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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Most Americans support freedom of speech. But...

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. One year ago, spurred on by then-president Donald Trump, thousands of his supporters breached and ransacked the Capitol. They interrupted the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory and disrupted the peaceful handover of power in the worst attack on Congress since the British burned it down in the War of 1812.

Programming note: The Washington Post today inserted copies of our investigative series “The Attack: Before, During and After” into 2,700 copies of the print newspaper that are delivered daily to offices on Capitol Hill.

The 28-page special section provides readers with the complete three-part series detailing the forces that led to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and the growing distrust in America’s elections that has spread in its aftermath. Readers can access “The Attack” on The Post’s website and across Post platforms.

The big idea

Most Americans support freedom of speech. But ...

President Biden said that “great nations” face the truth in order to heal from events following a Jan. 6 speech marking one-year since the Capitol attack. (Video: The Washington Post)

Americans overwhelmingly support freedom of speech but are deeply conflicted on what is protected, what should be restricted, by whom, and on what grounds, according to a survey out today from the Knight Foundation of attitudes toward that bedrock constitutional right.

By huge majorities, the public says the First Amendment is extremely or very important to them (92 percent) and to our democracy (87 percent).

But there’s a “but.” Several large buts, in fact. In addition to partisan divisions, a shockingly large minority supports government restrictions on some kinds of speech under some circumstances, including commentary that would seem on its face to enjoy constitutional protections.

The issue is even more pressing one year after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, propelled by a mob loyal to then-President Trump, who aggressively spread conspiracy theories saying the results of the 2020 election were illegitimate. While Trump can say whatever he likes, some social media sites have moved to deny him their platforms.

President Biden this morning, without naming Trump, squarely blamed his predecessor for weaving a “web of lies” about his 2020 loss.

“He’s done so because he values power over principle … because he sees his own interest as more important than his country’s interest and America’s interest, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution. He can’t accept he lost, Biden said.

Not new ground

Restrictions on free speech are hardly unplowed territory in the history of the First Amendment, the subject of constant political and judicial battles and shifting societal views, notably in the Internet era. A search of The Post alone shows a dizzying variety of views and arguments in recent years.

But this also is not some airless law-school debate. Congressional Democrats and Republicans have expressed mounting hostility toward social media behemoths like Facebook and Twitter and promised legislative action related to what those platforms tout, tolerate, or take down.

Democrats tend to focus on the spread of disinformation, whether about the pandemic or election practices. Republicans tend to focus on claims they’re being improperly censored, which rile up their base but lack supporting evidence.

On Tuesday, for example, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) took to Twitter to threaten Twitter after the site banned Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), citing covid disinformation.

Twitter (all big tech), if you shut down constitutionally protected speech (not lewd and obscene) you should lose 230 protection. Acting as publisher and censorship regime should mean shutting down the business model you rely on today, and I will work to make that happen.”

(To be clear, Twitter isn’t violating anyone’s Freedom of Speech, a legal concept that doesn’t work that way in the private sector, by flagging or blocking someone’s content. “Section 230” is a provision in law that makes any website, from Twitter to your Aunt Lizzie’s “Succession” fan site, not legally liable for what users post, and not liable for what it decides to take down. It has become a bipartisan punching bag.)

Partisan splits

Some of this seems to reflect partisan splits. Among Republicans, 57 percent say spreading misinformation online about the 2020 election is a legitimate example of freedom of expression. The number drops to 44 percent when asked about covid misinformation, the Knight Foundation-Ipsos survey found. (The number for Democrats was 20 percent each time.)

Eighty-five percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans say the summer 2020 protests against police violence were legitimate expressions of freedom of expression, while 73 percent of Democrats but just 35 percent of Republicans said the same of athletes kneeling during the national anthem.

Seventy-three percent of Republicans but just 39 percent of Democrats say protests against certifying the 2020 election fell under freedom of expression. Thirty-three percent of Republicans say the Capitol insurrectionists were legitimately using freedom of expression, nearly triple the number of Democrats.

Thirty-five percent of Republicans said a social media company removing someone who advocated violence constituted an infringement of their free-expression rights, against 11 percent of Democrats.

One of the largest (and least surprising) partisan gaps resulted from asking about social media companies booting Trump after the Jan. 6 2021 insurrection. Among Republicans, 77 percent said this deprived him of his rights, against 12 percent of Democrats.

(It’s not all polarized: Both parties came together to defend the right of teens to insult their high school on social media while off campus. That was ok for 64 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Democrats.)

This takes us into some of the survey’s more unsettling findings, chiefly about American beliefs about when government can, and must, restrict speech.

Some seemed to be closer to the uncontroversial end of the spectrum: 83 percent of U.S. adults said government should prohibit threats against the health and safety of someone else, while 70 percent said the same of speech that may create “a dangerous situation.”

A 65 percent majority said government should prohibit racial insults or slurs, and 60 percent said the same about a racist or bigoted idea. 

In distinctly more controversial territory, 31 percent of Americans said government should prohibit “something rude or impolite to someone else” and 26 percent said the same about “political views that are offensive to some.”

For that last question, answers broke sharply along racial and partisan lines: 53 percent of Black respondents said government should prohibit such speech, against 44 percent of Hispanics, 35 percent of Asians and 15 percent of Whites. Thirty-six percent of Democrats, 24 percent of Independents, and 16 percent of Republicans agreed.

“Depending on how it is expressed, racist or bigoted speech could be construed as hate speech,” the report said. “The groups most likely to believe racist or bigoted speech should be prohibited are also more likely to perceive hate speech as an act of violence and to believe that hate speech can lead to violence against minority groups.

The survey queried 4,336 adults in July and August 2021 using the Ipsos KnowledgePanel. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.

What's happening now

More from Biden's remarks this morning in Statuary Hall

“President Biden on Thursday decried the violent mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters who breached the Capitol a year ago, saying that ‘democracy was attacked’ and urging Americans to make sure such an attack ‘never, never happens again.’ Biden took direct aim at Trump, who he said could not accept that he lost and ‘created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,’” John Wagner, Amy B Wang, Mariana Alfaro, Eugene Scott and Felicia Sonmez report.

Tucker Carlson mocks Ted Cruz, Republicans for saying Jan. 6 was a ‘violent terrorist attack’

Tucker Carlson not only mocked the idea that the storming of the Capitol was an insurrection but also accused [Sen. Ted] Cruz and other Republicans of 'repeating the talking points that Merrick Garland has written for them.’” Timothy Bella reports.

The Supreme Court is set to review Biden’s vaccine rules for businesses, health-care workers. Here’s what to know.

“The Supreme Court on Friday will review two challenges to the administration’s vaccine policies affecting nearly 100 million workers. Most already have made the choice to be vaccinated, but Biden has said the numbers are not good enough,” Ann E. Marimow and Robert Barnes report.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

The battle to prevent another Jan. 6 features a new weapon: The algorithm

“For many Americans who witnessed the attack on the Capitol last Jan. 6, the idea of mobs of people storming a bedrock of democracy was unthinkable. For the data scientists who watched it unfold, the reaction was a little different: They’d been thinking about this for a long time,” Steven Zeitchik reports.

“That sentiment comes from a small group working in a cutting-edge field known as unrest prediction. The group takes a promising if fraught approach that applies the complex methods of machine-learning to the mysterious roots of political violence. Centered since its inception a number of years ago on the developing world, the field’s systems since last Jan. 6 are slowly being retooled with a new goal: predicting the next Jan. 6.”

The Pentagon vowed to confront extremism in the ranks. A year after Jan. 6, experts say more must be done.

“The scores of military-trained rioters who took part in last year’s assault on the U.S. Capitol prompted the Pentagon to crack down on a long-buried problem with extremism in the ranks. But a year later, it remains unclear how the Defense Department intends to weed out anti-government sentiment and ensure the individuals promoting those views don’t pose a threat once they leave the armed forces,” Karoun Demirjian writes.

… and beyond

We are in a new civil war … about what exactly?

Only in recent years have we seen foundation-shaking political conflict — both sides believing the other would turn the United States into something unrecognizable — with no obvious and easily summarized root cause. What is the fundamental question that hangs in the balance between the people who hate Trump and what he stands for and the people who love Trump and hate those who hate him?” asks Politico's founding editor John Harris.

The transcendent issue of this time — no matter the specific raw material of any given news cycle — is the belief that one half of the country suspects the other half is contemptuous of them, and responds with contempt in turn. ‘Seinfeld’ was not really, as was often said, ‘a show about nothing.’ It demonstrated instead that with the right characters and frame of mind, you can make a show about anything that might happen in daily life. Donald Trump has shown that you can use the same approach to create a national crack-up. The violent rabble that crashed the Capitol a year ago showed that crack-ups are fertile ground for crackpots.”

The Biden agenda

‘Shocked and stunned and horrified’: How Joe Biden processed Jan. 6

“What flowed from him on the 6th was something he was speaking to for a long, long time. It was not a difficult thing to bring together,” Mike Donilon, a senior adviser to the president, recalled in an interview with Politico, Laura Barrón López and Christopher Cadelago report. “I believe — I think he believes — that there was a through-line and that the threat that he saw when he announced at the time — that everything that made America America was at stake.”

What we believe, what we stood for, our democracy, was all on the line,” Donilon added.

For C.D.C.’s Walensky, a steep learning curve on messaging

“President Biden came into office vowing to restore public trust in the C.D.C. after the Trump White House had tied the agency’s hands and manipulated its scientific judgments on the pandemic for political ends. Yet in his first year of battling the coronavirus, Mr. Biden has presided over a series of messaging failures that have followed a familiar pattern, with Dr. Walensky and her team making what experts say are largely sound decisions, but fumbling in communicating them to America,” the NYT's Sharon LaFraniere, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Noah Weiland report.

Biden to speak in Atlanta next week on urgency of passing voting rights bills

“The White House announced Wednesday that Biden would travel to Georgia on Tuesday and speak about the need ‘to protect the constitutional right to vote and the integrity of our elections from corrupt attempts to strip law-abiding citizens of their fundamental freedoms and allow partisan state officials to undermine vote counting processes,’” Eugene Scott reports.

Capitol riot defendants sentences, visualized

“Federal judges in D.C. have gone below the government recommendation in 49 out of 74 sentencings held for Capitol riot defendants as of Jan. 6, more than two-thirds of cases. In eight cases where prosecutors asked for jail time, the judges instead opted for probation,”  our colleagues report.

Hot on the left

Opinion: The false prophets who inspired the violence on Jan. 6

“Looking back on the events of Jan. 6, perhaps we should focus more on the false prophets who inspired the violence of that day than the rioters we still highlight on video loops,” columnist Joe Scarborough writes.

The targets of [the] misinformation campaign now await trial or languish in jail while the authors of these phony crises sleep comfortably in their marbled mansions and beachside resorts. They are free to travel the world on their super yachts or private jets while Jan. 6 defendants beg for their freedom in federal court.”

Hot on the right

Opinion: China immortalizes ‘Pillar of Shame’

“The People’s Republic of China expanded its attacks on Hong Kong’s liberties this past fall by menacing a statue at Hong Kong University commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But all its aggression against the work of art may have done Beijing’s authoritarian agenda more harm than good,” Victoria Coates writes in the Wall Street Journal. Coates is the author of “David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art” and previously served as a deputy White House national security adviser.

The statue was “carted away to an unknown fate” on Dec. 22, Coates writes, but “history shows that the attempt to suppress a work of art may end up preserving it.”

Today in Washington

At 1 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hold a discussion on the legacy of Jan. 6 with Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, and historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham.

Members of Congress will share their reflections on Jan. 6 at 2:30 p.m.

Schumer and Pelosi will lead a prayer vigil at 5:30 p.m. on the center steps of the U.S. Capitol.

In closing

In a statement on the cancellation of his planned Jan. 6 anniversary remarks, Trump referred to the insurrection as a “completely unarmed protest." Stephen Colbert has a quick note on that.

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.