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By Forrest Hershberger
View from the Handlebars 

The Cost of Free Speech

 

Since the trend of buying bottled water, the phrase “I never had to pay for that when I was young” surfaces occasionally. That same can be said about free speech. Who would have thought “free speech” comes with a price tag.

I suspect some people are still reeling in shock. The unlikely rebel has changed sides, by perception at least.

There’s this belief, assumption maybe, that if your bank account is several times the average worker you’re some variety of narcissist with little interest in freedom and fairness. Drive the $100,000 sports car through neighborhoods with large families living on minimum wage and act offended when street musicians look down at you. Throw away clothes others would love the chance to own or even borrow. And walk through life like you’re Teflon-coated.

While there are people like that, the assumption implies money corrupts. The more you have, the more you’ve surrendered your soul. The irony is the number of people who idol worship those who have enough money to finance small cities without considering what happens behind the curtain. There are also exceptions, the people who have millions in their bank account and quietly finance scholarships and other community changing events; no names, no recognition, just helping those who need it.

Go back in history a few hundred years. Designing the democratic republic we live in did not come overnight or easily. Some of the power-players of the time wanted to remain English, and others wanted the King and his relatives to be forgotten history. Making the leap into developing future included the Bill of Rights that affirmed freedom of speech. It was much simpler at the beginning. A person was either taking part in a public meeting or had his name in one of the few printing presses of the time.

Then technology picked up speed. We went from this new thing called the Internet to social platforms few knew how to define. Is it print, or is it broadcast? It has print on it, so it is a newspaper? Newspapers weren’t ready to accept they were competing with themselves in a digital format. Broadcast also had to consider if there is a difference, in this unique format, between television and radio; both are reproduced in some varieties. And as cell phones developed, the opportunity to record and broadcast without a studio became more and more common.

Along the same time came the social media platforms, which brings us to our current time period. Yes, I abbreviated the process. This isn’t a complete history lesson, but an observation.

When the popularity of social media platforms gained speed, conversations in newsrooms and coffee shops centered around “how do we define this?” The platforms were left to evolve without a direction or limits; that is, until the U.S. Senate sought more accountability from the electronic media. It still stands in my mind when one of the senators questioned “So, you don’t think your company is responsible for what is on your site?” The defense included references to Section 230. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act have been used in various court cases as justification to dismiss potentially costly lawsuits over messages, videos and other content created by users.

“Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934, enacted as part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, provides limited federal immunity to providers and users of interactive computer services. The law generally precludes providers and users from being held liable — that is, legally responsible — for information provided by a third party, but does not prevent them from being held legally responsible for information that they have developed or for activities unrelated to third-party content (Congressional Research Service: https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46751).”

The hearing resulted in a plethora of “fact checkers” ready to suspend or delete the account of anyone who spoke against favored subjects; not people, subjects. The opinions or stories were not written by the social media agencies but by subscribers to the service.

Elon Musk commits enormous funds to purchase Twitter with the stated purpose of free speech, an electronic bulletin board where people can freely share their opinions. It is an approach completely contrary to what has happened with the misinformation label a type of censorship that has evolved into parody comics. And European leaders are warning Musk Twitter still must follow the rules.

This move is creating a list of questions. The first is why are people afraid of the free exchange of ideas, from their neighbor or from former public officials. If we are that afraid of another person’s thoughts, is it possible we’ve already surrendered our freedom?

 

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