Trusting Government to Control Free Speech is a Bad Idea
The debate over whether social media companies are stifling free speech or exercising their rights as private companies has seen the left and the right join forces (through different avenues) to bring “big tech” to heel.
Setting aside the anti-trust cases pending against some of those tech companies, what about the free speech angle? Can – and should – government force social media companies to stop banning speech those companies find offensive or otherwise problematic?
The Wall Street Journal says big tech is engaged in a political purge that demands government review:
Democrats are applauding the new tech blacklists, and for months they have pounded Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg with threats if he doesn’t censor political content they don’t like. The big tech firms may be private, but their censorship at the behest of the powerful in government raises moral and legal issues.
In Marsh v. Alabama (1946), the Supreme Court ruled that a privately owned town couldn’t restrict the distribution of religious materials because the company was a de facto government. Tech firms that dominate the flow of information in the U.S. and censor at the behest of powerful Democrats also deserve First Amendment scrutiny. The lock-step tech banning of Parler may also violate antitrust laws.
The urge to get the government involved, however, strikes free-market economist Don Boudreaux as much more dangerous, saying the Journal’s remedy:
…mock[s] the First Amendment by proposing to turn it into a tool for use by an arm of government – the courts – to achieve precisely what the amendment is meant to prevent, namely, government superintendence and control of private citizens’ peaceful decisions about how to express themselves using their own property.
I share your fury at, and fear of, many decisions made today by companies such as Twitter and Amazon. But I don’t share your confidence that this problem can be solved by government. And I’d be much more furious at, and fearful of, the Orwellian specter of government unleashed to superintend and control peaceful expression in the name of protecting it.
Social media is a corrosive nuisance that claims too much of our time and money. But demanding government become the ultimate arbiter of speech? That is a recipe for disaster.