Free speech has been a hot-button issue over the past four years, especially when it comes to social media. President Donald Trump and other high-profile conservatives have railed against companies like Facebook and Twitter for their biased censorship of conservative thought.
On the left, people have criticized both companies – and many others – for not doing enough to combat the spread of misinformation and hate speech. Of course, what they won’t admit is that “misinformation” and “hate speech” usually just mean viewpoints they don’t like. But many are wondering what the debate over free speech will look like if former Vice President Joe Biden were to become the next president.
Biden Hires Anti-Free Speech Official
Biden recently announced that Richard Stengel would be his transition’s “Team Lead” for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, a government media network that includes Voice of America, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Stengel has publicly expressed that he wishes to redefine freedom of speech and criminalize “hate speech.”
Stengel, who previously served as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in the Obama administration, wrote an op-ed last year in which he opined that America’s understanding of free speech was not restrictive enough. He wrote, “All speech is not equal. And where truth cannot drive out lies, we must add new guardrails. I’m all for protecting ‘thought that we hate,’ but not speech that incites hate.”
He gave two examples of speech that he believes should be made illegal: Quran burning and the dissemination of “false narratives” by Russian agents during the 2016 campaign. “Even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats that I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran. Why, they asked me, would you ever want to protect that?” Stengel explained.
He added: “It’s a fair question. Yes, the First Amendment protects the ‘thought that we hate,’ but it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another. In an age when everyone has a megaphone, that seems like a design flaw.”
Later in the piece, he wrote:
“Since World War II, many nations have passed laws to curb the incitement of racial and religious hatred. These laws started out as protections against the kinds of anti-Semitic bigotry that gave rise to the Holocaust. We call them hate speech laws, but there’s no agreed-upon definition of what hate speech actually is. In general, hate speech is speech that attacks and insults people on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin and sexual orientation.”
Stengel also ties free speech to the actions of domestic terrorists who were radicalized by consuming content that pushed violent ideas. He wrote “Domestic terrorists such as Dylann Roof and Omar Mateen and the El Paso shooter were consumers of hate speech. Speech doesn’t pull the trigger, but does anyone seriously doubt that such hateful speech creates a climate where such acts are more likely?”
Will Biden Protect Free Speech?
Stengel is obviously not a fan of free speech. But does Biden share his views? It appears that the former vice president might have some ideas in common with his new transition team official, especially when it comes to social media.
In a January interview with The New York Times, Biden chimed in on Facebook’s refusal to remove negative ads against his campaign. It was a serious point of contention for people on the left, who seemed to believe that any attack ad against Biden, no matter how true, had to be fake news.
“I’ve never been a fan of Facebook,” Biden said. “I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan, I think he’s a real problem.” According to Reason, “in an October letter to Facebook, Biden’s campaign called on the social media site to reject political ads containing ‘previously debunked content’—like a Trump campaign ad linking Biden and his son, Hunter, to corruption in Ukraine.”
In November, Biden participated in a CNN town hall event in which he said he would be open to forcing online platforms like Facebook and Twitter to “be more socially conscious.” He even indicated in another interview with the NYT that he supports revoking Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects online platforms from legal liability for content posted by third parties.
When Charlie Warzel pushed back and stated that Section 230 is “foundational,” Biden doubled down. “That’s right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked. It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy,” he insisted. “You guys still have editors. I’m sitting with them. Not a joke. There is no editorial impact at all on Facebook. None. None whatsoever. It’s irresponsible. It’s totally irresponsible.”
If Biden does become the next president, it is clear that he will wage war against the First Amendment. This will be especially true if the Democrats take control of the Senate. The progressive element of the Democratic Party will be in full agreement with his positions on free speech. In fact, they might be able to push him to take it further.
Read more from Jeff Charles.