FAN 145 (First Amendment News) David Cole: “Does anyone believe that the ‘free marketplace of ideas’ is functioning?”
In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, the ACLU’s David Cole reviewed:
- Laura Weinrib, The Taming of Free Speech: America’s Civil Liberties Compromise (Harvard University Press, 2016, 461 pp.), and
- Sam Lebovic, Free Speech and Unfree News: The Paradox of Press Freedom in America (Harvard University Press, 2016, 334 pp.).
“‘Civil liberties once were radical.’ So begins Laura Weinrib’s important revisionist history of the origins of American civil liberties, ” writes Cole. “By 1938,” he adds, “Roger Baldwin, the ACLU’s executive director, proclaimed that the ACLU had ‘no ‘isms’ to defend except the Bill of Rights.’ The ACLU had shifted its focus from labor’s struggle for economic justice to a defense of the ‘neutral’ rights of speech and association, rights that could be invoked not just by individual workers and unions but by Henry Ford and big business. As Baldwin put it one year later, ‘We are neither anti-labor nor pro-labor. With us it is just a question of going wherever the Bill of Rights leads us.'”
“Sam Lebovic tells a related story in [his book]. In his account,” Cole notes, “American constitutional law has favored a classical liberal ‘freedom of the press,’ which stresses the importance of staving off state censorship, over ‘freedom of the news,’ a concept formulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which envisions the state working proactively to ensure access to information against concentrated media ownership. Lebovic argues that the liberal conception of free speech and a free press, founded on the ‘free marketplace of ideas,’ is and always has been inadequate to address the threats to ‘freedom of the news,’ including not just the power of media moguls, but also the consequences of the Internet and the state’s over-reliance on secrecy.”
In a world where claims of “fake news” fill the airwaves, Cole asserts that “following Donald Trump’s election, on a campaign that relied on outright lies and stubborn denials of the truth, does anyone believe that the ‘free marketplace of ideas’ is functioning?” Then again, he stresses that “the inauguration of Donald Trump has dramatically reinforced the continuing importance of traditional core First Amendment rights.”
We are neither anti-labor nor pro-labor. With us it is just a question of going wherever the Bill of Rights leads us. — Roger Baldwin (1940)
A new focus — look beyond the courts
We were weened in an era when courts were often seen as the great defenders of equality. Even so, Cole invites his readers to reassess that reliance: “if we are to attain a more egalitarian exchange of ideas, it will be more likely through the political rather than the judicial branches.”
And as more and more liberals urge government intervention in the free speech arena, Cole counsels caution: “empowering the state to correct perceived deficiencies in the marketplace of ideas is a cure that is worse than the disease. ”
So what is the baseline for Cole’s conception of free speech? “The best argument for protecting speech,” he stresses, “is not that the free marketplace of ideas will lead us to truth, but that it is superior to all the alternatives. . . . [W]hile it is true that a right to universal free speech can be invoked by the powerful as well as the weak, by business as well as labor, the right is nonetheless more valuable for the weak.”
SPLC: Google, Hate Crimes, and Algorithms
In case you missed it, the Southern Poverty Law Center recently issued a story titled Google and the Miseducation of Dylann Roof. Recall, Roof was the man who murdered nine African Americans during a Bible study. How did Roof go from being someone who was not raised in a racist home to someone so steeped in white supremacist propaganda the man responsible for the massacre at the historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston? Here is how the SPLC story answered that question:
“The answer lies, at least in part, in the way that fragile minds can be shaped by the algorithm that powers Google Search.
It lies in the way Google’s algorithm can promote false propaganda written by extremists at the expense of accurate information from reputable sources.
→ See SPLC video here
Roof’s radicalization began, as he later wrote in an online manifesto, when he typed the words “black on White crime” into Google and found what he described as “pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders.”
The first web pages he found were produced by the Council of Conservative Citizens, a crudely racist group that once called black people a “retrograde species of humanity.” Roof wrote that he has “never been the same since that day.” As he delved deeper, because of the way Google’s search algorithm worked, he was immersed in hate materials.
Google says its algorithm takes into account how trustworthy, reputable or authoritative a source is.
In Roof’s case, it clearly did not.”
Speaking this past Monday evening the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, SPLC President Richard Cohen said that at first Google was reluctant to tweet its algorithms but apparently did so afterwards. Mr. Cohen said that a meeting has been set up between Google and representatives from the SPLC.
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