Copyright © by Len Holman, 6/4/13


  It now seems the height of naiveté to have believed we could embrace all the platforms which are called, collectively, “social media” and not run afoul of a cherished American ideal:  free speech.  We all believe in free speech the way a child believes in Santa Claus, or the way a conspiracy buff believes Castro or the Mob had something to do with John Kennedy’s death, or the way desperate, lonely people believe that a computer algorithm can match you with your soul mate. This is not just happening here in the U.S.  Governments across the globe regularly close off internet access, public spaces, and news organs—all to keep that beast—free speech—from getting too rambunctious, including the recent violent demonstrations in Turkey over the planned closing of a public park, where speakers regularly criticize the government.   

  We believe in free speech because we believe it’s what made America great, because it’s what America stands for, because we think we have speech which is actually free and we think we know—and have always known—what that means, but we don’t—if we ever did.  Speech isn’t free, in the sense that anyone can say or print anything about any subject, at any time.  We have laws against printed slurs (libel), and spoken ones (slander), and the “fighting words” doctrine, and speech which leads to inciting a riot.  We have Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., in the 1919 Case, Schenck v. United States, in a case in which the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction of socialists who urged draftees to resist fighting in WWI.  He wrote, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a panic.”  Of course, this is a false analogy, since shouting “fire” in a crowded theater incites action, whereas circulating ideas and arguments incites (hopefully) thought and discussion—perhaps some kind of resolution. 

  All of which leads to Facebook, which is under pressure from Women, Action and the Media, a group which launched a campaign to urge major companies to pull their ads from Facebook that could run alongside graphic language and images of rape, abuse, and other violence against women.  Facebook gets most of its revenue from advertising, so this is no empty threat.  Other social media, like Twitter Inc., and Google Inc. are facing the same storm of protest.  The Los Angeles Times, which printed a story about this campaign a week ago, said that these companies “have had to become arbiters of free speech.”  Even though each must follow the rules set by the country it operates inside of, each sets its own rules.  So these “arbiters” have a problem?  And that problem is…the same one you might hear at work or the transmission shop where your beloved ‘95 Ford F-150 rests, or the local bar, or even commercials and mainstream programming, not to mention movies and YouTube and the rest of society. 

  Hate speech, crude speech, thoughtless, harmful, filthy speech is part of the speech of this society, and to believe that somehow, some way, being on Twitter or Facebook will keep your world clean of all this drivel and filth seems, at best, impossibly foolish, since the world at large—outside the bounds of computers and phones—can be a really ugly, hateful place, one in which people hear and see the most offensive things imaginable (and some unbelievable as well.)  Facebook is going to train what it calls “moderators” to ride shotgun on this careening stagecoach, lest it lose its shipment of advertising gold.  This is not a new problem, and it is not one which will disappear until humankind does.  What can be said about a species that can’t keep from hurting others of its kind?  What can be said of a species that doesn’t know that certain kinds of speech and images are hurtful? 

  But what can also be said of a species which believes that a social media site is “clean” and if not, must be purged?  What kind of naïve generation are we raising which believes that the ills of the world do not spill onto their lighted screens?  It’s free speech to organize boycotts, and it’s capitalism and democracy which can make such actions work, but really, who’s monitoring the calendars and so-called cartoons put up in offices and auto shops and the employee lunch rooms at Wal-Mart?  Who’s monitoring the speech of the unaware, the ignorant, the mean, the hateful, the uninformed and uneducated out there on Main Street, USA?  Are we so unable, as a society, to decide what’s ok to say and write that we need a Facebook or a Twitter to tell us?  Where’s the national, or even regional, discussion on what free speech means and how it is to be used? 

  We didn’t have much of a conversation (we DID have a lot of partisan preaching to the choir) after the Citizens United case, and we still have the hallowed principle of free speech in our kids’ textbooks, but do we even know what it means?  Do we even care anymore?  I certainly don’t want some stranger coming up to me at a burger joint and telling me that what I’m saying to my wife offends his sensibilities, but I WOULD stand for his argument (if he could make one) supporting his position, and it would be VERY cool if the whole place joined the conversation—if everyone put aside their fries and shakes and Double Macho Burritos and joined in.  THAT would be a democracy in action—people to people, sans lighted screens and moderators chosen by a multibillion dollar company.  THAT would be free speech.


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