amendment for all Americans.
This essay by UCLA Anthropology Professor Joseph Manson – who retired early to escape the threatening atmosphere of modern academia – details the destruction of an academic career and reputation in horrifying detail. And he explains why the oppressive atmosphere in the academy is only going to get worse.