Trump's War on Free Speech

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

By David L. Phillips

President Trump’s most recent, reprehensible executive order would end legal protections for social media. In so doing, Trump has launched a war on free speech reminiscent of what happened in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Communist rule.
Welcome to Trump’s nefarious normal. 
On May 28, Trump escalated conflict with Twitter and other tech giants by issuing an order aimed at rolling back liability protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Undermining liability protections would constrain free speech on the Internet, putting the US on a slippery slope and leading to more human rights violations.
It was on May 10, 1933, when Nazi operatives attacked libraries and bookstores across Germany. They marched by torchlight in nighttime parades, sang chants, and threw books into bonfires. Books by Jewish writers, such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, were torched, and the writings of American authors -- Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis – were banned. 
Adolph Hitler’s propaganda campaign was directed by Joseph Goebbels who managed Nazi control over newspapers, magazines, books and cultural expression. Opinions challenging the Nazi Party were censored and banned. We know what happened next in Germany.
The Soviet Union also institutionalized restrictions on free speech through its General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press. Under Joseph Stalin, the government systematically destroyed politically incorrect books, purging journals and libraries. The Stalin Prize for literature awarded writers who pandered to his views. Authors who did not adhere to the party-line were sent to the gulag; Stalin enforced thought control by the Communist Party.
Trump claims that he’s protecting free speech by reining in Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Nothing could be further from the truth. 
Tech companies have a responsibility to fact-check Trump’s statements on social media to prevent misleading bombast and statements that incite violence. Truth is non-partisan. They should also fact-check other politicians and thought leaders without bias.
Trump’s attack on Twitter is a brazen attempt to control social media platforms, which would transform Twitter into a publisher, liable for content. Pressuring platforms to self-sensor by threatening them with financial penalties is an insidious denial of human rights, which contravenes the Constitution. Regulating tech companies violates the First Amendment, which protects free speech.
Section 230 was adopted as federal law in 1996, enshrining limitations on liability for on-line media platforms. The courts have repeatedly rebuffed challenges, affirming a broad interpretation of immunity. 
Promises to change Section 230 would remove the legal liability shield to online speech and Internet freedoms. Section 230 is federal law adopted by Congress. It cannot be changed through executive order, only by Congress.
Threatening to repeal Section 230 is typical of Trump’s divisive pronouncements. Amending Section 230 would actually backfire on Trump who uses Twitter to attack adversaries through inflammatory, harassing and defamatory messages. Faced with the possibility of legal challenges, tech companies would restrict Trump’s access to social media platforms in order to protect themselves against legal claims. 
Implementing Trump’s executive order also risks turning the Federal Communications Commission into an instrument of thought control and speech police. An avalanche of litigation would ensue, crippling communications.
Of course, there was no Internet when Hitler and Stalin ruled. We have seen, however, that their denial of free speech was part of a broader campaign that led to egregious crimes in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Trump’s attack on freedom of expression takes a page from the playbook of Goebbels and Stalin. His anti-democratic pronouncements are dangerous and must be resisted.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser to the State Department during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.