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Wiser: In a free society more speech, not less, is the answer

By Devin Wiser - Special to the Standard-Examiner | May 11, 2022

Photo supplied, Benjamin Zack/Weber State University

Devin Wiser

It hasn’t gotten much attention at all, so you probably haven’t heard about Elon Musk buying Twitter. Of course, I jest, because for a while it seemed to be the only thing all the talking heads were discussing. The dialogue, however incessant, did raise some important points about free speech and how we apply it in today’s society.

Unfortunately, it seems that more and more there is a lack of desire and opportunity to find the common humanity in each other. People shop online so they don’t have to go out, and then when they do go outside, they pop in their AirPods to avoid talking to the people next to them in line. This lack of communication and sharing of speech in everyday life has further driven division and pushed folks into their respective ideological corners. An opportunity for a healthy exchange of ideas through respectful debate should be normalized again in real life and extended to digital platforms like Twitter.

I realize the First Amendment right to freedom of speech applies only to the government. It reads, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” It does not read “Twitter (or any other privately or publicly held company) shall make no law …” so I have always defended the right of Twitter to implement its own policies and procedures when it comes to what (and who) they allow on their platform, even when I didn’t personally agree with those moves.

While Twitter doesn’t always accurately reflect general societal attitudes (and policymakers ought to be careful about relying too much on what can be the Twitter echo chamber), it has become an important type of digital town hall where ideas can be exchanged and debated. It’s a key tool in the access and spread of information in the 21st century. Like many millennials, I have used it as a primary news source for years. On Twitter, it is easy to follow a variety of opinions, so I can do my best to avoid confirmation bias, only consuming the news that I am already predisposed to agree with.

In our country, illegal speech does exist. The Supreme Court identifies things such as obscenity, fraud, true threats, etc. as being exempt from the First Amendment right. However, outside of the type of speech that clearly violates the law, I am very nearly a free speech absolutist and welcome the purchase of Twitter by Musk and hope that Twitter allows a robust discussion of ideas moving forward. It goes to the classic paraphrased quote that is often attributed to Voltaire, which says, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It’s why, in 1978, the ACLU defended a group of neo-Nazis who wanted to march through an Illinois neighborhood where many Holocaust survivors lived. I think that type of speech is absolutely abhorrent, but I am glad they were defended and given the opportunity, nonetheless.

Censorship of speech, where it isn’t clearly illegal or age-inappropriate, is the lazy way to deal with an idea with which you disagree. Besides, this approach can backfire, because often when an idea is censored or a person deplatformed, the believers feel validated and become even more ardent. The real solution is to open up discussion and win over people with better ideas, not with bans. Disagree all you want, but don’t seek to quiet those with whom you disagree; because in a free society more speech, not less, is the answer.

A few weeks ago, the Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service hosted our first “Debate Series” event where students from differing perspectives came together to debate capitalism vs. socialism. I moderated and, while at times they became animated, the students never even came close to approaching disrespectful territory. I was proud of the students who participated in such a productive and respectful dialogue where ideas could be shared and examined. It was truly a model for how differences of opinion should be approached in our society. At the Walker Institute, we will continue to host events where ideas can be healthily debated. We will also strive to bring perspectives that might be less common on college campuses in order to promote free speech and the civil exchange of ideas. As Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Devin Wiser is the executive director of government relations and the executive director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University.

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