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IN FOCUS – Censorship

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Last year, a remarkable decision was issued by a federal district court which revealed the degree to which the federal government secretly has been pressuring social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to censor the political speech of Americans.  In a case brought by the States of Missouri and Louisiana, District Judge Terry Doughty concluded the States were likely to succeed on the merits in establishing that the federal government:

has used its power to silence [its] opposition.  Opposition to COVID-19 vaccines; opposition to COVID-19 masking and lockdowns; opposition to the lab-leak theory of COVID-19; opposition to the validity of the 2020 election…;  statements that the Hunter Biden laptop story was true; and opposition to policies of the government officials in power.  [Missouri v. Biden, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114585, *208 (July 4, 2023) (emphasis added).]

The national government, through the FBI, CDC, and other agencies, privately communicated its “requests” to social media sites — often accompanied by threats to change laws to jeopardize their businesses.  The court noted that each and every type of suppressed speech “was conservative in nature [constituting] viewpoint discrimination of political speech.”  This, the court stated, violated the right of Americans “to engage in free debate about the significant issues affecting the country.”  Id.

All this happened in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” where the First Amendment was supposed to prevent censorship, premising that in the United States: 
“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….”

In a speech given in 1860, former slave and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass asserted a great truth:

[l]iberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.  That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants.  It is the right which they first of all strike down.

Around the world, tyrants have suppressed speech critical of their regimes, fearful that an informed populace would throw off their tyranny.  The history of Soviet Communism is the story of tyrants ruthlessly shutting down opposing speech.  In early November 1917, the Soviet government issued its “Decree on Press,” forbidding the publishing of anything critical of the government.  In 1921, the Soviet government formed the Glavlit (General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press), with the authority to decide which books could be published and which would be banned.  The Soviet Union was dissolved on December 26, 1991, and Russia still seeks to control the press, but after reading what our own national government has done to threaten and coerce social media, it is difficult to boast of our own freedoms.

Perhaps the most glaring example of censorship today is North Korea.  North Koreans may not even own a radio capable of being tuned to stations outside North Korea.  The people have no access to the internet, only to a North Korean government-controlled intranet.  Cell phones can only make or receive calls inside North Korea.  Phone calls are heavily monitored by government security — but is that monitoring much different from America, as was revealed years ago by Edward Snowden?

It was not that long ago that the words “disinformation,” “misinformation,” and “malinformation” were unknown.  Now, these words are regularly used by governments to justify censoring of speech and press.  But censorship was never to be a power of our government.  Americans do not need their government to tell them what they should think.  But now, censorship is believed by many on the Left to be not just a power, but a duty, of government.

The United Nations seeks a world in which all “disinformation and hate speech online” is  eliminated, because such speech constitutes “a major threat to stability and social cohesion.”   To that end, the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has outlined its plan to regulate online communication, laying out “concrete measures which must be implemented by all stakeholders: governments, regulatory authorities, civil society and the platforms themselves.”

Brazil’s socialist president Lula Da Silva is promoting a so-called “Fake News Bill,” which “puts the onus on the internet companies, search engines and social messaging services to find and report illegal material, instead of leaving it to the courts, charging hefty fines for failures to do so.”

While we would like to think such tyrannical measures are limited to the countries of the East where Christianity has not shaped policy, and the Third World (now called the Global South), the threat exists throughout the Western World.  The European Union recently lifted the immunity of four Polish members of the EU Parliament, allowing them to be prosecuted in Poland for hate crimes, based on merely “liking” Tweets and a Facebook post promoting a slowing of immigration.

In Finland in June of 2019, Päivi Räsänen, a member of Parliament and the country’s former Interior Minister, expressed opposition on Twitter to her church’s decision to sponsor an “LGBT pride event.”  She posted a picture of Romans 1:24-27 from a page in her Bible, and asked how the church’s sponsorship could be squared with the Bible.  By April 2021, Räsänen faced criminal charges for “hate speech” and was staring at up to two years in prison.

Prosecutions of the sort brought in Poland and Finland could never happen in Russia, which “has outlawed [the] ‘international LGBT public movement’ as extremist.”

As law professor Jonathan Turley warns, “The Finland case is an attack on core free speech rights….  In the name of equity, Finland is sacrificing liberty.  In the name of tolerance, Finland is declaring intolerance for opposing views….  It is a new orthodoxy imposed on dissenting views….”  The case was eventually dropped after Räsänen courageously fought the charges.

The government of France has also instituted an “alarming rollback on free speech rights.” In 2018, its government ordered opposition leader Marine Le Pen into a mental evaluation for posting historically accurate photographs of Frenchmen beheaded by Muslim terrorists. “She was accused under the French laws criminaliz[ing] different forms of speech … part of a European rollback on core free speech rights.” The “hate speech” law which Le Pen was accused of violating carries “up to three years in prison and $91,000” in fines.

The government of Ireland is preparing to enact a new “hate speech law.”  National Review notes that “[t]he hate speech law that Ireland is preparing to pass is arguably the most radical legislation of its kind we’ve seen in the West.  It criminalizes the mere possession of materials that are ‘likely to incite violence or hatred’ — books, videos, or even memes on your phone.”

Irish senator Pauline O’Reilly was at least honest about her dictatorial intent.  “We are restricting freedom, but we’re doing it for the common good….  If your views on other people’s identities go to make their lives unsafe, insecure and cause them such deep discomfort that they cannot live in peace, then I believe that it is our job as legislators to restrict those freedoms for the common good.”

Canada’s Justin Trudeau has introduced the so-called “Online Harms Act,” a draconian censorship bill designed to curb opposition speech.  In our own country, former Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley called for a ban on anonymous speech on social media.  Wherever one turns, free speech is under assault and fighting for its life against Big Government tyrants.

Unlike past eras, there is no “free world” versus the “Iron Curtain.”  Free Speech has little refuge anywhere.  As journalist Michael Shellenberger put it, “What’s happening should terrify all freedom-loving people.”  Without freedom of speech, there can be no freedom of thought, and eventually no true freedom at all.  Americans must resist restrictions and fight to reclaim our First Amendment rights from the clutches of tyrants.

Editor’s Note: To read the articles in this series, please click here.

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