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. And even the American Civil Liberties Union seems to be going squishy on us: Former board member Wendy Kaminer suggested in the Wall Street Journal this year that the venerable civil rights group would be more hesitant to take up free-speech cases that “may assist in advancing the goals of white supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values.” (The ACLU, for its part, denies anything has changed.)
Then there are the 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 public Twitter page. 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. Whether these tactics are acceptable seems to depend on which side is doing the silencing. Were one to compose a Venn diagram of people who supported both firings — or opposed both firings — the resultant image would likely look like a bit like binocular lenses.
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. Vox is not-so-subtly cheering the decision, explaining that the real work is just beginning and that there are so many more voices out there that need to be silenced.
Jones is undeniably an almost 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 I can’t support banning him from ostensibly content-neutral platforms, and those who refuse to see this as the first step toward a more aggressive campaign of de-platforming conservatives are being obtuse. The math here is simple: 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. I don’t need a whiteboard or lizard people to connect the dots.
Which brings me, at last, to freedom of association. After all, I don’t really have a say in this, and neither do any of the people angry about Jones being canned. Freedom of association — e.g., the freedom to decide whether or not to bake a cake for a religious ceremony you disagree with — is one of our most cherished rights. No one, no group, no business should be forced to associate with someone whose political views they find abhorrent. Reconciling this belief with a belief in free speech is a real pickle, one made doubly difficult by the fact that the mainstream media* and Silicon Valley both are monolithically Democratic. The odds that they’re going to want to associate with anyone to the right of #NeverTrumpers such as yours truly are slim.
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 — a world in which Kevin D. Williamson is canned from the Atlantic while Sarah Jeong maintains her position at the New York Times; a world in which right-wing YouTubers are demonetized while left-wing videos skate by; a world in which conservative voices see their tweets disappear while liberal voices flourish — you encourage people to abandon their principles altogether. (That’s why conservative provocateurs tweet about following “new rules”: They see principles as a weakness, and in a total cultural war, they might not be wrong.)
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. The idea is little more than an Internet-unfriendly version of calls to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine by Democrats angry over the rise of talk radio. And it’s 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 serious 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 liberal college campuses and free association in the conservative movement, radical changes are coming sooner than we might like.
*Yes, I am aware this is a mainstream media publication.